More than 100 million people play online games each day, and more people currently play esports than all the other sports combined.
So says Professor Mark Campbell, a senior lecturer and Course Director for the MSc Sport, Exercise and Performance Psychology in the Department of Physical Education and Sport Science at Limerick University, who recently visited Stellenbosch University (SU) to share insights on sport science research in esports.
SU is home to 74 esports players, and the Maties Esports team this year successfully defended its title at this year's national University Sport South Africa (USSA) esport tournament held at Sol Plaatje University in Kimberley, scooping first places in Rocket League, Clash Royale and the FIFA men and ladies' single events. Kayla du Plessis was the only woman competitor representing SU in the FIFA ladies' event. Maties' Rocket League team did not lose a single match and scored a triumphant 27-0 victory in one of its events. SU also came out tops in Clash Royale with a team that included its first woman competitor in this discipline.
Maties Esports caters for both competitive and recreational gamers, explains Yaseen Gangat, Sport Manager of Maties Esports Club. “The talents we have found this year have provided the club with a solid foundation and we are excited to defend our title again next year at the USSA championship to be held in Durban." He adds that the club's owes much of its success to its inclusive competitive and recreational environment, which allows talented gamers to thrive.
Top performing Maties Esports player at the USSA tournament, John Walenga who was the runner up in the FIFA section at USSA, has been playing FIFA for more than 12 years. “I play FIFA because it resonates with my lifestyle. I am a huge football fan too, so it is fun to be able to play with the players I see on TV." Walenga has been with Maties Esports since its inception in 2022. “I love how free and open (esports) are. I generally play FIFA in my free time, so being able to do something I love (as a sport) is even better." Esports players approach each clash with the same discipline and dedication as one would expect from traditional sporting codes. “It is an industry that is very much on the up and up, with opportunities for lucrative careers," says Walenga.
Training and discipline
Esports is classified as a “mind sport", much like chess, and it is administered by Mind Sports South Africa. However, at university level, e-sports were introduced as a recognised university sport in 2019 by USSA. FIFA, Clash Royale, and Rocket League are the most played games at this level. Countering the perception that esports are “just games" and not real sport, Walenga says that top competing players require concentration and focus, sometimes even more than for physical sports as tournaments often last for several hours.
During his recent talk at SU, Campbell explained how Europe's first esports science research lab in Lero at the University of Limerick has found, through various diagnostic tests, that gamers have superlative skills when it comes to planning, strategy, decision-making and task switching. These are enhanced with regular practice as well as supplementary physical exercise. Variable training helps improve players' scores, noted Campbell.
Kimara Singh, Media and Communications Manager: Maties Sport, says it takes “hours and hours" of practice for esports players to prepare to compete in the respective specialised games. Tournaments take place almost every other weekend and are an important part of the preparation for a big event like the USSA competition. Walenga shares his training regime: “To prepare for tournaments I try to play as many practises as possible, trying out new formations and mechanics to perfect skills for a move."
There's of course a fun factor involved with gaming, as esports are also one of the largest growing sports globally, offering lucrative opportunities and attractive prize money. Maties Esports player Ethan Dysel is a competitive gamer for Limitless, a professional esports team based in America. This team is regarded as the top Rocket League team in Africa, explains Gangat, and the only one to be invited to the $45 million Gamers8 event in Saudia Arabia. “This is fantastic news for Maties Esports because it will inspire other club members and show them the true potential of esports," says Gangat.
Women and e-sports
While Azola Sikisi says she spent her childhood “wasting a dozen 50 cent coins" playing games like Pac-Man in her neighbourhood's makeshift arcade, the “training" certainly paid off and she is now one of about 20 women representing SU in the indomitable Maties Esports team. Contrary to the stereotype that only teenage boys like to game, Campbell noted during his talk that the average age of gamers globally is upwards of 34, with the gender split worldwide being almost 50/50.
Sikisi notes that while it can sometimes be difficult for women gamers to find their niche, as many of the most celebrated games in esports tend to cater for men, the women's gaming community is gradually growing. Gangat agrees, saying that Maties hosted a woman-only FIFA and Mortal Kombat tournament earlier this year. “We have a lot more work to do to grow the female gaming community at SU, but this is a good start."
Through organisations such as Mind Sport South Africa and the Confederation of African E-sports, South Africa is blazing a trail for esports on the continent. As one of the most successful universities in the esports arena, SU is also in the final planning stages of a state-of-the-art esports hub to be located on its Stellenbosch campus. It is hoped that the world-class venue will help to attract more esports talent to SU. “Maties Esports has a few professional players, including Dysel and Ian Conradie, who are recognised as among the best Rocket League players in Africa. We are always looking to recruit the best talent," says Gangat.