Less pizza, more yoga as e-sports embraces traditional training methods

Team Origen members in a training room following a scrimmage against another team at Rfrsh Entertainment's offices in Copenhagen on March 7, 2019.
Team Origen members in a training room following a scrimmage against another team at Rfrsh Entertainment's offices in Copenhagen on March 7, 2019.PHOTO: NYTIMES

COPENHAGEN (NYT) - The squats and leg lifts were harder than they looked, and after a few sets, Alfonso Aguirre Rodriguez placed his hands on his knees and attempted to compose himself.

In November, Aguirre, a 24-year-old professional video game player from Spain, joined the five-man roster of Origen, a League of Legends team that competes in the game's top European league.

The players - all signed in late fall - were told at the time that the team might be run a bit differently from what they were accustomed to.

Now here they were, five young men who make their living sitting almost completely still in front of desktop computers, sweating through an hour-long workout in a cramped gym.

"I think I'm going to puke my oatmeal," said Aguirre, who is known in the gaming community as Mithy. "I'm dying."

Some years ago, traditional sports leagues were revolutionised by young analysts wielding computers. The way things had always been done, it turned out, was not always the best way to do things.

Now echoes of that transformation have arrived in the growing world of professional e-sports, where gamers are being shepherded toward a new frontier, oddly, by the old, corporeal wisdom of traditional sports.

The debate about whether competitive gamers can be considered athletes may never end. In the meantime, though, gamers are increasingly acting like them.

Origen is one of two teams owned by Rfrsh Entertainment, an e-sports company based in Copenhagen. Two years ago, the organisation hired Kasper Hvidt, a former captain of Denmark's national handball team, to be its sporting director. Hvidt, 43, had no previous exposure to gaming. But that was the point.


As e-sports have become more popular, and more profitable, teams in search of an edge have begun taking a holistic approach to training that includes fitness, nutrition and psychology. PHOTO: NYTIMES

E-sports in recent years have crept into the mainstream, attracting new fans, new sponsors and new investment. The top professionals now make six-figure salaries and earn even more with endorsements and prize money.

And yet, Hvidt observed, their approach to performance remained amateurish.

Eating right, sleeping right, exercising, cleaning up for sponsors - these ideas have under-girded traditional sports for generations. In e-sports, they are regarded as almost radical.

"They don't look at themselves as physical human beings," said Hvidt, who won the European handball championship with Denmark in 2008.

"It's common sense, in a way. But with them, it was not." Rfrsh has a validating narrative under its belt. The company's other team, Astralis, which competes internationally in the first-person shooter game Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, had gone almost a year without winning a tournament when Hvidt joined the organisation in mid-2017.

In 2018, the team earned $3.7 million in prize money while putting together one of the most dominant years ever by any team in any e-sports game.

And so Origen this year has set off on the same journey of athletic self-improvement. As recently as last year, the players' typical day might have been a sedentary extravaganza of sugary energy drinks, fast food and unresolved psychic tension. Now, their days are interposed with protein smoothies, yoga mats and slow-paced breathing exercises.

The effects of those changes, the team said, have been plain to see: After starting the current season with a 1-4 record, Origen went on a tear, winning 11 of its final 13 matches, finishing the regular season in second place and securing a first-round bye for the playoffs, which began Friday.

"These are little things," Fabian Broich, Origen's assistant coach, said. "But they add up, and over the long term, you have a more emotionally stable team and a more focused team."

At Rfrsh, Hvidt has assembled a performance team - a physical trainer, a sports psychologist, a massage therapist, a medical doctor and a nutritionist - and constructed a lifestyle plan for the players that combines scientific research, old-school sports wisdom and simple common sense.

Broich, 28, a former professional soccer player from Germany, acts as a liaison between the management team and the players, implementing the principles on the ground.

The players, who hail from five European countries and range in age from 18 to 24, live in Denmark and fly each weekend to Berlin, where the League of Legends matches are taped in front of a boisterous studio audience.

In Copenhagen, they are required to get around by bicycle (a rule they all hated at first) and have fitness and yoga classes during the week. On Mondays, they meet with the team psychologist for an "empty-the-backpack" session.

