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Esports enthusiasts are focusing on nutrition as an avenue to improved performance.
Is playing video games a childish waste of time? Despite what your mother may have told you, no.
With universities offering athletic scholarships to top-ranked gamers, and with payouts at big-name gaming competitions heading north of seven figures, Esports has reached the rank of serious business-both for competitors and for the companies that cater to them.
In fact, notes Rob Brewster, president, Ingredients by Nature (Montclair, CA), “Now that 73% of Americans over age two play video games every week, video gaming is the leading form of entertainment in the U.S.”1
So as the spotlight focuses on these 21st-century athletes, Esports enthusiasts are focusing on nutrition as an avenue to improved performance. The upshot: “There’s a lot of spending power within the gaming community that the natural-products industry can take advantage of,” says Brewster.
The smart brands already are. “Slowly but surely,” he says, “companies are developing nutrition products targeted at and marketed to gamers-and gamers are buying.”
Esports’ meteoric rise has raised some eyebrows, including those of Maxine Weber, director of marketing, health and wellness, Ashland Inc. (Wilmington, DE). “Admittedly,” she says, “for many of us over age 30, it’s hard to imagine the popularity of Esports. However, the audience is growing.”
Estimates put the number of gamers worldwide at 2.5 billion2, generating an output in 2019 of $120.1 billion3 for an industry on pace to hit a value of $300 billion by 2025.4 “The U.S. market alone generated $35.4 billion last year,” Brewster notes.
And while “it’s easy to think of video games as a ‘man’s world,’” he continues, according to the Entertainment Software Association, “women actually make up about 46% of U.S. gamers.”5 Further, although 40% of gamers are between age 18 and 35, almost as many-39%-are older, “meaning that Gen Xers and baby boomers are getting in on the fun, too,” says Brewster.
At a Kemin-sponsored SupplySide West event last year, Diane Ray, vice president of strategic innovation at consumer intelligence firm Natural Marketing Institute (NMI), noted that gamers are also “typically health strivers,” and “are somewhat price sensitive and are most responsive to products backed by strong education.”
But per her own online research into the community, Leisha Jenkins, marketing associate, Verdure Sciences (Noblesville, IN), observes that many professional gamers seem to retire in their mid-twenties, blaming the early exits, in part, on health concerns like joint pain, eye fatigue, and mental fatigue6.
“The pressure of live gameplay and team dynamics might also cause emotional stress for players,” Jenkins adds. “And with prizes earning players thousands-sometimes hundreds of thousands-of dollars per game, players can experience high levels of stress due to the viewership and money on the line.”
So being a competitive gamer is no day at the arcade. The demands on these athletes are many.
“First and foremost,” Brewster says, “video gaming requires mental prowess. But staring at screens for hours may cause mental fatigue, debilitating the ability to focus and slowing processing speeds. This is a big deal when each gameplay session is full of constant split-second decisions and the difference between winning and losing can be a matter of seconds.”
What’s more, with primary and working memory prized in puzzle games and those trafficking heavily in tactics and strategy, “if short-term memory is impaired from fatigue, oxidative stress, or any other reason, so, too, is a gamer’s ability to compete,” Brewster adds.
Gaming’s occupational hazards are hardly all in one’s head, either. “Physical challenges can affect cognitive ability,” Brewster continues, with spikes in blood sugar crashing energy levels and cognitive focus alike. “And visual damage, which may come from excessive exposure to blue light, not only affects vision generally but decreases the ability to visually process at optimal speeds.”
As in any other sport, inflammation is a common threat, with repetitive use of the mouse, keyboard, and controller putting finger and wrist joints at risk and “making it hard to act quickly and effectively,” Brewster concludes. And even ears aren’t entirely safe, with blaring headphones doing a number on gamers’ hearing.
Top of Their Games
No wonder gamers are growing as keen as traditional athletes on nutritional support. But the needs of a Counter-Strike competitor aren’t necessarily the same as those of a triathlete or bodybuilder.
“Gaming and traditional sports are both mental and physical,” says Ceci Snyder, MS, RD, global vision product manager, Kemin (Des Moines), “but the tilt in gaming is definitely toward the mental edge. Thus, they need more than just energy.”
Elyse Lovett, senior marketing manager, Kyowa Hakko USA (New York City), agrees. “Like other athletes, Esports players are looking for that edge in performance,” she says. “But Esports players are asking questions like, ‘How can I up my game, be more focused, and get the energy I need to play for six or 12 hours straight?’”
