Mat Smith and Ben Stickler are in training.
The two twenty-somethings from the Kansas City area are working to improve their rankings in the online game League of Legends. Stickler says the strategy and competition remind him of the sports he played growing up.
“You can see yourself getting better,” Stickler says. “You can challenge yourself as you get better. And just play with people that are as well as you and really bond over that.”
Training for soccer or football this is not. Ever since home video games were introduced four decades ago, mastering them has typically involved late nights in front of a screen fueled by junk food.
For a few ambitious gamers, however, the worlds of an athlete and “e-athlete” are blurring.
At a gym in Blue Springs, Missouri, Jake Middleton coaches his brother, Justin, through an exercise routine.
Jake’s a personal trainer who recently started a new business: fitness training for video gamers.
This goes well beyond working off Doritos and Red Bull. He says competitive gaming is a lot more physically demanding than many people realize.
“When someone from the outside looks in and sees these gamers playing, you just see them sitting there mashing away at these joysticks.” Middleton says. “But really what’s going on is they have these elevated heart rates, they have a lot of cortisol flowing through their body.”
Jake’s customized training is designed to meet the unique needs of gamers, with exercises like yoga for
posture, tossing a medicine ball to improve reflexes and cardio for stamina.
His services also include nutrition recommendations, performance assessments and access to a mobile app.
“[I’m] trying to maximize each player to where, whenever they go up and they play in their competition, they’re not only just healthy and feeling the best, but they’re ready to perform,” Middleton says.
It might seem like a lot of work to get a high score, but gamer fitness training is catching on.
Robert Yip is the performance coach for the professional Los Angeles-based team The Immortals. Teams like his compete for prize money that added up to more than $65 million last year.
He says the days of a slacker hoping to make it big in gaming are coming to an end, largely because of the recent influx of investors and sponsors.
“We’ve come a long way in the past five or six years, to be honest, and a lot of that is just down to teams that are investing in, let’s say, coaches, and teams that are investing in a professional lifestyle,” Yip says. “You’re getting paid a lot of money, but at the same time, you have to treat it like it’s an actual job. It’s fun, but it’s very, very demanding.”
Yip provides fitness training, meal planning and a structured lifestyle for his team of college-aged players, who live in a team house and can spend hours a day in front of a screen.
For them, the coaching isn’t just to boost scores, it’s also about providing balance.
“We’re very much invested in – it’s a holistic wellness program - that they’re not just going to be playing the video game a lot, that they’re not just going to be sitting in front of the computer at all times,” Yip says. “We want to make sure they have a social life, that they have active recovery periods, that they’re not burning out because they’re so young.”
Only a handful of pro teams currently have full-time performance coaches. But as more money and sponsorship go into gaming, trainers hope there will be more demand for their services among the top tier of video gamers.
But what about the average gamer? Is fitness training something that could catch on with someone like Ben Stickler?
He and his fellow members of the local group TeamKC aren’t after pro gaming careers or sponsorship deals, but they do love League of Legends.
Stickler says if personal training can make him a better player, he might do it.
“You gotta take care of yourself,” Stickler says. “You can’t just sit around and melt away into nothing. You gotta take care of yourself, and that’ll take care of the game.”
Alex Smith is a reporter for KCUR, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team. You can reach him on Twitter @AlexSmithKCUR.