Reaction time is how quickly you respond to external stimulus. In esports, your reaction time is a critical success factor. While there hasn’t been much research in improving reaction times in competitive gaming, there are many lessons from traditional athletics that we can apply to gaming.
A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning looked at data from 1,319 sprinters running 100-meter races. Clearly, sprinting is heavily focused on reaction times, but many of the findings can be applied to other sports. The researchers looked at everything they could and here’s what they found.
What determines reaction time?
Reaction time is determined by your psychology, level of mastery, gender and age.
Psychological pressure has a large impact on your reaction time. In general, the more important the event, the faster the reaction time. Interestingly, the researchers pointed out that runners may have held back in qualifying rounds, allowing them to hold something back for the more critical races. This isn’t possible in esports because there are no easy rounds. You have to treat every round as crucial. This psychological stress may impact your performance in later rounds.
Level of Mastery (Practice)
Practice improves reaction time. This could be based on a variety of factors. First, the better prepared competitor simply knows when to react - she’s put her reps in. The other factor has to do with the neural pathways created as a part of repetitive practice. This is more about muscle memory than anything else.
In the sprinting cohort, men had an average reaction time of 100 milliseconds faster than women, likely due to greater muscle mass. It’s difficult to apply this to esports, where muscle mass is largely irrelevant.
Counter-intuitively, reaction times improve as athletes age - but this is within limits. For the analyzed sprinters, the fastest reaction times where for male sprinters between 26-29, while females older than 30 were fastest. After this age, reaction times tend to plateau.
This is another area that doesn’t translate well to esports. In sprinting, more muscle mass means a faster reaction time. That muscle takes time to develop. Other than general physical conditioning, muscle mass doesn’t offer a competitive advantage in esports.
How can you improve your reaction times?
It’s difficult to draw parallels between sprinters and esports athletes, but there’s one takeaway: practice. And practice is important, but how you practice is more important than simply getting the time in. Practice must be focused on developing specific skills, failing, and making corrections. In short, practice needs to be challenging.
Why? The point of practice is to develop new neural pathways. Those newly created pathways, once reinforced with repetition, allow you to execute those movements faster. If your practice isn’t challenging and you’re just going through the motions, you aren’t getting better.
Build your practice around getting out of your comfort zone. Bot matches can be excellent practice, as are limiting the kinds of features, game modes and weapons you use in practice runs.
Espen Tonnessen, et. al., “Reaction Time Aspects of Elite Sprinters in Athletic World Championships,” J Strength Cond Res 27(4), 2013