Since my start as the sports reporter at Hood River News, every article I have penned has covered a typical sport; football, basketball, baseball, softball, soccer and track and field, to name a few. These are the traditional sports, if you will, ones etched in a rich history that goes back decades, if not centuries, that have expansive professional, amateur and high school leagues with seasonal competitions. They require a specific set of skills that can be developed over years, often a necessity for athletes wishing to rise in the competitive field of their respective sports.
In another world, athletes of a different type dedicate a similar amount of time to practice and hone their abilities across a wide array of games. I’m talking about E-Sports and the competitors who are, in no exaggeration, true mental athletes on par with traditional athletes in regards to commitment, tenacity and unique skill. Such a statement, and the general E-Sports scene, can be met with dubious reactions or outright opposition from those who disagree with the terminology used or comparison made.
The thought of people who don’t fit preconceived notions of athletic being regarded as athletes can be difficult to grasp, but there is more to sports than being able to run fast, jump high, hit hard or shoot well. Taking a dive into the world of competitive gaming can provide an insight to the daily demand of these athletes and why they deserve such recognition and respect.
There’s one fact that’s quite obvious: Professional gamers are not all physically fit. E-Sports has no physical requirement, not in the traditional sense of a height minimum, but rather in the understanding that to play professional basketball, for instance, you need a certain degree of differing physical abilities.
The lack of a physical threshold is actually a major appeal for video games; one need only a console or computer and a general understanding of the game’s mechanics to play. The same can be said for basketball — just shoot the ball — but to play effectively, there is more to the game. That truth, that there is more to the game beyond the barrier of entry if one wants to improve, is true for video games, as it is for any concept with improvement. It is this truth that justifies the term “mental athletes” as proper descriptions of professional gamers.
One popular E-Sport is Super Smash Brothers, a video game series by Nintendo that consists of five separate titles, two of which are being played competitively by a significant population. The older game of the two, Super Smash Brothers Melee, was released in 2001 and continues to be a subtle yet commanding presence in the world of professional gaming.
The games are classified as sandbox fighters, atypical in their design but addictive for the same reason; rather than characters having a set series of moves able to be performed by the player (as in traditional fighters), each character in Smash has a unique array of moves and attacks that can be input in random succession to execute combos as the player sees fit. Essentially, the competitors are constantly making decisions on how to act, adapting and reacting ceaselessly in order to gain an advantage over their opponent. As a result, the speed at which Melee is played professionally is often, for lack of a better word, incomprehensible.
The game, like all video games, operates based on frames, or full-screen images that are displayed each second. Melee is among a multitude of standard video games, with a single frame set as 1/60 of a second, allowing for a maximum potential of 60 frames per second to be performed. The different moves that a character can perform in Melee are all measured by frames, with certain moves taking more or fewer frames than others. At its core, the game can be measured by how many inputs (buttons pressed) the players make during a single second of play, which is also a finite amount based on the combination they choose. Elements of Melee allow the player to speed up their input ability, effectively trimming the number of frames a certain move consumes, thus allocating the player more inputs. It is an expansive knowledge of moves and frame data combined with the practiced ability to execute reliably and for extended periods of time that make professional gamers so fast and so skilled.
Take one Melee player, Weston “Westballz” Dennis, who is widely considered one of the fastest and most technically adept players in the game. He averages just over six inputs per second at his peak speed, meaning in a single minute of play he will press down on buttons over 360 times. A standard Nintendo controller has nine possible input devices and only one can be used continuously (the joystick). Imagine pressing the same single button for a minute as fast as possible; could you even come close to 360 inputs? Now imagine those inputs not only executing a series of moves that defeat your opponent, but the entire construction of said moves stemming from your own millisecond reactions and predictions to the situation as it develops based on a rich history of previous matches that you’ve accumulated and studied. It’s not as simple as muscle memory taking over once you reach a certain point — the name of the game is adaptation. It’s hard to watch Dennis play and not conclude that what he’s doing requires skill, the type of skill that could only be developed from constant practice and mental conditioning. As it happens, Dennis has dedicated the last 10 years of his life to the game, playing daily for hours either against other players at professional tournaments or practicing with computer opponents. There are entire databases online that list the frame rates of every move for every character in Melee, offering players a chance to study their preferred characters to a scientific degree.
It’s not a matter of their physical prowess, but rather their mental capacity and plasticity, hence the term “mental athletes.” The same way a professional gamer couldn’t hit a curveball off an MLB pitcher or take an uppercut from a heavyweight, so athletes unaccustomed to video games couldn’t land a single move on their opponent. The time required to perfect a specific set of skills and perform at the highest level is the same in concept with basketball as it is with Overwatch or Fortnite. E-Sports are a different type of competition, but no less demanding of their professionals and no less deserving of respect.
One final similarity between the two is money. The 2019 Fortnite World Cup just ended last week and 16-year-old Kyle Giersdorf walked away with the first place trophy and three million dollars in prize money. In the aforementioned Overwatch game, a professional league offers $1.1 million to the winning team in its grand finals coming in September. Across the many titles that makeup E-Sports, athletes are beginning to reap the reward of their dedication; many are signed to teams and organizations, have sponsorships and compete seasonally for championships. The difference between E-Sports and traditional ones are coming down to the type of game being played and nothing more.