A study of physiological responses of college-age Overwatch players found that many skilled players tend to start the game with elevated physiological stress responses, adjusting them during gameplay. The physiological stress responses of low skill players, in contrast, tend to increase as the game progresses. The study was published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.
Competitive electronic gaming or eSport is gaining traction as a recognized sport. The rise of eSports into a multi-billion dollar industry has been attributed to the emergence of streaming platforms and advertisement revenues and high-values sponsorships that came with them. eSports are one of the 24 competitive sports included in the 2022 Asian games held in Hangzhou, China.
Following their rise in popularity, scientists have become interested in studying eSports athletes to understand the stress related to participating in eSports both in competitive and noncompetitive settings. First studies focused on health concerns, given the sedentary nature of eSports, and primarily studied players of League of Legends (LOL) as one of the most popular eSports games at the time.
Recently, there were calls to focus on players of first-person shooters as data indicate that these types of games tend to elicit a greater nervous system response than multiplayer battle area games such as LOL.
Overwatch is a competitive first-person shooter game developed back in 2016 by Blizzard Entertainment. Researcher William J. Kraemer and his colleagues hypothesized that player skill level would influence biomarkers of stress when playing the game, because of the anxiety and arousal associated with competitive performance.
“We have a large collaborative group of scientists and eSport athletes at the Ohio State University, yet little was known about the primary game being played by our gamers. So we wanted to get some initial data on this topic,” explained Kraemer, a senior advisor in sports performance and sports sciences at the university’s Athletic Department.
The researchers asked 32 male gamers, aged between 18 and 32, with at least some experience in playing Overwatch, to participate in the study. They were randomly divided into 6-player teams to each participate in a single Overwatch team competition game in the laboratory. Researchers took their salivary measures to assess cortisol and testosterone levels immediately before and after the game. Heart rate was monitored continuously during gameplay.
Before the study, Overwatch skill level of participants was assessed by asking them to report their Overwatch rank. Players with diamond ranks (top 20% of Overwatch players) were considered high skilled and the rest were considered low rank.
Results showed a 11.3% decrease in salivary cortisol and 17.2% increase in salivary testosterone after the game compared to levels before. Heart rate was also higher after game than before game.
When skill level is considered, results showed more pronounced differences in pregame testosterone levels among high skill players than with low skill players. While testosterone levels increased during gameplay in the low skill group, high skill players tended to start the game with elevated testosterone levels and only the variability in testosterone levels among high skill players tended to decrease somewhat during the game.
Authors report that “the finding that highskilled players may upregulate testosterone concentrations before gameplay resulting in no changes with the game play itself may explain the lack of pre to post game significant effects.“
The findings indicate “that Overwatch and other eSport games are demanding physiologically for the gamers who play them. And stress-related demands and adaptations appeared to occur and are related to game success. As well as the stress of the games themselves,” Kraemer told PsyPost.
“At first glance, the passive nature of eSport gaming may indicate little or no physiological stress,” Kraemer and his colleague wrote n their study. “However, it is clear from this study that even collegiate gamers experience elevation in heart rate and changes in hypo-pituitary-gonadal functions when playing Overwatch in a competitive format.”
“The highly variable response patterns observed for cortisol suggest that changes in sympathetic response may continue as experience with competitive game play increases. Furthermore, the skill level may impact the arousal levels of testosterone including adjustments with game play in lower skilled players.”
Testosterone’s role in physiological arousal may be related to success in sports because of the need for psychological aggression and physiological adjustments for competitive play. This study sheds new light on its role in competitive eSports. It should be noted, though, that the study was conducted only during one game, that reactions to games of different properties might not be the same and that it is possible that the laboratory setting and the presence of audience during gamplay might have had some effect on the results.
It is still unclear whether “game preparation and physical fitness impact the ability to better compete with the sport games and also enhance the health of the eSport athletes who are competing in a sedentary environment for both game and practice sessions,” Kraemer noted. “We are just starting to understand how to prepare and optimize player development for this particular sport and more work will need to be done.”
The study, “Arousal/Stress Effects of “Overwatch” eSportsGame Competition in Collegiate Gamer“, was authored by William J. Kraemer, Lydia K. Caldwell, Emily M. Post, Matthew K. Beeler, Angela Emerson, Jeff S. Volek, Carl M. Maresh, Jennifer S. Fogt, Nick Fogt, Keijo Hakkinen, Robert U. Newton, Pedro Lopez, Barbara N. Sanchez, and James A. Onate.