LOS ANGELES--Red Bull has made a name for itself--and sold millions of cans of its caffeinated drink--by aligning with top extreme sports athletes like snowboarder Travis Rice, skier Lindsey Vonn, and skateboarder Ryan Sheckler. One of the strategies the drink maker utilized was partnering with up-and-coming sports, like skateboarding and snowboarding, long before they went mainstream with the X-Games. Red Bull is targeting eSports the exact same way. Red Bull expects pro gaming to explode over the next few years, and the company is getting in on the ground floor.
During one weekend in September, Red Bull used its Santa Monica office building to hold a special pro gaming LAN. Twelve of the top Starcraft II players and three Halo: Reach teams were brought in to game for a full weekend in preparation for the recent Major League Gaming (MLG) Orlando Pro Circuit Tour stop. While LANs are nothing new in pro gaming, Red Bull used the event to do more than give its sponsored players time with their gaming teams. The company treated these pro gamers just like their traditional pro athlete counterparts, complete with a full class on health and nutrition.
"I'm a part of the Red Bull family," said Halo: Reach pro gamer Clete "Assault" LoRusso. "They consider us as athletes. Some people may not. Some people may. It's a controversial idea, but they treat us the same."
Red Bull even used the latest medical technology to track their heart rates during gameplay. Former pro Halo player Danish "Dmaq" Maqbool provided commentary for the live streaming portions of the Red Bull LAN and was interested in the medical evaluations.
"These players were on heart monitors to see how their hydration level works, when their hearts raise and lower when they're in pressure situations," said Maqbool. "Professionals were looking at that and reevaluating how the players are dieting and what they should be doing when they're gaming. That's incredible and it really takes the next step forward."
"You can see if you play better when your heart rate is higher or if you play better when you're more calm and chilled out."
"A physiologist helped us figure out hydration," said David "Walshy" Walsh, an elder statesman of pro gaming. "They had me strapped up to a heart rate monitor. It's cool to do this and find out things about myself that I never knew before."
One of the things that pro gamers do have in common with extreme athletes, besides their dedication to their craft, is athletics. Many pro gamers play sports in high school or college. And others keep fit through regular exercise, workouts, and pickup sports games.
"I play baseball in college and being hydrated and getting enough sleep are probably the two most important things to basically doing anything, whether it's baseball or gaming," said LoRusso. "I need to stay hydrated and I need my sleep so I can think and do everything that I need to do to help my team out and win."
Walsh believes one's physical and mental health directly helps when playing games like Halo: Reach at the pro level. Earlier this year he focused on diet and exercise more, and he recently competed in a duathalon with his mom, running 2 miles, biking 15 miles, and then running 3.1 miles.
"I'm in pretty good shape right now and I'm playing pretty well," said Walsh.
Halo: Reach player Ian "Enable" White thinks this new convergence of medicine and gaming is pretty cool.
"The physiologists were monitoring our heart rates, seeing when we get really into the game, when we calmed down, and then all of that data is just going to help us work on our strengths and our weaknesses," said White.
When it comes to his own preparation for a big tournament, where large sums of money are riding on every frag, White knows how to keep his heart rate down.
"I just think that I'm playing back at my house and it's just me and no one else is watching," said White. "Because the crowds are huge out there and I don't want to get nervous and not play my game. When I'm comfortable, I feel like I'm playing my best, so I just try to zone it all out and just focus on play."
Halo: Reach pro gamer Eric "Snipedown" Wrona has his own pre-series routine, which involves slowing his breathing and mentally preparing himself for the game. He actually beat Red Bull to the punch when it came to linking his mind and body to gaming.
"They explained the physiology of hydration and your heartbeat and everything and they took blood and urine samples to measure all types of things."
"What's actually really interesting is that I've been doing this stuff by myself in my apartment for a while now," said Wrona. "Whenever I get really worked up I might start playing a little bad, so I slow my breathing down and then I always feel like my mental acuity always just comes to me. And the game starts to play in my favor. Here it's really nice because they actually show you what the results are and you can see if you play better when your heart rate is higher or if you play better when you're more calm and chilled out."
Even the Starcraft II players at the LAN, including top American pro Steven "Destiny" Bonnell, took part in the medical research.
"They explained the physiology of hydration and your heartbeat and everything and they took blood and urine samples to measure all types of things," said Bonnell. "They also had little heart monitor things strapped around our chest and then they have little watches to monitor your heartbeat based on what activity you're doing."
This is the first time Bonnell ever thought about things like nutrition, hydration, and heart rates around playing Starcraft II.
"Most people who play games I don't think really look too much at health and diet," said Bonnell. "That was one of the things that they pointed out in the theater presentation. This is really an unexplored area in terms of physiology. People don't do a lot of research into the health of people who play games professionally."
But Bonnell is open to taking the advice of medical experts, especially if this new research shows that it can improve his play in professional game tournaments. That's something that all the Red Bull gamers are looking at. And it's likely other pro gaming teams will follow suit if these pros find a direct correlation between mind and body--something athletes of all sports have known, and capitalized on, for quite some time.