The rising popularity of esports and online poker have allowed younger and younger competitors to vie for big prizes normally reserved for more traditional sports.
While this means talented players can get a strong financial foothold before they are even of legal drinking age, it can also indicate that their playing careers won’t last much long after.
Such is the harsh truth especially for competitive eSports players, where player performance (and earning) potential often hits a harsh ceiling once in their mid-twenties.
The reason for this (usually) isn’t controller-holding induced arthritis, but a decline in mental capabilities.
eSports’ Optimal Age
The minimum age of entry into most major eSports competitions is 17, however most pros have been playing for years already before that age. Athletes playing at the elite level of competition at this age would be considered prodigies in most sports, but in eSports many players retire around or before the decade mark.
Stories of ultra-successful eSports players retiring before they can rent a car are endless – in 2015, StarCraft 2 legend Jang Min-Chul (handle MC) retired at age 2. That same year League of Legends pro Stephen “Snoopeh” Ellis walked away from the game at 23. A recent ESPN study of average athlete ages in different sports and eSports showed that the average StarCraft II player is 23 and 21.2 for League of Legends.
While some players might drop out of the game due to school or their game of choice losing popularity, for others the reason is biological.
A study looking at SC2 players revealed that competitive 39-year olds with equal amounts of game experience are on average around 150 milliseconds slower than similarly experienced 24-year old players.
This might not sound like much, but in a typical 15-minute game this can add up to be about 30 seconds more worth of game actions for the younger player. In competitive eSports, that’s a massive advantage.
After analyzing over 3,300 SC2 players aged 16-44, the study also showed the peak age for player performance was just 24. Any older and a decline was evident in what researchers call ‘looking-doing latency’, or the time it takes to look at something on a screen and then make the next appropriate move via a keyboard or mouse.
While certain genres of eSports (like fighting games) favor tactical precision and timing over raw speed, eSports agent David Graham thinks seeing a player sustain a successful career long term would be difficult if not impossible due to these natural age limitations.
“It’s going to be super tough to have somebody who plays in eSports for 20 years, even if they have some talent,” he said to Game Informer.
Peak Performance in Poker
Similarly, poker is another activity that has recently seen legions of teenagers and twentysomethings pining to be the best at it. While nine of the last 10 World Series of Poker Main Event champions were in their twenties, the tournament as a whole is still much more diverse age-wise than in eSports.
The tournament’s average age in the recent past falls between 39-40, with the average age of the Final Table over the past decade lies in the 30s.
Even though these figures have generally skewed younger since the online poker boom of the early 2000s, that’s attributed more to online poker players having the time and ability to gain experience from infinitely more hands per hour than their older predecessors who learned by playing live games only.
Experience then, seems to be the chief determining factor in a player’s success. While a recent review of UniBet’s player base showed interest in poker peaks at 23, players aged 28-33 and 59+ tend to win the most consistently.
Unlike in eSports where senior players are virtually unheard of at the elite level, you don’t have to look far to find successful older poker players. The 2017 Final Table featured players in their 40s and 60s and 2016 Main Event Winner Qui Nguyen was 39 at the time of his victory.
In this sense, poker might be the most egalitarian sport of them all, with success dependent purely upon how much time and work you are willing to put in.
Your Brain On eSports and Poker
No matter the age, eSports and poker are cognitively demanding, albeit in different ways.
While gambling, the brain’s limbic system becomes particularly active. The limbic system is a set of structures in the brain (including the hippocampus and amygdala) that regulates our emotions, behavior, and memories. The response of this system in gamblers has been well studied and shown even just visual cues related to gambling, can produce a powerful emotional response in these areas.
Similarly, playing eSports lights up the hippocampus, right prefrontal cortex, and cerebellum, regions associated with motor skills, strategic planning, and spatial navigation. This makes sense, as gambling and poker are much slower, more ‘conscious’ activities than eSports, where a large degree of actions are reactionary.
But even when we’ve passed peak performance age, a German university’s study of eSports players has shown the activity’s cognitive and motor skill demands do indeed strengthen the brain.
High-level players’ actions per minute can reach as high as 400 APM, which isn’t just mindless hammering on the keyboard and mouse but comes with thinking about game strategy at the same time.
“The amount of cortisol produced [in an eSports player] is about the same level as that of a race-car driver,” says lead researcher Ingo Froböse. “This is combined with a high pulse, sometimes as high as 160 to 180 beats per minute, which is equivalent to what happens during a very fast run, almost a marathon. That’s not to mention the motor skills involved.”
Even though it’s a much slower pace of play, MRI scans have shown an area of the brain called the temporal-parietal junction, or TPJ, lights up in poker players, particularly when they are trying to bluff their opponents.
Just by looking at these scans, scientists can tell in real time if a player is bluffing or not. Interestingly, these results were repeated only when players were playing against other humans, and not against a computer. A key to getting good at poker might lie in studying others’ behavior then.
“The fact that all of these brain regions that should be specifically social are used in other circumstances is a testament to the remarkable flexibility and efficiency of our brains,” said lead researcher McKell Carter.
Co-author Scott Huettel went on to say that, “Social information may cause our brain to play by different rules than non-social information, and it will be important for both scientists and policymakers to understand what causes us to approach a decision in a social or a non-social manner.”
Training Your Brain
Although our cognitive performance in eSports drops before we’ve had time to even have a quarter-life crisis, that isn’t indicative of a wholesale decline in our brains’ abilities – many long-term studies have shown our brains actually improve in many areas as we age.
Even after our brain’s processing speed slows, our capacity to learn new words, remember faces, and come up with viable solutions to different problems improves.
These skills improve thanks to the growth of dendrites, branches in the brain through which neurons are received and sent. While the number of neurons in the brain stays steady with age, these dendrites tend to thicken and form more connections as we get older, speeding up ‘connection speed’ and therefore our ability to perform these mental tasks.
These improvements happen somewhat organically with age and life experience. But much like a muscle, they are also something many claim can deliberately be trained and strengthened, and by playing video games no less.
In a University of California San Francisco study of seniors aged 60 to 85, participants played a game called NeuroRacer that demanded two tasks to be performed simultaneously: navigating a virtual car on a windy road and remembering the details of road signs they passed along the way.
The study’s researchers say just 12-hours of playing the game helped participants improve their memory, attention, and multitasking abilities even six months after last playing.
To stave off ‘senior moments’ and keep the brain functioning optimally, Harvard Medical School recommends that no matter your age you need to keep learning, using a variety of senses, stay active, and keep good social connections.
So while it might be too late for the majority of us to get rich playing eSports or poker, those same activities can still help keep us sharp enough to make money in our field of choice for a long time.