The secret to eSports athletes' success? Lots -- and lots -- of practice

Members of winning teams, like SK Telecom T1, spend hours on practice games every day. AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's June 22 eSports Issue. Subscribe today!

FEW CAREERS BURN as intensely -- and as briefly -- as that of an eSports professional. Players are generally in competition by their mid- to late teens, and most are retired by their mid-20s. It's often due to burnout or fatigue: The intense lifestyle and constant hours of work it requires to be a professional gamer just aren't realistic for decades-long spans. But could better physical fitness help prolong the shelf life of an eSports athlete? It hasn't traditionally been a priority, but as the industry grows and the pressures of competition increase, more holistic views are slowly emerging.

"In terms of physical fitness, professional gamers are not going to be top athletes," says Michael O'Dell, the managing director of Team Dignitas, one of the world's largest professional gaming teams. "Mental fitness is the important thing. Our League of Legends team in L.A. live in a house 24/7 during the season, and players play a lot -- that's what they do."

When O'Dell says "a lot," he means a lot. Greg "IdrA" Fields, a former StarCraft II champion, says, "When I played in Korea [from 2008 to 2011], the training schedule excluded any activity that wasn't eating, sleeping and practicing." Basically, Fields said, in 2013 "we played for 12 hours a day with one or two days off a month."

Training in eSports obviously doesn't include jump shots or batting practice. It's more like typing practice. "There was a program that let you enter a series of keystrokes like 1a2a3a4a5a while timing you," Fields says. "I used that to train certain combinations that had to be executed as quickly as possible."

Physical ailments like deep vein thrombosis, carpal tunnel or back strains can be common, a result of a mostly sedentary lifestyle and the demanding schedule. Most teams use chairs that help with posture, and a gamer's equipment -- mice or gaming keyboards -- is equally important ("like a footballer's boots," O'Dell says). At a recent tournament, there was even a physiologist doing wrist massages.

Job Hilbers, the manager of a Smite team for Titan, another large eSports squad, thinks they should do even more. "I would like to see more time dedicated to keeping the body fit," he says. "In the end, your mental and physical prowess are highly co-dependent."

Still, with hours-long practices and training games galore, O'Dell says a player's success as well as longevity come down to skill, not athletic ability. "We'd always look for the talent first over physical fitness."