The Importance of Sleep for e-Sport Athletes

(As published in The Citizen newspaper, in collaboration with Goliath Gaming)

Hundreds of millions of players are engaged daily in virtual and competitive electronic gaming – eSport(1). Player earnings from sponsorships are on the rise and the attention that eSports has received in recent months has increased. With the current COVID-19 pandemic, mainstream sports have decreased. This has seen an increase in the engagement of eSports that allows for socialization and social distancing. It is reported that eSports athletes may dedicate as much as 14 hours per day to practices and matches. This has led to integration of wellness programmes to prolong player performance and career longevity (2).

eSports requires players to have their eyes fixed on a computer screen with excessive exposure to light-emitting diodes (LEDs). LEDs are used to provide illumination for computers, smartphones, tablets and televisions. Recent research has demonstrated that excessive exposure to the blue-light spectrum from LEDs can create retinal and photoreceptor damage. Excessive exposure can also impact the natural circadian rhythm. Melatonin is a hormone synthesized in our bodies, and its role is in the regulation of the natural circadian clock. It is lowest during the awake hours during the day and typically rises at night before sleep (1). Excessive exposure to LED lights, as see in computer screens, can affect melatonin levels.

Sleep is an essential bodily function that frequently does not get sufficient attention. Some authors consider the three pillars of health to be: diet, exercise/ training and sleep. Olympic athletes typically get less than the traditional 8-hour recommendation of sleep per night, and are reported to sleep between 6.5 – 6.8hours per night. (3)

Traditional sports typically involve combination of physical and cognitive abilities. eSports, however, are more reliant on cognitive abilities.

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Negative impact of Sleep Restriction

Players are required to have intact visuo-motor and information processing speeds. Players are required to make quick motor movements in response to rapidly changing information from multiple human players and the environment. They are required to process visual information and respond with fine motor movements of their on screen avatar, which then requires precise movement of the small muscles of their hands.

Sleep restriction has been well documented to decrease reaction times, processing speeds and slower processing of visual information. This leads to impaired visuo-motor performance and effectively “slows down” the eSport athlete, putting them at a competitive disadvantage (4)

Two additional key cognitive processes are attention and working memory.  Attention is required for sustained periods, as eSport matches go for upwards of 40minutes. Selective attention is required to remain focused on the in-game elements and to reduce the impact of out-of game distractions (spectator noise in an arena). Working memory is then required to manage goals both in the short-term and the long-term (e.g. sticking to a predefined battle plan) (4). Sleep restriction has been shown to reduce performance decrements in selective and sustained information, as well as working memory.

The resultant errors due to sleep restriction on reduced reaction times and decreased processing speeds; brief attentional lapses and impaired tactical awareness can be the difference between success and failure in eSports, particularly at the professional gaming level.

Positive effects of sleep extension

Sleep extension refers to increasing sleep duration, thus can either be by supplementing a night of sleep with a nap, or prolonging the night’s sleep. In studies done on traditional athletes, it was noted that sleep extension improves sprint times, tennis serve accuracy, swim sprint and basketball shooting accuracy.

Cognitive performance also improved, ranging from reaction times, psychomotor vigilance tasks, alertness, vigor and mood (3). This all likely translates to better performance in the game due to the reduction of errors resulting from a lapse of attention and reduced processing times.

Healthy sleep hygiene refers to healthy sleep practices that can be trained to improve sleep. This includes utilizing regular routines (e.g. Regular bedtime routine to help you relax and prepare your body for bed) and optimal environments for sleep (Make sure the bedroom is quiet, as dark as possible, and a little on the cooler side, rather than warm). Athletes may not be able to adopt all types of sleep hygiene recommendations but should try to integrate as many as possible to maximize this bodily function. (3)

It is well established that sleep restriction impairs cognitive functioning, which may be detrimental to eSport athlete performance. It is for this reason that athletes should prioritize sleep and adopt better sleep hygiene practices to assist them to perform at their peak.

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References

1.         Difrancisco-Donoghue J, Balentine J, Schmidt G, Zwibel H. Managing the health of the eSport athlete: An integrated health management model. BMJ Open Sport Exerc Med. 2019;5(1).

2.         Kemp C, Pienaar P, Rae D. Brace yourselves: esports is coming. South African J Sport Med. 2020;32(1):1–2.

3.         Vitale KC, Owens R, Hopkins SR, Malhotra A. Sleep Hygiene for Optimizing Recovery in Athletes: Review and Recommendations. Int J Sports Med. 2019;40(8):535–43.

4.         Bonnar D. Sleep and performance in Eathletes: For the win! 2019;61(03):368.

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