Its time to play: discussing circadian rhythm and esport performance – Tim Smithies

Human performance is not constant throughout the day.  Many decades of research now have demonstrated that human performance (as is the case with just about every human process) follows a ~24hour ‘circadian’ rhythm. This research has been pivotal in optimising rosters for surgeons and medical residents, those in mining and industry, as well as pilots and air traffic controllers to name a few. Additionally, some high-profile catastrophes (Chernobyl, Three-Mile Island & Space Shuttle Challenger Accident) have occurred at times when performance is expected to be low (known as ‘circadian nadirs’). More contemporary sport science literature has discussed and demonstrated how ‘circadian advantage and disadvantage’ can provide tangible effects for game outcome in major team sport competitions such as the NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB (see: Roy and Forest, 2017 [DOI: 10.1111/jsr.12565] & Winter et al., 2009 [DOI: 10.1123/ijspp.4.3.394]). This research has informed decisions regarding training times, choice of flights for long-haul travel and travel strategies more broadly in elite sports.

Early investigations into circadian rhythms of performance focussed on simple cognitive outcomes and found performance to mirror core body temperature, peaking in the late afternoon and early evening with nadirs in the early morning for most individuals. (see: Kleitman and Jackson, 1950 [DOI: 10.1152/jappl.1950.3.6.309]). Muscular strength and power tends to mimic this, while aerobic and skilled athletic performance tend to peak earlier (see: Thun et al., 2015 [DOI: 10.1016/j.smrv.2014.11.003]). Performance on more complex tasks (especially those with greater memory components) tend to peak much earlier, often in the mid to late morning (see: Schmidt et al., 2007 [DOI: 10.1080/02643290701754158]). Further complicating this is the large inter-individual variability in these rhythms. These are individual differences are usually considered from a chronotype perspective (how behaviour and performance fluctuate as a function of time of day).

This research has been of great interest in the traditional sport world, where it has informed decisions regarding training times, choice of flights for long-haul travel and travel strategies more broadly in elite sports. Comparatively, given the only very recent surge in popularity and playership of esports (organised competitive video gaming), no research into rhythms of performance or optimal ‘time of day’ and esport performance. This is despite the massive viewership (with one esport tournament receiving more viewers than the Superbowl), playership (top esports receiving between 30-260million players monthly), and investment/sponsorship matching many top traditional sports.

Despite this, there is one factor present in esports that greatly increases the importance of ‘rhythms of performance’ research compared to traditional play; online competition. Participants in online esports competitions are often playing against one another while residing in different countries, and even time-zones. This capability is limited in so far as the further one is away from the server of the game, the larger the latency between game platform and server (‘ping’) and hence usually the greater the disadvantage. However, this has not stopped some from being successful in esport competitions hosted outside their home region. For example, the Saudi Arabian ‘Sandrock Gaming’ Rocket League team were runners up in ‘The European Invitational’, a $20,000USD tournament with all of the top teams in Europe participating, despite playing from the Middle East.

Due to online competition, players or teams are often competing with one another in real time while simultaneously being at a different ‘time of day’ and hence likely at a different point within their daily ‘rhythm of performance’. Hence, one player or team may be competing at a more advantageous time of day and possess a ‘circadian advantage’ over the other player or team, who have a ‘circadian disadvantage’. Note that this ‘circadian advantage and disadvantage’ is the same as earlier mentioned in the traditional sport research, however for traditional sport it is due to travel over multiple time-zones and playing matches while not fully adapted to the new time-zone, and can be mitigated by ‘jet-lag’. For online esport competition, there is no travel involves, and so the advantages of being at a circadian peak will not be mitigated by ‘jet-lag’.

As mentioned, esport research is in its infancy, and so there are a host of questions to be addressed regarding it and circadian rhythms. What is a ‘typical’ rhythm of performance for esports, and how do they vary across esports with different demands? How much do circadian rhythms affect your in-game ability? What time will you perform best at? What are typical chronotypes for esport athletes and to what extent to they affect rhythms of performance? Answering these questions is undoubtedly going to become of interest in the esport world, and will effect behaviours and decisions of professional esport athletes in the future. This is not trivial; esports is booming from a viewership, playership, and investment perspective, so any performance benefit that can be found is invaluable.

Tim Smithies is an Irish Research Council funded researcher (PhD) studying in the Department of Physical Education and Sport Sciences at the University of Limerick and Logitech.  His PhD focuses on specializing in sleep and esports performance.  His research interests include the performance of elite individuals,  esport career opportunity & cognitive performance of esport athletes.  Contact: and follow Tim @t_smithies

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