Dr. James Onate – Ohio State University – Research of baseline data for esports athletes

Earlier this month, The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio announced the establishment of not only a varsity esports program and a dedicated practice arena but a research program to study the relationships between the brain, bodies and behaviours of esports athletes.

The “most comprehensive esports program to date” will feature a curriculum for undergraduate studies and research focusing collecting physical data for esports athletes in order to determine not only a base level but also what is required for high-level competitors. 

Dr. James Onate, Associate Professor and Co-Director of the Sports Medicine Movement Analysis and Performance Program spoke with Esports Insider about the purpose of the research program and the hopes of flipping the switch on the stigma of gamers and esports athletes. 

Esports Insider: What was the development like expanding from just supporting a varsity esports team to investing in research?

Dr. James Onate, Associate Professor of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences at Ohio State University

Dr. James Onate: The way this really started is that a certain gaming company wanted to look at a combine like what the NFL or NBA does. We realized that there was a whole research area of high performance in esports that we could evaluate from these individuals. From there we started looking at the basics of how you identify top-level players for teams, what characteristics go into these individuals, and what they deal with from a health and wellness standpoint.

The esports population is booming right now and I almost look at it like right now we have our football and soccer. What was happening 100 years ago? It wasn’t football and soccer, it was horse racing and boxing. Those are still a niche sport but it’s not the same. So is esports going to be the next part of that? You also have something that’s going across all age groups with different types of backgrounds and I think a lot of people, especially in the older generation, start thinking this is just games for kids that don’t play anything else which isn’t true at all. 

ESI: Can you go into a little more depth of the type of research that will be done and how it will be conducted?

James: So we have many areas. I’ll start off with my area which is really physiological health and wellness pieces. We start with health behaviours with some standardized questionnaires, then we look at things like grip strength as an overall marker in physical strength. We’re also going to look at heart rate variables and how they handle stressful situations. When we’re looking at stressful situations in basketball or football players that are making decisions it’s really tough to collect that data in a live format. We can do some wearable sensors, but we can’t do everything.

Credit: Ohio State University

In the situation, with gaming, we have a bit more of a closed system to where we can have an arena or a laboratory and almost re-create the exact game with more physiological monitors on them. This will give us a really good lab test base for some of our questions. In our lab and in the field we’ll run different markers of physical fitness, brain cognitive capabilities and see where their structural aspects are being focused. We’ll be looking at vision as well with perspective reactions, and that gets our College of Optometry involved as well.

We’ll also look at aspects of personality, teamwork and social behaviours. We really want to try to look at it all from a multi-disciplinary approach.

Esports Insider: Will students be involved in these different programs at OSU be conducting the actual research?

James: Right now all of our labs have a lot of students in them and we’ll be looking for more that are interested in this from a high-performance standpoint. Students will be a big part of it when we look at cognitive capabilities, attention, duel tasks, and handling stress with all the tests that we’ll be doing. We want students who are interested in not only the esports or gaming experience but how that can translate to kids at home and to different occupations. 

“First we need to characterize what normal data is like…We don’t really know the metrics on our elite esports athletes.”

Esports Insider: How do you see the research evolving in the future?

James: I don’t really know actually. I think first we need to characterize what normal data is like. In our other sports, we have a general idea of the physical and cognitive capabilities an individual needs. A baseball pitcher has to throw 90 mph or above, a football player has to run a 4 4 40, but we don’t really know the metrics on our elite esports athletes, publicly at least.

The other area is really flipping the script on all the negativity around video games and esports. There are studies about violent video games increasing violent tendencies and behaviours and parents concerned about kids not playing outside anymore. I’ve got a 13 yr old and a 16 yr old and they’re gaming on a regular basis, but they’re also athletes. One runs cross country and track, the other plays football, basketball, baseball, so I’m obviously not worried about them being physically active. We want to look a lot at the positives around social interactions involved with gaming.

Credit: Ohio State University

Another piece of this in the future is a platform for information. Where else can we get this out to the public and I think that’s going to be a big thing from a business standpoint. Obviously, these businesses are already doing it but how do we create this aspect of positive information to the public. We’re taking a fully integrated approach at all levels which we’ll learn and grow from. We can take the data we’ve gathered and apply it to occupations outside of gaming like military occupations that have to do with lots of information and decision making from drone operators to air traffic controllers and so on.

We’re not just looking at just one big study and we’re done, that’s not the goal. We’re really developing a research line that will bring in a variety of different experts. I’m not an esports athlete or a gamer but I am good at understanding high performance and all the things that go into it. I want to partner with all these people who have different ideas and that’s the rest of us on campus.