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Jul 21, 2021

Evaluating player's potential based on the brain structure

The EsportsLab founders, together with SWPS University researchers, conducted a study measuring brain structure changes resulting from playing Starcraft. By training non-gamers in SC2, they found out it is possible to determine a player's potential by analyzing their brain structure.  

  1. Researchers compared the brains of experienced Starcraft players and gaming amateurs

  2. Amateurs went through a month-long Starcraft training

  3. Researchers were able to attribute success in RTS game training progress to the structure of the brain part responsible for motor and procedural learning.

  4. Conclusions drawn by the researchers can enable predicting a person's talent for pro gaming in the future

Starcraft - a excellent tool for researchers 

Two weeks ago, in the first installment of our new Esports Science Explained article series, we wrote about the effects of caffeine on a player's accuracy and reaction time. Today we reach out to the paper co-authored by Maciek Skorko and Ph.D. Pawel Dobrowolski, who are ESPORTSLAB's founders. Together with Prof. Aneta Brzezicka and Ph.D. Natalia Kowalczych from SWPS University, set themselves to explore the secrets of speed and learning using the game Starcraft. They set out to answer whether it is possible to predict the level of skill acquired by regularly practicing RTS games based on an analysis of brain structure and function.  

It is no coincidence that researchers used Starcraft for this experiment. The game’s esports scene clearly shows that getting to a high level requires developing specific skills, proper timing in performing actions, and processing rapid visual information. Unlike League of Legends or Counter-Strike, this is an individual game; there are no teammates here whose skills can affect the game’s result. As with other esports titles, Starcraft also allows access to the telemetry data (i.e., actions per minute, or hotkey select usage) to help accurately determine a player's skill level and compare it to others.  

The conducted study had two parts. The first was comparing the brains of active Starcraft players who had reached a rank above Gold and spent at least 10 hours a week in RTS games, and players with no experience with the genre. The conclusions drawn from this comparison led to the second part of the experiment. The researchers asked 16 people with no experience in gaming to train Starcraft in controlled conditions for 6-10 hours per week for a month.  

Brain structure vs. player potential in esports  

Nowadays, when esports increasingly resemble traditional sports, pro gaming success is attributed to many different factors. In the past, there was mentions of reaction times or crosshair placement accuracy in Counter-Strike or the ability to hit skill shots in League of Legends. In the professional Call of Duty scene, success was even jokingly associated to the agility of thumbs used to operate the analogs responsible for most movement in the game.  

Now, more and more people are talking about the esports coaching staff, psychologists, physiotherapists, and nutritionists. But it turns out that Eugene "Pobelter" Park, a professional League of Legends player, was closest to understand what makes a pro player. Years ago, he started the now famous "200 IQ" phrase. Indeed, following the research conclusions, the brain stands out as the key component of success in esports. 

The first part of the study, comparing experienced Starcraft players with gaming amateurs, showed that the experts had more gray matter volume in specific brain regions. More specifically, Starcraft veterans had larger lenticular nucleus volume. This part of the brain is responsible for many cognitive functions, like motor skill learning and responding appropriately to various stimuli.  

The differences noticed in the first part of the study motivated the researchers to conduct a second experiment. Volunteers who were inexperienced with video games took on Starcraft training. First, they received several hours of hands-on experience to learn the game's basic concepts and mechanics. Afterwards for 30 hours they regularly played with bots on adaptive difficulty levels. During the experiment, the speed of their skill development and mastery of the game were measured based on three indicators: 

  • time from a point-of-view change to the occurrence of the first action issued by the player (PAC latency);  

  • expressed as the average number of hotkey presses per minute in each game (HS usage);  

  • and the average number of actions performed during each minute of the game (APM). 

Through the study, the researchers were able to attribute success in RTS games training to the part of the brain responsible for motor and procedural learning (basal ganglia). By comparing a group of 16 amateurs to experts, they predicted the speed of improvement in SC2. Differences in basal ganglia volume between amateurs in turn translated into speed of learning. MRI scans of all three groups proved a direct correlation between specific brain structure characteristics and success in Starcraft training.  

The conclusions drawn by the researchers can therefore be used to predict a person's aptitude for video games. Just as physical measurements are used to determine potential in traditional sports, brain structure analysis could in future be used to assess a player's chances of making it to the highest level of competition.  

TSM or Team Liquid using MRI scans to determine the potential of one of their Academy players is, of course, a highly hypothetical scenario. However, a study conducted by Polish researchers, shows how young esports is and how many unknowns are yet to be explored. Thanks to the work of ESPORTSLAB founders, we have taken one more step towards developing the future of esports and understanding role the brain plays on the road to success.  

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