To stay in the game, Dario Wünsch has adopted a dedicated routine to avoid injuries. He starts each morning with yoga poses, torso twists, finger stretches and planks. He gulps down ginger smoothies to ward off joint inflammations. And after every match, he ices his wrists.
“Hopefully I’m doing enough,” he says.
And Mr. Wünsch is a professional. Elite players can rattle off five moves, or more, per second.
Mr. Wünsch, 28 years old, has battled chronic wrist injuries and hand numbness from playing competitive “StarCraft 2.”
“If I didn’t do all these things,” Mr. Wünsch says, referring to his calisthenics and diet, “I would have been done years ago.”
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Esports, the world of professional videogaming, is looking more and more like other sports, with big sponsors, prize money, fan bases—and player injuries. In response, teams are educating players on ergonomics, hiring personal chefs and sending gamers to the gym.
Sweden’s Ninjas in Pyjamas, one of esports’ most accomplished teams, distributes an illustrated fitness guide to players with nearly two dozen recommended “core” exercises like burpees, Superman lifts and squat jumps. It has also instituted a “no pizza” rule before morning matches and mandated teams take pregame walks.
Before matches, hand-warming packets are doled out to its two dozen players. “If you have warm hands, you reduce the risk of injury versus cold hands,” says Hicham Chahine, Ninjas’ chief executive.
The potential for injuries—most frequently in the wrists, hands and fingers—is rising due to the popularity of the $900 million esports universe. With new leagues and a proliferation of competitions, for some games, tournaments are popping up nearly every other week.
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“Everyone is susceptible to injuries in everything that is done to an extreme,” says Veli-Matti Karhulahti, of Finland’s University of Turku, who along with co-author Tuomas Kari, has published peer-reviewed research on physical activity in esports.
South Korean team KT Rolster hired a nutritionist two years ago who dictates breakfast, lunch and dinner. Brown rice was substituted for white rice. Players craving fast food or instant ramen must now make a special request to do so, says Jeong Je-seung, KT Rolster’s coach and a former professional gamer.
In his playing days, Mr. Jeong says low salaries meant “if you could eat three times a day as an esports player back then it was enough.”
Top players can now earn millions of dollars annually in prize money and sponsorships. The 2018 world championship for “Dota 2,” a game where teams raid opponents’ bases, carried a purse of nearly $25 million.
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Despite all the precautions across various leagues, “we’ve seen lots of injuries over the last year,” said Ulrich Schulze, a senior vice president of product at ESL, a Germany-based company that organizes more than 10,000 competitions annually. Some ailments sideline stars for months, while others have ended careers.
Unlike with traditional sports, pro-gaming teams say the risk of injury during competition is low. But overuse risk can pile up over the years, as players train 10 hours a day sitting in front of computers.
Team Liquid, the industry’s largest squad, with more than 65 pro gamers competing in 14 different games, has an on-site chef at its training facility in Santa Monica, Calif., whipping together healthy meals like roasted chicken banh mi salad. It pays for gym memberships for its players.
Jonathan Jablonowski, one of Team Liquid’s players, works out four times a week and has added nearly 20 pounds of muscle this year alone. “I went from 118 pounds to 136 pounds,” says Mr. Jablonowski, who plays “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive” and stands 5-foot-7. “My arms were really skinny.”
Mr. Jablonowski, 21, altered his playing posture after receiving tips from a Team Liquid-hired physical trainer two years ago. Now he sits upright and positions his eyes about two-thirds up the monitor. At Team Liquid’s facilities, he says he was the first to occasionally convert his desk into a standing one during training sessions.
“I have seen these godlike players winning tournaments, then they have to retire and take a leave because of an injury,” says Mr. Jablonowski of gamers he idolized when he was younger. “I have this ideal where I have a long career.”
The fitness push has come too late for some longtime players. “Nobody was showing us how to do stretches back in the day,” says Nicolas Plott, 34, a veteran StarCraft player in South Korea who recently was sidelined for four months after injuring both of his wrists. “I didn’t realize this was ever going to be an issue.”
Esports’ health concerns have attracted medical attention. A Los Angeles-based orthopedic surgeon has already trademarked the “Gamers & eSports Doctor” name. A U.S. physical therapist published an e-book titled “The Gamer’s Guide to Managing Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.”
Player longevity matters more as interest in professional gaming booms, increasing demand for star power and recognizable names. The global esports audience has swelled to 380 million in 2018, according to Newzoo BV, a videogame industry tracker, with projections to reach 557 million in three years.
Mr. Wünsch, the “StarCraft 2” player, says he has shared his regimen with dozens of pro gamers experiencing pain. His morning routine takes about 20 minutes, and he stretches several more times throughout the day. Beyond ginger, he favors garlic, pineapple and berries—all of which he believes can help with reducing joint inflammation.
The idea to ice both of his wrists for 10 minutes came from conversations he had with friends who were professional dancers about how they took care of their feet and ankles.
Due to his gaming career, Mr. Wünsch says he has had to forgo some hobbies.
“There are a lot of activities I do avoid. I like volleyball, but that’s a sport I’ll never do again,” he says.
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Morning workout: Yoga poses, torso twists, finger stretches and planks.
Practices playing videogames in three-hour blocks, then repeats stretches several times during the day.
He has given up volleyball, but gets cardio exercise by swimming.
Includes ginger smoothies, as well as garlic, pineapple and berries—all of which he believes can help with reducing joint inflammation.
Write to Timothy W. Martin at firstname.lastname@example.org