Professional video game players may not have the same physical demands as actual athletes, but they definitely have the same cognitive demands. It’s critical that high-level competitors in any domain get sufficient sleep to help improve their performance, but it turns out that eSports players aren’t meeting this requirement.
Why aren’t eSports players sleeping enough?
The current system makes it extremely difficult for players to sleep while practicing on a normal day, let alone before competing in a tournament. On an average day a competitor will practice for up to 14 hours, leaving little time for them to live the rest of their life and also get the necessary 8 hours of sleep that all humans need.
On competition day the situation is even more dire. Competitive gaming is an international activity and teams from around the world converge on a single location for the tournament. When they arrive at their destination they are given time for rest, but for whatever reason tournament organizers don’t seem to take time zone changes into consideration when planning out that rest period.
Dr. Michael Bornemann, director of sleep medicine at Olmstead Medical Center in Minnesota and the lead investigator at Sleep Forensics Associates told us that “If somebody covers three time zones or more, the team that’s the home team has a statistical advantage. To even the playing field, you have to include acclimatization for the travel team and the number of timezones that they’ve covered.”
Bornemann also pointed out that video games produce an intense blue light which can suppress melatonin, an important brain chemical that gives your body the signal to fall asleep at night (although new research indicates that blue light may not be quite as bad as we thought). The blue light from staring at a screen while practicing all day can make it extremely hard to wind down and fall asleep at nighttime.
Consequences of sleep deprivation for pro video game players
Sleep deprivation causes serious problems for eSports professionals. Gamers are at a serious disadvantage when competing without getting enough sleep. While they may not need to perform physically like their athlete counterparts, they do have to focus intensely for long periods of time.
One of the most glaring symptoms of sleep deprivation is an inability to focus for extended periods of time. Dr. Bornemann mentions experiments performed on sleep-deprived people showing that they are unable to respond to coded signals, a serious sign of errors of omission. “In a gaming situation, you can have elements of a game that are happening so quickly that you just don’t respond. You’re just not in the cognitive situation to respond effectively”, he said.
It’s not just errors of omission that pro gamers have to worry about, but errors of commission as well. Research shows that friendly fire incidents in first-person shooters are much more common when the players are fatigued. If you’ve ever watched a live video game tournament you’ll notice that the players occasionally “head-bob”, a type of microsleep familiar to anyone who has fallen asleep during a boring lecture in college. The delayed reaction time that is associated with sleep deprivation can also cause gamers to make serious errors.
Lack of sleep isn’t just about performance: it also has a serious effect on your health. While serious gamers love to tout the benefits of video games such as improving fine motor skills and improving executive function, none of those benefits can come into play unless you get enough sleep.
Sleep deprivation can cause extremely serious health complications like diabetes, mood disorders, obesity, heart problems, and others. The average pro gamer is younger than 25, but lack of sleep can cause them to have the health problems of a 55-year-old.
Modern industrialized societies typically don’t prioritize sleep for anyone, let alone professional competitors. Convincing eSports organizers to start taking sleep seriously is going to be a long road. Hopefully the mounting evidence of the financial consequences (due to poor performance) and health consequences of poor sleep will force tournament organizers to give their eSports players enough time to rest.