Physical fitness is the big brain play of the Overwatch League

The face of gaming has long been that guy from South Park who plays World of Warcraft for 20 hours a day and subsists on a steady diet of Doritos and Mountain Dew. Physical health and fitness are all too often seen as the anti-thesis to gaming – a realm adjacent to esports and never overlapping – but for pro players in the Overwatch League looking to optimize their performance, the stereotypical sedentary gamer lifestyle and fast food rich diet simply will not cut it. Increasingly, League organizations are encouraging, facilitating, and, in some cases, mandating that their players maintain a healthy diet and active lifestyle.

The day-to-day lives of pro gamers are far from glamorous, marked by long hours spent hunched in front of computer screens inside cramped, windowless practice rooms. Work weeks can be six or seven days long, depending on a team’s match schedule that week, and many players stream Overwatch in their free time. Competition is unrelenting. “Stressed” takes on a new meaning.

For owners, facilitating their players’ healthy lifestyles is veritable insurance on their investments.

Practically speaking, clean eating and physical activity bolster one’s immunity to chronic diseases and, more importantly, common illnesses like the cold and flu. The science here is expansive but suffice it to say that the repeated stress exercise places on a body’s immune system strengthen it over time, enabling it to more effectively combat illness.

Flu season tore through the League in stage one, and it is no mystery as to why. Players come into contact with dozens of fans and billions of germs at the arena each week, not to mention share living spaces and practice rooms with one another. Some teams felt the pain of poor immunity more profoundly than others – the Houston Outlaws, for example, found themselves without LiNkzr for two series due to unexpected illness – but each team has experienced the consequences to some degree. Encouraging healthy habits cannot hurt. After all, players who are too sick to compete or too lethargic to give it their all in practice are of little use to their organizations.


- For the benefit of the players

“My energy is higher than before [I started working out], so I can yell more,” laughed Jonathan “HarryHook” Rua, a shot caller for the Dallas Fuel. The organization began working with a personal trainer and incorporating a healthy meal plan in February.


HarryHook (joined by Custa in this photo) works with a personal trainer for an hour and a half four days a week.


Gael "Poko" Gouzerch, an off-tank for the Philadelphia Fusion, and Lane “Surefour” Roberts, a DPS for the Los Angeles Gladiators, reported similar upticks in energy as a result of improved diet and exercise. For the Fusion, exercise is encouraged. For the Gladiators, it is mandatory.

“Exercise is encouraged. In fact, we often have a break during the day to go exercise,” said Poko, whose workday is eight hours long on average. “I exercise probably 4-5 times a week. I always go running and do different types of weight lifting, etc.”

While Poko and HarryHook may personally enjoy pushing their limits in the gym, pro gamers do not necessarily need to, nor always want to, concern themselves with transforming into paragons of physical fitness. Gaming remains players’ priority.

“I don’t want to sacrifice practice time at home to wake up [early enough] to go to the gym, so I usually do jogs or pushups, sit-ups, and squats [at home],” explained Surefour. The Gladiators’ performance coach mandates that players exercise at home or at the gym at least five days a week.

In reality, moderate physical activity is all it takes to reap the benefits of exercise, and it is what Overwatch League teams should be (and most are) striving for.

The Fusion also employ a personal chef, @chefheidiLA, whose food Poko says is much better than the meal preps they received before (and which several teams still receive).

“There is so much evidence that physical activity is good for you. But it’s a little bit of physical activity. Almost all of the studies are talking about … just 30 minutes a day of what we would call moderate physical activity, five days a week. Which is like… walking fast,” said Dr. Aaron Carroll, a professor at the Indiana University School of Medicine. “Get up and go for 30 minutes – if you do that five days a week, you get the benefits of what are known for physical activity.”

The benefits of physical activity are virtually endless, but the impact regular exercise can have on one’s mental health is especially profound.

Although pro gaming may not make the same demands of players’ physical health as traditional sports, it does make similar demands of players’ mental fortitude, especially in the Overwatch League where competition is frequent and unrelenting. Players who are working and competing as often as these are susceptible to exhaustion, burnout, stress, depression, anxiety, etc., all of which can negatively affect one’s performance in-game.

Regular exercise mitigates all of these. Discernible change in one’s physical appearance may take months to manifest, but mood-enhancement and stress-reduction benefits of exercise are virtually instantaneous.

▲ Surefour is part of a team that mandates that players exercise at least five days a week.

Additionally, exercise provides an alternate source of accomplishment for pro gamers whose lives and self-worth are so easily consumed by the competition. Such overwhelming dedication is beneficial to an extent but can quickly become disastrous in the event that a team begins losing or a player performs poorly. A player who can maintain a healthy life and sense of self outside of the game is one who will be more resilient to – and able to recover from – loss.


I go to the gym as an escape, so I can forget about everything else,” said HarryHook. “I never feel burnout, but for sure, I feel like I want to rest, mostly because I kinda overthink everything. ‘Is it my fault? Why [not have] Custa play with Chips so I can see if I’m doing something wrong or [if it] is a team thing?’ … You [are] always going to feel that way, mostly when you lose.”


- A professional opinion

Furthermore, as Dr. John Ratey, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, discusses at length in his book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, exercise drastically improves the learning and focusing capabilities of one’s brain.


“[Most people] don’t know that toxic levels of stress erode the connections between the billions of nerve cells in the brain … [a]nd they don’t know that, conversely, exercise unleashes a cascade of neurochemicals and growth factors that can reverse this process, physically bolstering the brain's infrastructure,” he writes. “The neurons in the brain connect to one another through “leaves” on treelike branches, and exercise causes those branches to grow and bloom new buds, thus enhancing brain function at a fundamental level.”

Need to memorize new call-outs or work through new strategies in scims? Falling asleep during VOD review? A short (preferably cardio-intensive) workout before or during practice can make all the difference.

▲ LA Valiant was happy to Tweet this photo of their players working out early one morning.


It is not as easy as it sounds, of course. In February, Kevyn “TviQ” Lindstrom, a DPS player for the Florida Mayhem, spoke to the conundrum players face: “I should be doing more [exercise] than what I am, which is almost nothing. I should be doing more, but as I have it right now, I focus more on playing the game, keeping myself improving [so that] I can [play at] a consistent level all the time.”

Workdays are long and exhausting, and the last thing most players want to do after scrims and streaming is go to the gym. Hours spent exercising instead of practicing can feel like a waste but ultimately, pro players receive back in spades what energy they invest in clean eating and exercise.

The assumption that pro gamers do not need to be physically healthy and active is short-sighted. Between the sedentary nature of their job and the unrelenting, protracted stress of competition, it becomes readily apparent that they need physical fitness more than anyone.

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