On June 3, Jian "Uzi" Zi-Hao retired from professional League of Legends. Like many others, his career as an esports athlete was over at 23-years-old. The fans loved him, opponents feared him, and many claim he is among the best of all time, but chronic injuries got the better of him and he quit. Nicknamed "Puppy" by fans because of his young age when he entered the scene, Uzi was the prototypical young star who worked as hard as he could until he couldn't anymore. He explained in his retirement video about the physical problems he faced, saying "An average pro player's peak has to be two years because his physiological endurance will affect the form of his entire career," and that players who can endure the physiological pain for longer will have longer careers.
League of Legends is perhaps the most popular esport in the world, as it has steadily grown in the decade since the game's launch. The League of Legends World Championship in 2018 had a $6.4 million prize pool, a record for the game, and its North American pro league franchised its league selling slots for $10 million for a team. And yet, compared Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, another one of the biggest esports in the world, the age of retirement seems -- at least anecdotally -- to be younger. CS:GO routinely sees players enjoy careers into their late 20s or early 30s. But why?
League of Legends is a popular esport with a lot of money coursing through its veins, so why are players retiring at such a young age? Uzi isn't an isolated incident. In 2019, six legends in the League of Legends community retired — players who were considered to have had successful careers. The average age between them was 25. The two notable CS:GO players to walk away within the past year are Zeus (32) and Ex9tenz (29). Why does League of Legends say goodbye to their players so quickly?
Matthew Hwu and Dr. Doug Gardner, two industry experts who have been mental and performance coaches in pro League of Legends, explained say careers are hurt by not recognizing the player as a sum of many moving parts — the holistic player. Performance takes too much priority, resulting in a decrease in player health, player experience, player performance itself, and results, generally, in shorter careers. This is not to disagree with performance being the priority concern, but rather that all other concerns in regards to a player—their mental strength, physical health, ability to cooperate within a team—are interconnected and affect performance greatly. Develop each part with care and you create a player that plays at the highest level for longer. Ignore them and watch your investment burn.
We Care Too Much About Reaction Time
Reaction time has become a common buzzword when trying to explain why an esports professional retires in their early 20s. The North American LCS is home to the oldest average team age across all regions, and it's still 23.04 years old. The LEC has the second highest average age of professionals at 21.16, the LCK sits third with 21.02, and the LPL is the youngest at 20.53. In NA League of Legends, a rookie gets spotted, maybe plays a year in academy, then joins the LCS, "so they can play their career high at the age of around 20-23 before their reflexes decline and then they retire to make space for new young talent," Hwu said. Fans accept the same life cycle of a pro: player gets older, their reaction time declines, they can no longer perform at the highest level, they retire to streaming, or coaching, or another industry job.
But, to make this claim is to ignore older esports professionals with success in other games.In CS:GO, the old Virtus.pro team — TaZ, NEO, pashaBiceps, Snax, and byali — was famous for its sustained success with three of the five players over the age of 30. The old Ninjas in Pyjamas roster that had an equally dominant reign still have most of that team still in the scene despite being close to 30.
It's obviously a different game, but from FPS to fighting games to MOBAs, reaction time and concise mouse control are pillars of the sports. If they can do it in CS:GO, why can't it be done in League of Legends?
Hwu, performance and Esports Medicine Specialist, provided some details about the truth of reaction time, narrowing the concept down into simple reaction time and choice reaction time. He explains simple reaction time as the red light green light test: click when the red light turns green and the time difference is your simple reaction time. Hwu cites data proving a gradual decrease as you age, totaling a 3% gap between 18-24 year-olds and 32-38 year-olds. That difference amounts to a negligible seven milliseconds, and if you're playing online, differences in ping make that distance obsolete.
Choice reaction time, as Hwu describes, is what people mostly refer to when it comes to gaming. He explains this as "if, then..." moments where players need to take in a set of variables, react, and make a decision. It could be as simple as making a baron call when noticing an enemy carry clearing a wave in the bot lane. Hwu explains that it's this reaction time that might have an impact upon player performance as there is a definite decrease as player's age. However, Hwu consistently emphasizes how much reaction time's importance is overestimated, agreeing with the claim that players and influencers sometimes just find an easily identified problem to zone in on to explain away the lack of 25+ year-old players in the scene.
"We need to zoom out and look at all the contributors to creating a strong player," Hwu said, going on to isolate five key parts of the complete player: mechanics, experience/game sense, team dynamics/communication abilities, mental toughness, and lifestyle habits.
