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Arousal in eSports

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Today I want to discuss arousal in eSports, although it’s probably a different kind of arousal than most people are expecting. No, I don’t mean Sona or PMantheon’s chest; nor do I mean Jim Raynor’s rugged good looks or Kerrigan’s naked-bug get-up. What I mean is the activation of the body and the mind, which functions on a continuum like this:

Research on arousal level in sports began as early as the turn of the 20th century with  Yerkes and Dodson (1908) who discovered that with higher arousal it was harder to perform complex tasks, but easier to perform easy tasks. Since then we’ve come a long way to understanding how arousal relates to all kinds of performance from sports to arts.

What is arousal?

Arousal starts with a stimulus, like worrying about an upcoming game or jamming a finger in a door. Messages are sent quickly to the thalamus and the cerebral cortex. Before the brain even begins thinking about the stimulus, the amygdala starts the release of “threat present” hormones like adrenalin and noradrenaline, preparing for the fight or flight response. Heart rate, blood pressure and breathing increase and over 70% of the blood in the body is diverted away from internal organs towards the skeletal muscles and in particular, the biggest arm and leg muscles. In response muscles all over the body begin to tense. Meanwhile the stimulus is received by the conscious brain and the person begins to evaluate the threat cognitively. If there is nothing to fear, then the signals are shut off and the body returns to a balanced, controlled state. But if there is more stress, worry, or fear then more signals are sent and the arousal state increases.

Arousal and performance

Sounds simple enough, so how does arousal interact with performance? It’s easier to picture than explain so here is a drawing:

Basically the middle part “focused and energized” is different for every person and for every sport, but all people have an optimum arousal state where they can give a maximum performance. Above that level, they become too unfocused, lose concentration, and can not control their reactions easily. Below that level reactions are too slow and lethargic, or there is not enough motivation and focus on winning.

Arousal in eSports

One important discovery that pertains to eSports is that the optimum performance level changes based on how complex the sport it. The difficulty of the motor movements relies on a lot of factors, but the biggest ones are: how many decisions must be made every second, how quickly must they be made, how many stimuli are present, how conflicting are they, how precise is the movement required, and how steady do the fine-motor muscles need to be? As you can see, eSport falls on the very complex end of coordination in sport. Therefore, it can be expected that eSport athletes can not tolerate high levels of arousal and still perform their best compared to say, sprinting:

If you think about it, it makes sense. Higher arousal means more blood and tension in the biggest muscles of the body, those designed to fight off hyenas and outrun rival tribesmen. Those are fantastic instincts for sports like high-jump, sprinting, and weight lifting. However, they aren’t the best instincts for doing a two-barracks opening or remembering to ward the river. There is a single stimulus in a sprint race, the gun shooting off. The reaction it triggers requires no decision, simply run as fast as you can. In League of Legends and Starcraft 2 there are sometimes a hundred stimuli a minute to be processed by a focused mind, and the reactions can vary between attack, fall back, reposition, feint, build, buy and manage resources. The higher the arousal state, the more it insists that every reaction is either FLEE! or FIGHT! and so it can easily detract from performance related to more complex decisions.

“But I win when I’m excited!”

High arousal can generate fantastic motivation to win, and lead people to perform beyond their own limits and capabilities. So it’s important to know oneself and recognize when more arousal is needed or when one is over-excited to the point of being stressed or anxious. There is that perfect balance of control and focus to be reached in every competition. Yesterday, Yagamoth commented that:

shortly before the match I got nervous and a few minutes into the match I was calm. No big change here, that’s how I usually work – nervous before and at the start, calm through the rest.

So how is he supposed to know before the match starts if he is too excited or not? Well by reflecting on your arousal level before and during important competitions or practice matches, it is easy to start seeing a pattern in how much arousal you have and how much you feel “in the zone.” Research has also discovered that the higher skilled a person is, the higher arousal states they can tolerate and perform their best. Here is another picture:

As you can see, a highly skilled person can rely much more on their instincts to react in the game, where as a low-skill player needs to make many more decisions and each decision requires more concentration. For world champions, the most important thing to do before a match is to make sure you are pumped up and ready to go, but for the underdog they might need to make sure they relax a little and have good focus and control. It also depends on your opponent of course. If they suck compared to you, then you are like a world champ, and might even lose to them if you are too relaxed. That actually happens a lot in tennis, it’s called “playing down to their level” and it’s the result of not being aroused enough versus a relatively low-skill competitor.

The next step

Now that it is clear why being able to control ones energy level and focus (arousal) is important, what is the next step? Well there are two mental skills that can be trained and improved on. The first is psyching up or raising arousal. Most people are naturals at this, since the inherent state in most competitive games is to become aroused and excited. If you find that you are consistently under-aroused then the best place to start is with pre-performance routines and self-talk. Eventually I will also provide several samples of instant-arousal techniques and post them with links in this article and on the main page.

Relaxation on the other hand is the mental skill used to lower arousal and come down from an overly excited state into one of complete focus and mastery of one’s reactions. Since relaxation is not a natural innate skill, it is much less common among athletes. Elite athletes usually develop good relaxation techniques through trial and error, so by the time they reach the pinnacle of eSport they have a variety of methods they use to maintain focus. Sadly, it is earlier in the career that relaxation is usually most helpful and least developed. Luckily the methods to focus and relax are easily learned and my next article deals exclusively with those. You can also skip ahead directly to the techniques if you prefer.

Relaxation and performance in eSport

Relaxation technique – proper breathing

Relaxation technique – progressive relaxation

Relaxation technique – meditation and visualization (forthcoming)