The answer involves qualities like endurance, quick reaction time, and rapid problem-solving abilities, notes Weber. “And after play, gamers may need recovery support, just like traditional athletes-for intensive use of muscles and joints, as well as for unique challenges such as eye strain and exposure to blue light.”
Adds Brewster, “Gamers are looking to avoid fatigue, distraction, and jitters. Jitters may cause dysfunction of motor skills at critical moments while fatigue may slow response time and decrease focus. Of course, the detriments of being distracted while playing a game with many moving parts and active opponents is a very clear ‘game over.’”
Indeed, notes Samantha Ford, MS, director of business development, AIDP (City of Industry, CA), like everyone in our fast-paced world, gamers are looking for both an edge and a sense of calm. “Ironically, though, these two are interconnected,” she says. “When brain neurons are healthy and functioning properly, one has a better ability to focus and less cognitive stress.”
There was a time when gamers would have sought proper neuronal functioning in vehicles like sugary, over-caffeinated energy drinks or snacks packed with empty calories from starch and fat. Or at least that was the assumption.
But, says Brewster, “Today’s gamer isn’t always the stereotypical couch potato often depicted as overweight, surrounded by junk food, and rarely sleeping. More are taking the time to eat well-rounded meals and get some exercise and a good night’s rest, knowing that these decisions will ultimately affect their performance.”
Adds Jenkins, “Health trends in general lean toward more comprehensive approaches to wellbeing, and it appears the Esports industry is aligning with that trend. Gamers are more aware of how they treat their bodies, and many teams now employ professionals to help balance play-intensive lifestyles with specifically designed sleep, nutrition, and physical-activity programs.”
This poses a “unique opportunity for supplement makers,” concludes Kim Edwards, MBA, CPMM, global product manager at Kemin. “Whether gamers are competing in a professional event or playing for the love of the sport, they’re looking for a competitive edge, and for gamers who take supplements, 80% take them at least five days per week.”7
The Gamers’ Garden
Research into compounds that provide the cognitive boosts gamers value-a.k.a. nootropics-has blossomed about as dramatically as Esports themselves, and it’s uncovering impressive results for herbal and botanical ingredients.
Notes Verdure Sciences’ Jenkins, “Bacopa monnieri has long demonstrated mood and emotional-wellbeing benefits,” apparently via antioxidant support, acetylcholine mediation, and serotonin modulation. “Serotonin is known to help regulate mood naturally, and when serotonin levels are normal, people feel calmer, happier, more focused, and less anxious.”8,9
Clinical studies show that Verdure Sciences’ proprietary B. monnieri extract, Bacognize, delivers those benefits plus cognitive acuity, focus minus stimulant side effects, improved working memory, and less mental fatigue and distractibility.
Adding that B. monnieri has “an age-old reputation in Ayurvedic medicine for being effective in memory and cognition,” AIDP’s Ford notes that her company’s full-spectrum extract is standardized for phytochemical composition and delivers nine different bioactives. Called BacoMind, it’s “been shown to improve memory acquisition and retention, as well as verbal memory,” she says.
Jenkins mentions curcumin as an ingredient that helps “meet the emotional and mental challenges of high-level play.” Studies link curcumin with significantly lower fatigue, tension, anger, and confusion10, she notes, which, along with the botanical’s anti-inflammatory properties, “are significant for the comprehensive wellness that gamers might find appealing in a natural alternative.”
Research into adaptogens may also benefit gamers, as a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial involving the adaptogenic herb tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum) suggests. In the study, Ford says, AIDP’s standardized herbal composition-OciBest-appeared to support stress management, “producing significant reductions in forgetfulness, frequent feelings of exhaustion, and sleep problems,” she says.
Notes Kemin’s Snyder, spearmint (Mentha spicata L.) extract “supports physical and cognitive performance related to multitasking, as well as focus and choice reaction performance.”
A randomized clinical trial involving Kemin’s Neumentix spearmint extract found that young, healthy, active male and female subjects receiving 900 mg of the extract daily performed significantly better on a focus task compared to the placebo group.11 “In fact,” adds Brenda Fonseca, MA, senior global technical service manager at Kemin, “individuals taking Neumentix showed an 11% increase in sustained attention from baseline.”
