At the Nike Sport Research Lab in Beaverton, Ore., two young athletes are put through a gauntlet of tests.
These aren’t NBA rookies with new shoe deals or local university runners; they are esports players from Shanghai. Jian “Uzi” Zi-Hao and Zhen-Ning “Ning” Gao are two of the world’s best League of Legends (LoL) players. Riot Games, developer of LoL, holds leagues around the globe. Uzi and Ning, from China’s LoL Pro League (LPL), are in Beaverton so Nike can fulfill a promise it made in a deal with the LPL last February.
Esports players have a shorter average career span than most traditional athletes, according to a study by ESPN. Long hours of training to keep up with changes in the game, intense stress and a lack of physical exercise cause many professional esports players to burn out. For traditional athletes, exhaustion comes naturally when practicing and working out becomes a net negative. Without clear signs of exhaustion in esports, however, players often push through pain and discomfort while practicing. Nike is hoping an increased focus on physical fitness will extend careers, building more esports superstars for the industry.
“The most common issue we see in esports players is a lack of knowledge,” said Caitlin McGee, a doctor working with esports athletes. “There’s a lot of misinformation about what it means to be highly competitive in esports and what kind of pain is expected—or even respected—as it is indicative of how much grind a player has put in.”
Nike’s goal is to change this mentality. In a Nike documentary called Unlock the Legends, company trainers took the two players through a variety of physical tests. The results were not great.
“One time I went to the hospital for a checkup, and the doctor said my arms are 40 to 50 years old,” said Zi-Hao in the documentary.
Though the players struggled with simple stretches, once the trainers began testing eye tracking and perception span, it was clear why they are the world’s best, with Zi-Hao testing in the 97th percentile for perception span.
“We always strive to serve the athlete,” said Eric Wei, vp of category marketing for Nike Greater China. “Nike has stood by a universal value system of all physical activity: strength in body and mind makes athletes better. So, when we look at esports athletes, we believe we have the ability to support their competitive performance.”
Zi-Hao is on a level of stardom in China that rivals top NBA players. But at just 22 years old, he is already older than the average LPL player. By 26, it’s unlikely he will still be playing in the league if burnout trends hold true.
“A professional League of Legends player’s stardom grows the longer they compete at the highest level of competition,” said John Needham, global head of League of Legends esports at Riot Games. “The popularity of our leagues and the sport is intrinsically tied to our stars and teams. Longer careers significantly help strengthen brand equity and creates more competitive leagues.”
As traditional sports move toward a player-centric fan model, esports need to be building their own superstars. Imagine if LeBron James retired at age 26 before winning an NBA championship. This career arc for esports pros is a challenge for any brand that wants to sign an esports player to a long-term sponsorship.
That’s why brands are choosing different ways to enter the esports industry. Nike went with a league-wide strategy. Adidas chose an individual partnership with Fortnite streamer Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, who was insulated from career risk because his draw is his streaming audience, not competitive play.
Meanwhile, Puma partnered with Cloud9, an esports organization competing in over 10 titles.
“If a game falls out of popularity, a league could suffer; if a streaming platform struggles, a streamer’s career could stagnate,” explained Adam Petrick, Puma’s global director of brand and marketing. “Partnering with an esports org like Cloud9 helps insulate us from that kind of risk.”
Each of these companies wants to see esports players develop into global superstars. While Nike’s goal of improving esports players’ health fits in with the company’s mission, the other major sports brands have their own ways forward. The bottom line? The next LeBron could come from the LPL, but they will have to play long enough first.
The cause of short careers
Esports are constantly changing. In LoL, players choose characters to control that are made better or worse by Riot Games. A strategy perfected in spring can be obsolete by the League of Legends World Championships in the fall.
LoL, like basketball, has five positions. In the NBA, teams are moving away from near-the-rim centers like Shaquille O’Neal toward versatile big men with jump shots. NBA changes happen gradually, whereas LoL releases new patches every two to three weeks. These patches contain minor changes to characters’ moves. Consider if James Harden suddenly was 2 inches shorter—that’s how esports changes work.