Call it the revenge of the nerds.
Hardcore gamers have a reputation for staring glassy-eyed at a screen for hours on end, mindlessly munching on snacks (or skipping food altogether) and barely leaving the couch. But while the stereotype is hardly healthy, a growing number of elite players are upping their physical game to boost their virtual one.
“It’s not the 400-pound kid in his basement anymore,” says Ryan Morrison, CEO of Evolved Talent, which reps pro gamers. “The multi-millisecond of difference between you clicking the mouse and the fatter guy doing it is the difference between millions of dollars.”
Global e-sports revenues topped $1 billion in 2019, and competitive gamers are playing for huge sums. Last summer, Kyle “Bugha” Giersdorf won $3 million at the Fortnite World Championship at Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens.
What’s more, the best gamers are snapping up coveted sponsorships usually reserved for traditional athletes. Fortnite star Tyler Bevins, the 28-year-old gamer known as Ninja, just released a $150 signature, yellow-and-blue Adidas sneaker that sold out in 40 minutes. Nike outfits 16 League of Legends pro teams in China.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that a recent study by England’s University of Chichester found that pro gamers face similar stress levels as soccer and rugby stars, causing them to choke and stumble.
With the stakes so high, “the onus is on the teams to get the athletes they’re paying to perform at their peak,” Phil Birch, a co-author of the study, tells The Post of the video-game industry’s new-found focus on fitness and diet.
Mychal Jefferson, 30 — known as Trihex to his 400,000 subscribers on the video-game streaming platform Twitch — says he’s raked in six figures annually since 2014 through Twitch subscribers, sponsorships and competition wins. His specialty is “speed running” — finishing Nintendo games such as Yoshi’s Island and Super Mario Maker as fast as possible.
These days, Jefferson, who lives in Louisiana, says he makes sure to get in cardio, too.
“I wanted my gaming career to succeed, and I had to work out to do that,” says Jefferson.
In addition to streaming for about 10 hours per day, Jefferson scrimmages offline, watches replays and takes critiques as part of his job.
“I’m the coach and the player,” he says. “I’m always trying to redefine my optimal strategy.”
Part of that strategy was getting fit. In 2017, Jefferson started hitting the gym four days a week to tone his chest, legs, back, abs and core using free weights, cardio machines and a bench press. He sits in a $1,400 Aeron chair that prevents him from slouching, and sleeps in a wrist brace to prevent carpal-tunnel syndrome. He’s also meticulous about stretching his hands. “The thumbs are the money makers,” he says.
He also cleaned up his diet — which used to consist of cookies, Mountain Dew and fast-food “all day long.”
“Every meal I eat has to have clean carbs, fiber and good fats,” he says. “I usually go with chicken, brown rice and broccoli … sometimes I’ll be a little bit bad and put a mango glaze on the chicken.”
The only beverages he drinks now are water and almond milk, plus the occasional energy drink from Red Bull, one of his sponsors.
Along the way, the 5-foot-8 Jefferson’s spindly, 145-pound frame grew to a lean 190 pounds. Now, he says, he has “better sleep, better mood and more confidence.”
But not every competitor is as proactive as Jefferson, who’s one of the older players in a field dominated by teens who drop out of school to live and practice with their teammates.
“The average range is 18 to 24,” says Morrison. “It’s their first time away from home, they’re being handed hundred of thousands, if not millions, of dollars and yes, they spend it on Domino’s and McDonald’s.”
One such player is Andrej Francisty, aka Babybay. Two years ago, he dropped out of Robert Morris University in Chicago and moved to Los Angeles to pursue his “dream job”: playing Overwatch, a multiplayer shooting game.
“We lived in a mansion with a private chef who would come everyday,” says the 24-year-old, whose pants began to feel tighter soon after he made the move. “A few months after the league started, everyone realized they had gained 15 or 20 pounds.”
He says he and his teammates had to tell the chef to cut back on the french fries, heavy cream sauces and fatty Korean beef dishes. Still, he was initially reticent about working out.
“At first, I was scared that if I went to the gym, I would mess up my aim or that my muscle memory would be messed up if my arm was sore,” says Francisty, who decided that the mental focus that came with a fitness regimen outweighed the risks.
He started going to the gym four days a week. Fan and former bodybuilder Johntavius Long says he helped him design a routine that included a lot of cardio and stretching “to keep his joints limber and warmed up.”
It paid off. “I worked out before I played New York Excelsior last year,” Francisty says. “They were undefeated and we beat them.”
Other organizations, such as Immortals Gaming Club, which owns franchise teams in popular games such as Counter Strike: Global Offensive, insist on compulsory diet and exercise coaching for their players.
“We have an exercise physiologist who is in contact with our general managers who will monitor players’ injuries” — typically neck, wrist and back sprains, says Immortals CEO Ari Segal, a former NHL exec who worked with the Anaheim Ducks and Arizona Coyotes.
Segal also oversees his players’ diets. “Our trainers can forcibly limit what’s seen by each player,” he says, “so if they need to lose weight, they’ll only be able to view the low-carb, high-fat meals.”
With streamers playing for fans up to 14 hours per day, burnout and an inability to compete under pressure are occupational hazards.
“If I’m not playing enough, somebody else is,” says Francisty.
And diets “powered by caffeine and UberEats,” Jefferson adds, are just “not sustainable long term.”