Brewster of Ingredients by Nature mentions that sage (Salvia officinalis) “has been used for hundreds of years in health applications, and has recently been growing in popularity for its cognitive-health applications. The compounds in sage help provide better mental clarity and cognitive energy, and support improved memory.”12
Citrus flavonoids like hesperidin and eriocitrin also seem to improve energy, focus, and cognitive-processing speed, he says. Powerful antioxidants, they help manage oxidative stress and depress free-radical levels in the brain, helping neurons “communicate optimally for a more competitive edge.”13 Additionally, eriocitrin and other lemon flavonoids seem to significantly help manage blood glucose levels. “Keeping blood sugar in balance ensures that gamers avoid sugar crashes while maintaining optimal attention, focus, and energy,” Brewster says.14
Ahead of the Game
“One trend we’re seeing is that gamers are taking pre-workout supplements before a game for a boost of energy and focus,” notes Aimee Masterson, marketing director, Nutrition 21 (Morristown, NJ).
A recent double-blind, placebo-controlled study15 involving her company’s nooLVL-an inositol-enhanced arginine silicate-found that in a population of avid gamers (all subjects played video games at least five hours per week for at least six months prior to the study) found that the supplement significantly improved visual attention, motor speed, and reaction time after 60 minutes of play relative to baseline, while also yielding 66% fewer errors compared to placebo.
“Another unique advantage for gamers is that the bonded arginine silicate in nooLVL-a non-stimulant-safely increased perceived energy in gamers without negatively affecting their heart rate or blood pressure after a single dose and within 15 minutes of ingestion,” Masterson adds. Given the study’s success, she says, the company plans to fund further study on the ingredient and its benefit to gamers.
Finally, Kyowa Hakko’s Lovett calls attention to clinical evidence showing that her company’s Cognizin brand of citicoline supports focus, attention, mental energy, and memory. A 2015 study published in the Journal of Attention Disorders found that of 75 healthy male adolescents receiving a placebo, 250 mg of the compound, or 500 mg daily for 28 days, the two treatment groups showed statistically significant increases in motor speed and improved attention compared to the placebo, she says.
Seeing the Light
Given gamers’ exposure to damaging blue light, another key focus for Esports formulations is vision support. And here, all eyes are on lutein.
Snyder credits Kemin’s branded lutein ingredient FloraGLO for improving visual processing speeds, promoting sharper vision, and absorbing excess blue light from digital devices.
Studies show that when healthy individuals supplement with 10 mg of the ingredient, their ability to recover from glare and see contrasts, as well as the rapidity with which they recover from bright light, improve16-19-“demonstrating an overall improvement in visual performance,” Fonseca adds.
The LAMA (Lutein, Vision, and Mental Acuity) study series involving OmniActive Health Technologies’ (Morristown, NJ) own Lutemax 2020 marigold extract has contributed more data on the important role of lutein in these areas. One of the studies20 in this series found that OmniActive’s Lutemax 2020 supplement significantly increased photo stress recovery and disability glare performance.
Ashland’s Weber suggests that gamers may want to consider eye-health options that include lutein as well as bilberries. Her company’s Bil-Max bilberry extract and GPM lutein “would be excellent ingredients to incorporate into an eye-health supplement or ingestible,” she says.
And don’t forget the skin! Neil Astles, global marketing manager for Vincience Biofunctionals at Ashland, notes that his company markets non-ingestible, topical personal-care ingredients that “energize the skin,” he says: Suprastim biofunctional, which helps repair signs of skin fatigue; Blumilight biofunctional, which protects skin from blue light’s effects; and Chronogen YST biofunctional, to stimulate skin lacking sleep and sun exposure.
How brands deliver these ingredients is as important as the formulations themselves, and, as Lovett observes, “Gamers will want high-quality ingredients that get them to their peak, but they’ll also want unique delivery forms-maybe a snackable gummy or small shot.”
Brewster wagers that pills, powders, beverages, bars-even meal replacements-will also “take the lead,” with the common denominator among them their convenience.
And while “the days of Red Bull aren’t quite over,” he continues, “gamers are realizing that sugar-filled drinks don’t provide the longer-term edge they want. As such, they’re turning to sugar-free alternatives for energy, including energy drinks that provide other vitamins and minerals.” Even caffeine is falling in favor of what he calls “natural nootropics” that supply energy and cognitive sharpness without caffeine’s drawbacks.
Adds Weber, “Technologies for controlled, extended, or sustained nutrient release during or after play could be extremely beneficial to gamer athletes.” Her company, Ashland, recently introduced a powdered beverage base, n-dur XR, that can release its payload over as many as six hours. “This could be very exciting in a sustained-energy drink, a post-play relaxation beverage, or even a joint-recovery beverage,” she says.
Lovett will be paying attention. “I think it’s interesting watching the Esports category evolve-not just with new technology, but into the wellness space, too,” she says. “Not only does gaming attract traditional gamers and Esports players; it’s also watched by millions all over the world, which is an important marketing outlet for finished products or new technology.”