- Esport activities require a high degree of attentional engagement in a quickly changing environment.
- High caffeine and traditional energy drinks do not provide the sustained energy most gamers require.
- Ingredients should help support focus and motor speed, and combat fatigue, eye strain and joint pain.
Before Lang Whitaker became the coach and general manager of Grizz Gaming, the gaming arm of the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies, he talked to his former podcast partner Rick Fox. After a 13-year career in the NBA, Fox had founded esports team Echo Fox and had encountered grand success.
Whitaker had spent years in professional basketball first as an editor at the influential SLAM and then at Turner Sports for NBA.com and NBATV.
“Do you think this is something I can do?” Whitaker asked Fox. “I don’t have this esports background.”
“Nobody does,” Fox replied. “The whole thing is 5 years old.”
The sport’s popularity and influence belie its age. YouTube celebrity PewDiePie had 4.7 million views on his Livestream of the wildly popular PlayStation 4 video game Ghost of Tsushima. Baseball’s season debut on ESPN in July 2020, noted Brian Zapp, creative director at Applied Food Sciences (AFS) in Austin, Texas, boasted a record-high 4 million viewers—a 232% increase from last year.
Annie Eng, CEO of HP Ingredients Inc., cited research from InfluencerMarketingHub.com: Between 2016 and 2017, esports viewership grew 19.3%; in 2018, there were 380 million active esports viewers. According to Statista, 661 million people worldwide own a video game console. Gaming, Eng observed, is generational. It’s entirely possible that many family tree branches feature Atari, Commodore 64 and Xbox.
“The first esport was in 1980 when the first video game tournament—Space Invaders by Atari—was held with approximately 10,000 players throughout the globe,” Eng said.
For those who question that esports are, well, a sport, science provides a swift rebuttal.
Science, money and opportunity
“Esport activities require a high degree of attentional engagement in a quickly changing environment” and involve “complex and demanding motor skill involvement,” said Jaime Tartar, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. “While it might look like an e-gamer isn’t doing much, their brains are quite active. It is not uncommon for them to make up to 400 finger/hand movements per minute.”
To find the real effects, Tartar suggests taking a deeper look. The “stress response systems and arousal levels” of gamers are comparable to NASCAR drivers—around 170 heartbeats per minute.
“Beyond the heightened physiological arousal, they must be constantly, cognitively engaged in things like strategy and planning; these processes are mentally taxing,” she added. “However, just like with physical exercise, the mental strain from gaming results in demonstrated cognitive improvements. One example is that action video gamers show improved performance on tasks that demand attention and/or sensorimotor abilities.”
Looking at the brain scan of an elite athlete, a professional musician or a gamer, the same areas and pathways light up, said neuroscientist and soldier Maj. Allison Brager, Ph.D., of the U.S. Army Warrior Fitness Team, Recruiting Outreach Company, Fort Knox, who has studied the brains of gamers.
These athletes—as well as their followers—care about nutrition. Really. “That’s the stigma of video gamers: They’re very unhealthy individuals who just never see the light of day,” Brager said. “The esports culture has taken a huge cultural shift, and it’s not like that. They are prioritizing nutrition. They are integrating physical training regimens to supplement or augment their esports training.”
Market research bears that out. According to Nandini Roy Choudhury, senior research consultant with Future Market Insights, the market for esports supplements and functional foods was valued between $25 and $30 million in 2019. These consumers, she added, gravitate toward buzzy health claims such as “natural,” “minimally processed” and “organic.”
“The gaming space has now revolutionized and moved past the idea of a gamer typically imagined as an out-of-shape man lazing in a chair [surrounded] by junk food and a joystick in their hand,” Choudhury said. “The image of professional gamers has completely changed with the growing horizon of esports industry backed by growing audiences and increasing involvement of media and telecom companies.” As the wide world of esports gets deluged with a whole lot of money—the esports industry attracted over $4.5 billion in disclosed investment in 2018, according to Choudhury—health will only increase in importance.
“An e-athlete’s diet should be similar to that of other competitive athletes,” said Julia Wiebe, Ph.D., director of research and development (R&D) and director of technical marketing at Nektium Pharma. Energy drinks, the convenience store staple of midnight drives and desk-bound all-nighters, contain a significant downside.
Brager’s colleagues at Walter Reed conducted a study featuring more than 1,000 soldiers.1 Those who drank more than two energy drinks a day were at an increased risk for anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Animal research has shown brain cells die prematurely due to overactivation brought on by the syrupy elixirs’ overabundance of caffeine and chemical additives that Brager noted “more or less freak out the brain.”2
Whitaker has seen his players’ health habits improve over his three seasons. They’re working out more and eating better. When he recently brought a couple of bags of chips to a cookout, the salty snacks remained sealed.
“This market has a huge potential, and customer brands and businesses have to get involved now, while gaming nutrition is starting to grow fast,” Wiebe said. “There is a huge need for new products for performance, health and lifestyle. This is a dynamic situation that needs dynamic reactions. The energy drink segment—which is still dominated by Red Bull and other caffeinated beverages—is being revolutionized with growing demand for natural, healthy botanical alternatives.”