Every morning, the team meets for breakfast in Broich's apartment, a ritual designed in part to get the gamers - night owls and notoriously late risers - out of bed at a reasonable hour. Their other meals are catered with guidance from the nutritionist.

"Before, I would go to sleep at 5 a.m. and wake up at 2 p.m. the next day, eat McDonald's two times, and that'd be it," Patrik Jiru, 18, an Origen player from the Czech Republic, said as he ate a salmon and vegetable omelette one recent morning.



Team Origen members having dinner at Rfrsh Entertainment's offices in Copenhagen on March 6, 2019. PHOTO: NYTIMES

After breakfast, the players biked to the gym for a core workout and a physical therapy session.

"Last time we did this, my body was sore for three days," Jonas Andersen, 24, an Origen player from Denmark known as Kold, said as he grabbed a medicine ball.

Mikkel Hjuler, a trainer who works with Danish Olympians, guided the team through some gaming-specific exercises. He had the players wrap their fists inside elastic bands and flex their fingers. He taught them a neck exercise favoured by boxers.

The players were willing participants, but they admitted that their ambitions, from a physical standpoint, were modest.

"I'm OK with being chubby as long as I don't pass out when I'm running - which, right now, I might," Aguirre said.

The players continue to train several hours a day in front of computers, but even those sessions now borrow elements from traditional sports.

Before a recent scrimmage session at the Rfrsh headquarters, Broich distributed magnesium pills and protein bars. (He keeps vitamin D and krill oil in his arsenal, too.) Later, he blended a potpourri of nutritional supplements - moringa, matcha, maca, chlorella, açaí and a half-dozen others - into a thick protein shake.

In their meeting room, a quotation attributed to former NBA coach Phil Jackson - "The strength of the team is each individual member" - was scribbled on a dry-erase board. After one practice game, the team laid out yoga mats and stretched on foam rollers.

 

Trevor Henry, 31, a broadcast commentator for Riot Games, the company behind League of Legends, marvelled at how quickly the game's competitive landscape was professionalising.

He was happy, for instance, that some teams were reconsidering their use of gaming houses, a classic e-sports setup in which players live and train together under one roof.

"Go back just a few years: Professional players would play 10 to 11 hours every day and do takeout food every day," Henry said. "Pizza boxes would stack up rooms. Laundry would never get done. I'll be brutally honest: Teams didn't wash the team shirts. They'd have the same team shirt that they'd wear 24 weeks in a year that has never seen detergent."

This lifestyle - part monk, part fraternity brother - was not only accepted but also held up as the very reason the players were successful. But that wisdom is now being challenged, and in Europe, the shift by League of Legends this year to a 10-team, franchise model (akin to American sports leagues) has encouraged organisations to make more long-term investments.

Last year, Fabien Devide, the chairman of Team Vitality, a French gaming organisation, spent seven months embedded in his League of Legends team's gaming house in Berlin. He was startled by what he saw.

"It was a madhouse," Devide said, describing an atmosphere with an utter lack of boundaries between personal and professional life. "It can become a toxic environment very quick."

Devide said Team Vitality planned to move its players into separate apartments later this year. Acknowledging the pioneering example of Rfrsh, he said he was formalising plans to open a training centre for his organisation in Paris and hire a performance director, in the mould of Hvidt, to devise a program grounded in traditional sports ideas.

Teams now understand that championships are won and lost in the details. When Origen was assembling its squad last year, Hvidt asked potential signees to complete a personality test with hundreds of questions to make sure it was building an emotionally compatible group.

In December, the players convened for a preseason camp with one catch: no computers.

Instead, the players spent several days completing trust exercises and discussing their dreams with Lars Robl, a sports psychologist who spent two decades in the Danish special forces - "the real Counter Strike," he joked - and whose other clients include the Danish soccer club F.C. Midtjylland.

Robl's job now is to help the gamers see themselves as elite athletes, just like the soccer players.

"They have the same DNA," Robl said. "They're just not aware of it yet."