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Game Over: 'Athletes' Are Seriously Injuring Themselves Playing Esports

When Sean Thorpe badly hurt his back while playing in Australia’s top volleyball league, his first thought was how he wasn’t able to move to get off the court.

It wasn’t until later that he realised how the injury would impact the rest of his life. Sean’s injury was so severe that he could only sit upright for 20 minutes, three times a day while he recovered.

His loss of mobility jeopardised his university study, his social life and his career in another elite activity: Super Smash Bros. 4, a game played in the competitive world of professional video games known as esports.

If you haven’t heard or watched esports, chances are you will soon. Esports is becoming a mainstream activity, supported by an rapidly professional industry.

About 380 million people worldwide were estimated to have watched esports in 2018, including about a third of all Australians.

And the careers of competitors -- known as esports athletes -- are increasingly indistinguishable from the careers of other elite athletes:

The top competitors sign paid contracts with professional clubs (like the two owned by AFL teams) to compete in domestic and international competitions in stadiums packed with screaming fans.

And, just like other athletes, a physical injury can hurt and even end their career.

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The idea that virtual warriors can be humbled by something IRL might seem a bit ridiculous.

Even in the most intense digital duels, esports athletes can look, well, unathletic as they hunch over their screens (sometimes really close).

“There’s a misunderstanding about the physicality of esports,” says Darren Kwan, President of the Australian Esports Association (ESA). “People discount it, but it’s like anything that requires the human body. There’s always a chance of injury whenever there’s motion.”

Looking closely at an esports athlete in full flight reveals the physical demands of competition. Their bodies tense and eyes dart as their hands rapidly tap, click, type, twist, and scroll on their keyboards, mice and controllers hundreds of times per minute for hours on end.

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Like how AFL or netball players use their elite speed and agility to move and execute plays, esports athletes depend on the ability to quickly and precisely perform several hundred  “actions per minute”.

They rely on their bodies to compete at the highest levels. An injury puts this at risk, particularly repetitive stress injuries which are commonplace in the esports scene.

According to the University of Melbourne’s David Cumming who is completing his PhD on esports in Australia, some genres of games and even types of controllers are known for causing problems with competitor’s hands.

Outside than repetitive stress injuries, professional esports players have suffered blood clots, sleeping disorders, problems with their eyes, back, and neck that can be attributed to their lifestyle.

In their pursuit of being the best at a video game, they really put their health on the line.

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In some very rare cases, esports athletes have even contracted life-threatening conditions. Collapsed lungs are not underheard of. Professional Counter-Strike Global Offensive player Lukas “gla1ve” Rossander says he’s suffered no less than three collapsed lungs, including one before a match that he then played through. Move over Cooper Cronk.

Injuries come at a high cost for competitors, who are usually employed on short-term insecure contracts and have relatively brief careers, and their clubs.

Amateur hour. (Image: AAP)

Esports is still in its infancy so there’s not a lot of research on the frequency and severity of injuries in the profession. But the community isn’t waiting for peer-reviewed proof to take action.

In the early days of the sport, some players took matters into their own hands by self-diagnosing and self-treating.

One LA-based orthopedic surgeon racked up millions of views on his Youtube channel and found fame in the esports community for his videos about treating gaming-related injuries  - like Hand +  Wrist Exercises for Gamers, Trigger Finger: Exercises and Treatment and Thumb Pain: Treatment & Exercises (Double Gamers Thumb).

Awareness about the threat of injuries in esports has come a long way in a short amount of time.

Director of Sydney-based League of Legends team LG Dire Wolves Dave Harris (who has a background in physiotherapy) says he’s seen attitudes change in the industry.

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“The older players from the pre-professional era who grew up playing in their bedrooms didn’t take it quite as seriously as new generation," he said. 

This generation takes gaming -- and injuries -- much more seriously.

Harris says his team has taken a traditional high performance sports model of injury prevention and applied it to esports.

“We have a compartmentalised program. Our players train and scrimmage, then go to the gym, do pool sessions, have meals on site. We make sure they’re always moving room to room.”

With many other clubs taking a similar approach to the Dire Wolves, it seems like the Australian esports scene is taking injury prevention and rehabilitation more seriously. But it’s hard to know for sure.

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Even in esports, high performance training programs are key. Players’ contracts aren’t made public and -- unlike other professional sports where there are league-wide agreements about provisions for injuries -- there’s no standard conditions for what happens if a player is injured.

Esport Injuries can trigger the end of an athlete's career. (Image: Getty)

ESA President Darren Kwan says, “I would hope most players are taken care of when they are injured. The industry hasn’t matured to the stage where it’s universal. The industry is still fragmented.”

As Sean Thorpe’s back recovered, he started to think about playing Super Smash Bros. 4 competitively again.

Thankfully, his local competition let him set up his console so he could play standing, which meant he could take part even with his major injury. But, not every competition is willing to adapt to the different needs of their players.

For a community that aspires to be taken as seriously as other professional sports, there’s still plenty of room to level up when it comes to injuries.