Wiebe offered a convincing closer to the desire for cleaner foods and beverages for gamers: Runtime, a dedicated gaming nutrition brand, nabbed a seven-digit seed investment in March 2018.
Ready, player two!
The groundwork has already been laid for manufacturers. The concerns gamers face due to playing (and practicing) for hours on end—fatigue, eye strain, joint soreness, focus—have been addressed for years in well-researched, tested and sophisticated ingredients. Those ingredients can be incorporated into a number of recognizable, palatable formats (gummies, drinks, bars, etc.). Taste, said “Ant,” who plays Rainbow 6 Siege for the team Project Neo, would have to be there for him to switch from his beloved sour cherry G Fuel—a vitamin- and antioxidant-infused, gamer-focused drink mix featuring ingredients geared toward energy and focus.
“Because the dietary supplement industry already caters to the sports market, making the jump to esports is a cinch,” stated Ramon Luna, marketing coordinator for wholesaler Ecuadorian Rainforest LLC, and a devotee of Street Fighter, the arcade classic. So is the marketing. “The needs of esports competitors are nearly identical to physical sports,” Luna added. “Esports competitors may be more willing to try a product if it has shown regular use in the sports world.”
“The parallels to the sports nutrition market are uncanny,” said Angie Rimel, marketing coordinator for Gelita. “The consumer is driven by performance or defined by lifestyle.” An added advantage, said Aimee Masterson, vice president of sales at Nutrition 21, noted the esports demographic is “not typically targeted with mainstream dietary supplements.” Consequently, “an entirely new category within the sports nutrition market” has arisen.
Zapp believes these customers want top-shelf ingredients in their foods and beverages, a sentiment echoed by others. “Some of the most notable innovations in esports products are in the beverage space,” he said. “They tend to be equally focused on improving the delivery systems as they are for enhancing the gamer's performance. Much research has been done with their audience to design textured cans for better grip, resealable tops for extended use and using high-quality, branded ingredients for improved efficacy. These characteristics add significant costs but are a key indicator that the category speaks to a more premium, high-level consumer base. Therefore, the ingredients that we target must align with that expectation.”
At Grizz Gaming, Whitaker doesn’t enforce a nutrition regimen. What would get him interested in a supplement or functional food? Empirical data he can take to a player and say, “We know if you do this, this is what’s going to happen: It’s going to make you more likely to be successful or more likely to play better.”
After all, Whitaker said, these are professionals who crave advantages.
Relevant research for the next regeneration
A few ingredient companies have gotten a jump on studies directly for this audience.
Nutrition 21 conducted a clinical trial involving nooLVL, its proprietary bonded arginine silicate complex with an additional optimized dose of inositol. In a double-blind, placebo-controlled parallel group trial, 60 men and women between the ages of 18 to 40 with a body mass index (BMI) ranging from 18.0-34.9 kg/m2 were observed for seven days.3 The subjects spent at least five or more hours a week playing video games for six months prior to screening. Taking nooLVL before an hour of playing a video game resulted in 66% fewer errors and significantly improved accuracy compared to placebo after a single dose. The good news for gamers that need an edge immediately the bonded arginine silicate in nooLVL significantly increased mental acuity and focus within 15 minutes.
“We have experienced a phenomenal response to this study,” Masterson said, “with several major esports brands tapping nooLVL as a featured ingredient in their formulations.” Recent partners include Advanced GG’s Focus 2.0 and Ghost Gamer and Iovate’s upcoming gaming line, XP Sports, which features Boost and Zerolag.
AFS has similar hopes for its organic guayusa extract, AmaTea, a patented ingredient that is a blend of caffeine and polyphenol antioxidants. The company, in partnership with the University of Memphis College of Health Sciences, has funded a study to investigate the impact of dietary supplements on gaming performance.
“The present study aims to compare the effects of AmaTea on various measures of cognitive performance, mood and gaming performance in men and women who regularly engage in gaming activity,” Zapp said. “The investigators hypothesize that both AmaTea and caffeine will improve outcome measures more than placebo, with more considerable improvement noted for AmaTea due to the particular antioxidant makeup.”
Rebranding research for the next generation
Compound Solutions Inc. in Carlsbad, California, has two gaming-specific studies on the horizon, one of which is already in progress. Yet CEO Matt Titlow is more than happy to pull older studies from the company’s quiver that can hit the competitive gamer’s needs. A pharmacokinetic study revealed the combination of its Dynamine (methylliberine) and TeaCrine (theacrine) “extended the half-life of caffeine to 300%,” which allows gamers “to use less caffeine, but with no jitters and without the negative side effects associated with caffeine.”4 Another study, Titlow said, showed improvements in energy, focus and concentration—after three hours, when the effects of caffeine plummet.5
Ingredient companies will happily wrap their branded ingredients’ assets for this new, desirable demographic. Want a product to help overcome the dreaded “gamer’s thumb?” Try Tendoforte, one of Gelita’s versatile Bioactive Collagen Peptides. For those wanting something for marathon Call of Duty sessions, Ashland claims its powdered beverage technology, N-dur XR drink base, can release nutrients for up to six hours.
