By 2020, Jian ‘Uzi’ Zihao was among China’s most renowned athletes. But while the sport he played is not traditionally considered a physical one, it left a very physical toll on his body. In June that year, the esports superstar announced his retirement from competitive gaming.
In a Weibo post, Uzi, 23, said he had been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes as a result of the years of stress, obesity, irregular diets, staying up late and other reasons. He revealed that he had been trying to improve his work-rest balance for six months, turning to diet, exercise and even medicines, but his situation didn’t change.
“My physical condition does not allow me to continue fighting,” he wrote.
Esports, short for electronic sports, has been around for the better part of two decades now. Once niche, it is now mainstream: More people watch esports in the United States than do the NBA or MLB. The price pool for tournaments like DotA 2’s “The International” was US$40 million in 2021 – close to that of Wimbledon (US$45 million). Over two billion people play videogames worldwide according to recent estimates and among them, a growing number do so as their full-time jobs.
Whether it is in competitive gaming, or even just streaming your play sessions to like-minded fans of you and the game, there is money, adulation, and fame to be made in putting in hours of play every day. And, for those who choose to game casually, it can have cognitive benefits and serve as a de-stressor after a hard day’s work.
But is it safe to play videogames for hours at a stretch, day after day?
Uzi’s case was not unique: Many esports stars retired in their 20s. Johnathan “Fatal1ty” Wendel – one of the first pros to become a household name – retired at 26. Thomas “ZooMaa” Paparatto was just 25 when he retired in 2021 due to a thumb injury, saying he could no longer play through the pain. By and large, many esports pros seem to hang up their controllers by their mid-20s.
Uzi’s case struck a chord with the esports athletes Happiest Health spoke with. Whether it is wrist pain, unregulated diet or the stress that comes with making decisions in milliseconds to millions of viewers, pro-gamers face very physical consequences of being at the top of their game.
“Sometimes, the pain is so excruciating that even if I want to lift something, I am not able to,” says Digambar Dorugade.
Dorugade plays an increasingly important role in the world of competitive gaming: He works as a fitness trainer for GodLike esports. Like any professional athlete, pro-gamers too need to keep their health in check if they want to perform at their peak.
“As gamers, we tend to even forget to eat our food on time. And diet is very important. Even water intake is less among gamers,” Digambar adds.
To keep his team fit, he had them practise yoga, and consulted with experts to make them a diet plan and even a water drinking regime. And, after every session of play, the team makes sure to take a walk.
Undoing the damage is not impossible. In 2022, Uzi returned after a two-year hiatus, with the help of a physiotherapist (PT) and a trainer.
Dr Jordan Tsai (who goes by “Dr Respawn” on Twitter), a physiotherapist who works with premier esports teams like Cloud9 and Evil Geniuses, says top-tier teams started making use of PTs five to six years ago, but most teams are still unaware of the benefits they can provide. “That is quickly changing,” he tells Happiest Health.
Dr Tsai’s tips for healthy gaming
- Make sure your setup is put together ergonomically
- Exercise regularly
- Take breaks
- Don’t ignore pain when it arises
- For mobile gamers, try using a support under your elbows during play and do regular hand opening movements between games
- While nutrition and exercise can’t make you a better player by themselves, you can’t achieve your peak ability without addressing both
Building mental toughness for competitive videogames
Being a world-class athlete requires a world-class mindset. Some athletes go to great lengths to achieve this – Abhinav Bindra tried everything from shooting in a dark room (to hone his senses) to undergoing commando training (to develop mental toughness) before he nabbed India’s first individual Olympic gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
The same kind of mental rigour is needed for esports athletes, something Mitesh Jain, Founder and Chief Travel Psychologist at Mandeha Journeys, seeks to train. Prior to the first-ever Commonwealth Esports Championships in August, he conducted a special session on “Building a High-Performance Mindset” for the Indian athletes. The DotA team went on to win a bronze medal.
Mental toughness is key, he says. For Indian players performing at a global level for the first time, his team works on training them to handle success and failure alike, developing a winning mentality and learning to keep control of their emotions. Treating yourself with compassion can go a long way – which is why Jain helps teams plan their schedules to fit in a holiday break in between big games.
Taking a few days off might not seem like the most competitive thing to do – but look no further than Virat Kohli for inspiration, says Jain. His comeback at the Asia Cup in 2022 – where he hit his first-ever T20I century after a 1020-day century-less bout in the sport overall – followed a month-long break from cricket.
Dealing with rage
An angry gamer is a sight to behold. Even though many play games for “fun”, it can be incredibly frustrating to lose a match due to factors outside of your control: From non-cooperative teammates to technical issues like lag. And, with matches streamed and available online for eternity, bouts of anger can easily become viral moments.
“Rage compilations” of Oleksandr “s1mple” Kostyliev (one of the world’s best Counter Strike: Global Offensive players) have garnered millions of views – he slams his fists on his keyboard, cusses out his teammates, and generally has a bad time.
For casual gamers, anger is a bit more avoidable. When you find yourself getting angry over a lost game or a silly mistake, Jain recommends reminding yourself why you play videogames in the first place. If the goal was to unwind, why are you taking it out on yourself?
Guidelines for gamer health
- Mobile gamers tend to lean back and play in awkward positions for long hours, which can alter their posture and lead to a stiff neck, warns Tahir Mukhtar of the Godlike Gaming eSports team. He recommends taking 10-15 minutes after every hour of play.
- Find your balance: When Manasvi Dalvi is not pursuing a fulltime job as a lawyer, she streams herself playing videogames to her over 55,000 YouTube followers. But her game-time has dropped from 13-14 hours daily to 2-3.“When you’re passionate about things, you make time for it. There are days when I’m too tired from work to game, and days when I stay up late playing games and wake up tired for work. (Now) I make sure not to let things overlap,” she says, adding that she still games regularly on her weekends.
- Sweat on occasion: Pro-gamers often play in air-conditioned rooms for hours on end. Exercise plays a doubly important role then as it gives them an avenue to sweat in. “This helps your skin breathe better and automatically lets your body feel fresher” says Jain.
- Limits for children: For children and teenagers, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than an hour of play on school days and under two hours on weekends. China even made this law: Worried by the growing cases of videogame addiction, Chinese authorities in 2021 moved to limit under-18 gamers to three hours of play each week.
While video games can be an enjoyable form of entertainment, it is important to be aware of the potential risks associated with excessive gaming. Video game addiction can have adverse effects on both mental and physical health.
To mitigate the potential risks to your eye health while gaming, it is recommended that you follow the “20-20-20” rule. This rule suggests taking a 20-second break to look at something 20 feet away every 20 minutes of screen time. This simple practice can help reduce eye strain and discomfort.