Playing sport-based games for IRL benefit – Tim D. Smithies


The up-and-coming generation of superstar athletes are by-and-large also gamers. Some reports claim that 85% of NBA players are active gamers, while top athletes such as Trevor May, Lando Norris, and JuJu Smith-Schuster to name a few, can be often found streaming their video game play to thousands of keen watchers.

The advent of COVID-19 and the restrictions it has caused throughout would have only served to increase this pool of athletes who game. However, top-athletes spending hours on their favourite video-game is no new phenomenon, as can be seen by this clip of the 1999 NBA championship winning San Antonio Spurs playing Starcaft against one another.

Given most pro-athletes are in some way engaging with video games, it makes sense to explore what potential competitive benefit these games could actually provide. Could they give that elusive 0.1% boost to athletes at the highest level? To me, there are two key ways in which video-game use could enhance traditional sport performance; the skill/strategic benefit provided due to games realism, and the cognitive/perceptual benefits of playing certain genres of video-games. I will look to talk about the latter in a future blog, and will focus on the former here.

Sport-based video games in 2021 are so good that if you aren’t careful, you could think you’re watching the real thing. Popular yearly game series’ like 2k’s NBA2k or EA Sports FIFA titles have been around for decades but consistently become more realistic (both visually and in gameplay) with each new edition. This has been accomplished by improving motion capture technology and insider knowledge of team strategies and tactics. These games will let you play using the exact formations of championship winning football teams, however don’t spare any detail, also containing the exact free-throw mechanics of NBA bench players you’ve never heard of before.

Given this, it’s not one bit surprising that many pro athletes have used these games to fine tune their real-life performance. For example, Major League Soccer player Conor Chinn has said he plays FIFA daily to “get his soccer brain started”. NBA quarterback Cam Newton has said that he plays Madden (NFL video-game series) to “know what to do to attack certain [defence] coverages”. Possibly the highest profile example of this use of video-games is LeBron James, who has mentioned that he used NBA 2k to get a feel for his new teammate’s playstyles and tendencies.

Moving away from ball sports, there is of course the case of simulated motorsport (or ‘sim racing’). There are subscription based racing simulators (iRacing and rFactor for example) that are so true-to-nature that many professional racers regularly use them to practice or learn a new track. High-profile racing teams often also possess their own bespoke racing simulator games and set-ups, which become a fundamental training tool for their racers. Racing competitions (i.e. F1 and Nascar) have their associated esports leagues, with many racers that excel in these leagues having a strong real-life competitive racing background. Clearly, there is a large scope for realistic racing games and simulators to optimise performance on the track.

To be clear, I think it is unlikely that video-game play will provide a performance benefit greater than that obtained by traditional training methods for a given sport. If you’re an aspiring basketball player, don’t be skipping training to play 2k. At the same time however, don’t feel guilty about sitting down for a couple of hours and playing some games in your down time, as it could be providing a small performance benefit you otherwise wouldn’t be receiving. If anyone questions you about it, just tell them that if its good enough for LeBron, its good enough for you.


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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