Choice reaction time falls under mechanics, but when looking at a player "aging out" of League of Legends, it's such a small attribute in the makeup of a player. So what's the real culprit? A lack of player development.
A Player Built for Change is Built for a Career
If player development will extend players' careers, where exactly should the attention be focused? Hwu points the finger at the brain -- in specific, how a player thinks, or what their attitude is.
"The only difference between a 16-year-old player and a 25-year-old player is they think differently," Hwu said. "If you can arm them with a better mental model, they will adapt better."
In a game like League of Legends with frequent patch updates and roster changes every split, the player who is comfortable being uncomfortable is the player who succeeds.
At the game's fundamental level, meta shifts are going to require every player to adapt. Some metas might play into a player's strengths while others might lag behind. We saw this on the highest stage in Season 8. For the better part of the summer split, AD carries weren't viable. Teams had to throw in their substitute mid laners or top laners into the bottom lane to make ends meet. Rekkles, Fnatic and EU's golden boy at ADC, played five out of the 18 games of the summer split, returning to the lineup in the playoffs and then at Worlds where a fantastic run resulted in a second-place finish.
Fnatic subbed in Bwipo, a substitute top laner more comfortable on the Swain, Ryze, and Vladimir bot lane picks, and Fnatic didn't miss a beat. Other teams struggled to adapt to the changes and suffered. Quickly, Marksmen returned to the meta, and so did Rekkles. It shows how a player's performance can really be affected by the meta if they can't react to it. Rekkles, an all-star caliber player, was sidelined because he couldn't adapt. G2 — Fnatic's biggest rival in 2018 — was able to ride the roller coaster of meta changes, but required no substitution in the bot lane. Hjarnan, G2's ADC at the time, pulled out of his pocket an unbeatable Heimerdinger that fit perfectly into the meta.
What would have happened if the meta didn't shift back in Rekkles' favor? Rekkles didn't have to really change as a player because of the meta reversion. It was obvious this meta would be reverted as it made a wide cast of champions obsolete, but could he not pick up and play other champions at a high level? Why could Hjarnan? I'm sure most fans at the time wouldn't call Hjarnan the better player, but yet Hjarnan stayed afloat and thrived during the 2018 summer split while Rekkles watched from the bench.
With the same amount of professional experience, both first steadily playing in the LEC around Season 3, they should both be used to the pro lifestyle and be ready to adapt. In 2018, Rekkles was 21 and Hjarnan was 24. If you trace that age gap back to the beginning, you see a large issue that appears in the EU and NA scene that isn't tackled: Rekkles became a pro at 16; Hjarnan did at 19. With massive lifestyle changes thrown at a young player when they first start their career — living on their own, playing on stage at the highest level, having League of Legends as their job (maybe their first job), do their own laundry, stay healthy — teenage professionals are always on their back foot, instinctively dodging every punch thrown at them. They don't have much time to sit and breathe in their corner of the ring and recognize how to take control of the fight. Maybe Hjarnan never lost his starting spot because entered the LEC as an older man and learned how to be proactive rather than reactive, which could explain why he had an unbeatable Heimerdinger pocket pick ready. Learning how to become a professional League of Legends player and an adult at the same time is a tall order for a 19-year-old, and an even taller one for a 16-year-old.
Hwu says an onboarding system might help pros of all ages.
"The rookie needs to learn how to play in that pro environment," Hwu said.
What would be the harm of easing the players into their new environment and job? Let's treat the players like people who might need some time to adjust to living in an entirely new place. Maybe they don't know anybody besides their teammates. Why not onboard the player for a month or two without them worried that they'll lose their job if they aren't performing at the highest level possible? Let them go out into Los Angeles and meet people to get used to their surroundings before they're flung into live games and eight hour scrim blocks.
It's a top-down, bottom-up attitude adjustment that needs to be made. Riot Games, organizations, and team officials need to recognize their players could be performing better for longer if they are taught how to have the right approach to problems they may encounter throughout their career. Players need to understand that their performance is decided by a plethora of different factors and a pentakill or world championship is not just because of great positioning, rapid APM, and mistake-free play, but also because of all the work they've put in to priming themselves to capitalize on opportunities — whether that be mental fortitude, confidence, strong support systems, comfort in being uncomfortable, or a healthy lifestyle. Team and player performance is an interconnected web that needs strong pillars to hold tight, and Hwu sees especially weak pillars when he treats players for injuries — another mythological death sentence for careers.
