Synaptic Specialists: A Deep Dive Into the Qualities of a Successful Esports Athlete

Image via Riot Games

The importance of natural skill versus hard work and practice is a topic that humans have debated for centuries. Whenever someone does something great, we love to analyze how they accomplished such a feat -- was it the countless hours spent honing their craft or their natural aptitude? Was Albert Einstein a product of his natural intelligence or his dedication to studying physics? It's a question humanity may never answer.

In sports, we generally believe that a combination of these elements create our best players. Sure, LeBron James is nearly seven feet tall and ridiculously athletic, but he has also spent a massive percentage of his life in a gym. Very few would dispute the importance of both aspects in James' greatness.

In the case of esports, however, there seems to be a presumption that anyone can turn into a professional gamer with enough hard work--practice makes pro, if you will. To the untrained eye, someone sitting at a computer and playing video games may not look impressive, but to a skilled gamer, this could not be further from the truth.

Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok is the Michael Jordan of League of Legends, one of the world's largest esports. He is both a three time world champion and the most respected player in the history of the game. Faker is one of the most mechanically sound players the game has ever seen and always seems to make the right decisions in-game.

But what is it about Faker that propelled him to the top of his industry? Is it the countless hours he spent practicing combo and memorizing every build path or something more? In the same way that LeBron James was born to dominate basketball, could Faker have been put on this Earth with the natural ability to be the best League of Legends player we have ever seen?

When the average person thinks of esports, they probably don't envision packed stadiums with thousands of fans. While esports is growing in both popularity and recognition, it still has a long way to go in the eyes of the average American. Take Colin Cowherd's infamous comments on the industry in which he said that we would have to, "pick up the tab on Obamacare for [esports athletes] who haven't left their house in 17 years," and insinuating that professional fighting game player Woshige lived with his mother at 29 years old.

People generally do not consider the hours of practice and immense skill that going pro at a video game takes. Even with the immense growth that the industry has seen in recent years, the question remains--what separates your average gamer from a professional? Is it simply hours of focused practice? Could it be the right mentality and the desire to constantly improve? Maybe it's God given talent that allows some to ascend to professional level.

Longtime esports professional Andrew Smith mentions attitude and practice when asked what makes up the consummate League of Legends pro.

"A lot of times, what it takes is some kid who's just obsessed with the game," Smith said. He is no stranger to esports success, as he has experience playing for Team Liquid Academy and Maryville University. After his playing days, Smith went on to take a role as Assistant Director of Esports at Maryville, where he coaches Overwatch and League of Legends.

Smith has seen massive success during his time at Maryville University, including League of Legends College Championships in 2017 and 2019. The school is consistently ranked one of the top collegiate esports programs in the country in addition to being one of the first to offer a varsity esports program.

While he believes that there is some natural talent involved with esports, Andrew Smith attributes most of his success as a player and coach to consistent practice and having the right attitude. For Smith, the attitude was paramount. Keeping a cool head and focusing on improvement was his gateway to playing competitively.

"The biggest thing for me is that when I played solo queue, I had a goal. I had something I wanted to get better at--something I wanted to do. I wasn't playing for points, I was just playing to get better. Eventually, the points come."

The right mindset and hours of practice are certainly crucial to growth in any area of life, and esports are no exception. This raises a new question--can anyone achieve professional status in esports with hard work, or is there more than meets the eye? It's clear that your average NBA player is an elite physical specimen. You can't practice being nearly seven feet tall or having good genetics. Is esports any different? Are there natural qualities that pro gamers are born with that give them a predisposition to be successful in competitive esports?

Dr. Dominic King of the Cleveland Clinic thinks so. Dr. King is sports medicine physician in the department of orthopedic surgery at the Cleveland Clinic. King is one of the pioneers of esports medicine and set up the Cleveland Clinic's Esports Medicine Program.

For King, his interest of traditional sports lead him to finding esports medicine. He observed that baseball players, basketball players, and all other kinds of traditional athletes have extensive training and recovery programs, and wanted to bring that same care to esports athletes.

According to King, there are two major factors that separate professional gamers from your average person: resiliency and adaptability. Biological resiliency is the ability to recover from injury and avoid being injured in the first place. The common person will usually think the idea of getting injured from playing video games is pretty silly, however, it is very real. Esports athletes are susceptible to Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, eye strain, and even blood clots. The best way to avoid these injuries is having the proper ergonomic setup to avoid strain on joints and also being physically active.

Adaptability is what King refers to as the single most important factor in which esports athletes can differentiate themselves from the rest of the pack. Quite simply, the best esports athletes can match the correct actions to unique situations at a rapid pace.

"We look at esports athletes as synaptic specialists," explained King, who is conducting research on the neurological factors of esports athletes. "These athletes have well tuned neurocognitive and psychomotor speeds." In other words, their reaction time and impulse control are higher and more in tune than the general population--King's research proves it.

At the Cleveland Clinic, researchers have been studying the results of esports athletes on a C3 Logix test--the most advanced concussion testing software on the market. It measures neurocognitive and psychomotor speeds in order to establish a baseline. This is helpful for traditional athletes, because a deviation from their baseline score could indicate that they have sustained a concussion.

After studying several college esports athletes, researchers found that esports athletes significantly outperformed their age and gender matched controls. In short, esports athletes perform better on the C3 Logix test than your average Joe, but what does that mean in terms of evaluating natural talent?

"There actually is a skill that an esports athlete has," explains King. "It's not just being good at playing video games. There is a neurocognitive and psychomotor adaptation that they have that makes the better for reaction time and impulse control. They are able to not only see and react to a stimulus, they are able to not input the wrong impulse as well."

According to King's research, there is a quantifiable, biological difference between the average person and an esports athlete. They are simply able to accurately process the information in front of them faster than most of the population. It's why King firmly believes that esports pros deserve the title of "athlete."

Being a professional gamer takes hard work, a winning attitude, and a sharp mind. It's no different than any other passion. Whether you are an athlete or a sculptor, it takes some mixture of talent and dedication of your time to achieve greatness.

Talent and maybe a little bit of luck, may limit how far you can go--there are thousands of people who work extremely hard at their passion and never rise to the top of their craft. There are legions of gamers who have sunk thousands of hours into their favorite game with the dream of playing on a stage, but only a handful that ever realize that dream.

Conversely, there are many people who have a talent, yet never develop it. For many, music, math, or drawing comes easily to them, yet they never fulfill their potential for a myriad of reasons. Maybe they lack confidence, or maybe they lack the drive to sink hour after hour into their abilities until they have become the best they can be.

Gaming is no different, and unfortunately, we are left at the age-old conundrum of "hard work versus talent." The perfect storm of an immensely talented, driven pro with a winning mentality rarely happens. The rest of us are a strange concoction of potential and drive. While there may not be a concrete answer on which element wins out, the important point is that they are both undoubtedly present, and that we recognize the undeniable natural talent that resides in a professional esports athlete.

What mixture of the elements creates the ultimate esports pro is for you to decide.