E-sports athletes break a sweat as part of Northside Hospital's new program to study and prevent injuries of video gamers.
Photo: Courtesy of Northside Hospital
Photo: Courtesy of Northside Hospital

Fulton hospital’s sports program treats video gamers like athletes

The regular office-dweller who spends all day on a computer knows what technology fatigue feels like, but try being a e-sports gamer. They spend their days mostly motionless, flexing tiny hand muscles to play video games for profit.

After realizing that professional online gaming was a booming industry, the head of sports medicine for Northside Hospital recently started a new program to study and prevent injuries in e-sports gamers — a group largely ignored by sports medicine.

“I started watching videos of these tournaments and realized that 100,000 people in a room watching a tournament is a sporting event whether you like it or not,” said Northside’s Dr. Vonda Wright.

She said the gamers are professional athletes prone to a specific set of injuries — back strain and tendinitis — that reminded her of another group constantly tensing hand muscles. “They have the same kind of injuries as orthopedic surgeons like me do.”

READ | Georgia video gamer, team win $1.3 million in tourney

Wright has partnered with Skillshot Media, which runs an e-sports league out of north Fulton County, to focus on players’ physical health and treat injuries from gaming. Skillshot runs e-sport leagues for the games Smite and Paladins, created in Alpharetta by parent company Hi-Rez Studios with its more than 200 employees.

Stewart Chisam, vice president of game operations at Hi-Rez Studios in Alpharetta, mans a computer in the testing room for the company's new game, Global Agenda.
Photo: Pouya Dianat / pdianat@ajc.com

Skillshot president Todd Harris said about half of the 90 players in their leagues started taking part in Northside’s free medical program in late March.

The program includes hand and wrist stretches and reaction drills — grabbing tennis balls from the floor — along with exercises like planks to build core strength.

There’s also a nutritionist teaching players how to shop for groceries, which Wright said is needed due to many of them being so young and living on their own for the first time. She added that they also teach healthy eating because “the traditional food to stimulate play in e-sports is sugar, and that’s not performance food.”

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“The plan is to gradually increase cardiovascular health, but they’re trying to meet the players where they are,” Harris said with a chuckle.

Both he and Wright said that, compared to other sports, there’s basically no research on e-sports injuries.

“This is like football in the days of leather helmets,” Harris said.

Just ask starting Red Sox pitcher David Price who last year denied — unconvincingly to Boston sports columnists — that his carpal tunnel syndrome is from years of playing video games, but he did say he was going to decrease his time gaming.

At one time, Hi-Rez was the state's only homegrown developer deep into production of a big-budget game.
Photo: Pouya Dianat / pdianat@ajc.com

Wright said even non-gamers are experiencing more technology-related injuries these days like sore thumb joints from typing on smart phones.

Wright said she is gathering data from the players and plans to publish the findings in a medical journal by the end of the year. She said her staff wants to reduce the chance of injury but also increase longevity for gamers so they can extend past the average career of five years.

READ | Seriously? Some make a living playing video games

Harris knows that talk of being too old or injured to play games might sound silly, but he encourages people to think about e-sports like NASCAR. “Instead of arguing whether it’s a sport or not a sport, you acknowledge it’s a competition that millions of people enjoy watching and couldn’t do at this level.”

Neil Mah graduated from college with a finance degree, and said his parents were rightfully skeptical when he told them that he wanted to become a professional gamer.

The production area at Hi-Rez Studios for the online video channel and e-sports tournaments. Alpharetta-based Hi-Rez has a hit game, Smite, that has generated an international following.
Photo: Bob Andres

In March, Mah moved from Canada to Cumming to live with his Smite team.

He said he hasn’t had any serious physical effects from his gaming yet but said the stretches Northside has taught them help. One of his teammate’s is reluctant to participate. “Some people don’t necessarily think the time you’re putting in gives you a good dividend.”

Some gamers are now realizing they need to take care of their bodies like a professional athlete if they want to be paid like one.

READ | Metro Atlanta firm turns video gaming into spectator sport

Many league players like Mah — who pay no rent and earn a minimum salary of $30,000 a year —charge people to watch a livestream of them practicing. If that seems odd, think about how the Braves charge $75 for fans to watch batting practice before the game.

Mah said players at his level can make an additional $10,000 to $30,000 a year from streaming themselves playing.

And then there’s the allure of prize money, like the $1 million purse for the team that wins the SMITE championship.

Mah’s team is part of a German collective called SK Gaming, which is sponsored by Mercedes-Benz and T-Mobile.

But even with big-name sponsors, Mah said he is starting to think about his future.

“For me, on the older range of people who play,” the 25-year-old said, “… everything I do is year-to-year and I re-evaluate how I’m feeling.”

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Stewart Chisam, President of Alpharetta-based Hi-Rez Studios, talks about their hit game, Smite, an international following and an online TV channel dedicated to all things Smite. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

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