Injuries Hurt, But They Shouldn't Devastate
As in any sport, players are bound to get hurt. Hwu, an esports health expert, says the advice most players receive is misguided. Players are being overworked without enough focus on physical health, creating injuries that aren't handled properly. And, without all the information surrounding their injuries, performance issues that are a direct cause of an easily fixed injury might be mistaken as loss of ability.
"I don't think there are any injuries in esports that should ever lead to anyone retiring, ever, if it's properly managed," Hwu said. "And that's the caveat: if it's properly managed."
People wonder how often injuries show up in League of Legends play, and the answer is too much. Hwu says he treats plenty of hand, wrist, neck, shoulder, and lower back injuries, which are almost always easy to avoid. He believes it's all a result of how organizations and coaches approach loading their players.
"Are we paying attention to the schedule? How's their hand and wrist conditioning that will allow them to tolerate X amount of actions per game, per scrim block, per day, per week, per split?" Hwu asks.
It is common knowledge in the professional esports world that players work overwhelmingly difficult schedules, but it seems nobody really does anything about it. Organizations want their players to perform, and to improve means to practice, but where should the line be? How well is a player playing in their final game, of their third scrim block, after seven hours of practice? They are surely not providing high level competition for their opponents, and their opponents aren't doing the same for them. The old adage practice makes perfect is beat over the head by the League of Legends community.
"The more I play, the better I'll get."
That mindset needs to be thrown away because practice doesn't make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect. Find the balance between how much practice actually helps performance before it hurts it. Maybe we'll have less burnout in the community. Maybe players won't overload their tendons. Maybe their spine will be a little straighter if they focus on quality of practice instead of the quantity of it.
Hwu described that most players come to him after they've seen a doctor who prescribed them the holy trinity of rest, medication, and a brace. Maybe even they'll gift them the suggestion to lift their wrist away from the keyboard more — which Hwu says isn't even right either. Ignoring the lack of knowledge medical professionals have with gaming injuries (which is understandable though overdue for improvements), maybe the issue is that seventh and eighth hour of practice. If we can agree the extended length of the daily grind doesn't have much legitimate usefulness, why don't we step back from the computer and let our players go get some exercise, give them a stretching routine, maybe even some yoga if you're feeling crazy?
It seems like such a simple solution to keeping League of Legends players healthy and playing at a higher level for longer. These guys exhaust their brains all day putting in the work. Don't squeeze every last ounce out of them every day, and don't let the players squeeze it out of themselves.
Protect the Investment
Organizations are most vital to the health and success of their players, and that is where any of the change needs to come from.
“Organizations and ecosystems and game developers" Dr. Gardner said. "If they want their games to be successful, if they want longevity, there has to be an investment in that."
Bringing together five talented players, exhausting them, watching them not play well together, and then recycling five new players into the mix, is not taking care of the investment made into the team. It takes time and resources to develop talent, but that's how a winning team is created.
Riot Games has made steps. Orientation days for new players and helping to create the LCS Players Association have helped, but they're starts and only go as far as the organizations themselves go. Franchise spots in the LCS are investments into a team, not a company, and when you invest in a team, you invest in a player, not just a contract.
"The moves they make with players and finances — they’re throwing a bunch of money at players' salaries trying to build an all-star team of guys making $700,000-800,000, and then that doesn’t work, so they bring in another guy, or say ‘lets switch this,’" Dr. Gardner continues, "You get what you pay for."
The LCS and League of Legends itself is a business, and those involved are there to make money, but the experts describe a lack of understanding by organizations on how to create a winning team. Orgs want sponsorships, merchandise sales, prize money, and the teams that win Worlds will get all of those, but why can't those same orgs let the same five players play multiple splits together?
The greatest teams in sports history suffered and bounced back together stronger. Michael Jordan's Bulls began their dynasty after finally beating the Pistons after years of losing. Help your players develop. Help your team grow. Create franchise players who are good enough mentally and physically to have a career and you will win more, and you will make more money. Success breeds success. Gardner sees organizations with "this short sighted approach of ‘We’re making this investment, and expecting to have success and make money.’ Okay. Great. Everyone wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die."
And it's starting, you can see moments, which is why Gardner makes sure to mention that not all organizations have this mindset — some are doing a fantastic job. It's a young sport, and these things take time to grow, but you have to start at some point. The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.