The rebranding makes sense. “If you think about the needs of a gamer, motor speed, focus and attention really go along with the benefits that they are seeking after playing for long periods of time,” said Elyse Lovett, senior marketing manager at Kyowa Hakko, the maker of Cognizin citicoline.
A 2015 study in the Journal of Attention Disorders followed 75 healthy male adolescents who received either a placebo or 250 mg of Cognizin for 28 days.6 After the study period, participants who received Cognizin showed statistically significant increased motor speed and improved attention compared to placebo group.
Rob Brewster, president of Ingredients by Nature, said the company’s patented standardized lemon extract Eriomin has shown “significant results” in inflammation, antioxidant activity and blood glucose level management.7 Glucose is a significant energy source for the brain, Brager said. The company now offers an Eriomin esport version.
“The benefits it provides for blood glucose levels alone should be a large draw for gamers,” Brewster said. “All participants that consumed Eriomin saw decreases in their blood glucose levels and 24% returned to normal fasting glucose levels. This is a big deal. By helping to maintain a gamer’s glucose levels, they are able to enjoy higher energy levels and reduced fatigue.”
When asked if Kemin Human Nutrition and Health had any ingredients for the gaming community, the company’s global product manager, Kim Edwards, offered FloraGLO Lutein and Neumentix—and presented the citations from published research.
“A randomized clinical trial in a young, healthy population of active men and women found that the participants taking 900 mg Neumentix daily performed significantly better on a focus task compared to the group taking a placebo pill,”8 Edwards said. “In fact, the individuals taking Neumentix, a nootropic from spearmint, showed an 11% increase in sustained attention from baseline.” As for FloraGLO, Edwards noted supplementation with 10 mg of the old standby “increases recovery from glare and improves contrast sensitivity, or the ability to see distinction between objects, important abilities for the esports player.”9
Eng at HP Ingredients recast several ingredients to the gaming community, including LJ100. An unpublished study of the branded tongkat ali “supported normal levels of cortisol and testosterone, promoting an overall anabolic state during intense endurance exercise.”10 In other words, energy would be enhanced longer, a potential dream scenario for gamers.
Another study, Eng said, involving 63 healthy adults, found that daily supplementation with LJ100 “improved mood parameters and stress hormone profiles, salivary cortisol and testosterone, which would benefit gamers by regulating stress and maintaining both hand-eye coordination and concentration/focus.”11
Wiebe ticked off the attributes for Zynamite, Nektium Pharma’s botanical ingredient, including its nine randomized placebo-controlled clinical studies and its five-hour long brain activating effect. “We have demonstrated improved mental and physical performance, increased focus and attention and memory, faster reaction time, and enhanced brain oxygenation,” she said.12-17
What Nektium and other branded ingredients provide are convenience and peace of mind for the manufacturer, in addition to user results.
“Customers and brands want and need to put innovative products on the market and be part of the (e)game,” Wiebe explained. “And there is a special need for ingredients adapted to gamers and their specific needs. But innovation in this area is not easy. Regulatory is a big hurdle, sustainable supply is an issue, costs for clinical trials and IP protection are enormous and make the products expensive while the risk of failure is high. This is why companies would rather improve and re-dress or re-position existing products, than try to innovate…This difficulty to develop and establish really new natural ingredients in the market is reflected by the short list of authentic, evidence-based botanical solutions, as opposed to the long list of cheap synthetic and semi-synthetic ingredients.”
A gap exists between the ideal and the reality. In conversations with esports insiders Ant and Whitaker, it’s clear that supplements and functional foods haven’t fully penetrated the big leagues. Ant believes an influencer in the sphere needs to endorse a product found in health food stores before that category takes off.
In the meantime, the natural products industry will continue its courtship. Gelita’s Rimmel believes the industry and esports are learning from each other. The companies who will have the most success, she said, will listen to this audience and adapt to their needs.
They must act quickly.
“I’ve seen these guys in the last three years just take more interest in their health and general fitness,” Whitaker said. “As esports continue to grow, this market’s going to get bigger around it, I think. A lot of companies and people, frankly, don’t understand how big esports is already. And people are just now figuring out, ‘Oh wow, there’s this huge thing happening over here.’ So, I think you’ll see more companies make products that are more dedicated to the market.”
Pete Croatto is a freelance writer based just outside Ithaca, New York. His work has appeared in many publications, including The New York Times, Grantland, SI.com, VICE Sports, and Publishers Weekly. His first book, From Hang Time to Prime Time: Business, Entertainment, and the Birth of the Modern-Day NBA (Atria Books), comes out November 17.
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