Jake Middleton is a fitness trainer for video gamers.
Take a few deep breaths, as he often tells his clients, and soak this in: We are a video-gaming nation, that’s a fact. As such, we can either waste away there with a four-pack of Red Bull and bag of flaming Cheetos — or we can follow Middleton’s sound-body, sound-mind advice.
“A lot of research shows that aerobic exercise is really good for brain function,” says Middleton, 24, of Blue Springs. “When you’re gaming you’re using your brain more than anything else.”
Middleton knows more than a little about physiology and the joystick culture. He knows that in the heat of battle a player’s heart rate may surpass 160 beats per minute. He knows how blood sugar can spike and crash under the influence of energy drinks.
Arthritis can strike. Wrists go numb. Sleep might suffer.
Maybe most troubling is that just as society has embraced big-money, professional video-game competition, “a bunch of these guys are burning out and retiring in their early 20s,” Middleton says.
So welcome to Mat Smith’s garage.
Middleton is there in Oak Grove spotting Smith, 21, while Smith hoists a 60-pound barbell from a squat, back straight, shoulders up. Again and again. The point of this is to tone muscles that promote good posture.
Then they toss a medicine ball.
A common malady of the intensive gamer is the drooping of shoulders and slow caving in of the chest. Smith was fit and trim from the start, but after following Middleton’s regimen for a month, he says he does feel better. When playing “League of Legends” — sometimes for several hours at a time — his posture seldom slips.
Smith is a member of TeamKC, a collection of “League of Legends” players who compete in amateur tournaments. You might know the game from an ESPN online broadcast in 2014, when the world championship from South Korea drew more viewers globally than did Game 7 of the World Series between the Royals and the San Francisco Giants.
E-sports, they call it. E-athletes, the players are dubbed.
The sport’s broadening appeal and corporate sponsorships present opportunities for enterprising sorts such as Middleton, who holds a bachelor’s degree in exercise science from Missouri State University. In addition to being TeamKC’s “perfomance coach,” he is founder of the website eSports Perfomance Lab.
“My goal is to get a job as a performance coach with a pro team” of video gamers, he says.
Fewer than a half-dozen of those jobs exist in the U.S., says Middleton, who earns his income as a personal trainer for the Blue Springs YMCA. He is providing his services to TeamKC for free.
It’s not all fun and games for the soft-spoken Middleton — himself a video-gamer who qualifies as buff, thanks.
While in college he teamed with Missouri State instructor Scott Richmond to test a hypothesis that exercise could enhance game scores. Participants in the study were randomly assigned to “a no exercise control group” and another team that spent time lifting weights and riding stationary bikes.
Using “League of Legends” as a test case, Middleton’s theory landed a direct hit: The exercise group “increased in every performance category with a 28.9 percent increase in win percentage, a 1.4 increase in K/D ratio (kills to deaths),” according to his paper, and “a 14.4 increase in total points/games played.”
Another study — this one out of Germany — established that in some game players, the body’s release of the stress-related hormone cortisol almost rivals what race-car drivers experience at the wheel. “When you take on those stress levels, there’s a toll on the body and mind,” Middleton says.
He has issued to TeamKC workout programs customized to each player. For gamer Smith, Week 1 included two daily sets of push-ups, 10 “frog jumps,” 20 forward lunges, a “Superman” stretch that involved extending the arms and arching the back from a prone position, and regular flexing of the fingers and wrists.
“Working out was something I’ve wanted to do — just to feel better in general — but didn’t,” Smith said, “Having Jake as our performance coach was finally the kick I needed.”
The youngest member of TeamKC is Nathan Harris, 15. He dreams of someday going pro.
Nathan plays soccer and, in defiance of the gamer stereotype, avoids soda and caffeine. “If you have a bad diet and aren’t getting sleep, you’re not going to do well at the games,” he says. “Too much caffeine and your energy goes negatively.”
It could even lead to tilting. That’s the term applied to a player who gets upset and more or less goes berserk, trying to blow up everything without thinking it through.
A well-conditioned gamer does not tilt.
Picture NASA’s mission control multiplied by 10.
More than 500 computer screens glowed in a cavernous room at KCI Expo Center, their users communicating through headsets. Last weekend, TeamKC joined other competitive squads for the 72nd gathering of KCGameOn. Nine of the teams matched wits in the “League of Legends” tourney.
Fitness trainer Middleton was a calming presence. Between rounds he quietly led his five-man squad in deep breathing and hand stretching.
Smith was there, posture perfect in his chair as always. Beside him teammate Jeremiah Mata, 18, curled his fingers in and out before the tournament commenced. Miguel Podilla, 22, arrived in a black TeamKC tank top, accompanied by his girlfriend. (The sleeved shirts favored by his mates irritate his armpits.)
Devon Schreiner heads up LeagueKC, which his business card calls “the official League of Legends community in the greater Kansas City area.” He travels with TeamKC and provides encouragement:
“Here’s the thing. What I want you to do is relax and have fun. Nobody here has trained as much as us ... There will be mistakes but don’t let them get to you.”
They played flawlessly in the first round against a hastily-assembled squad that called itself Dank Memerinos. But as midnight neared, double elimination would catch up to TeamKC.
They finished second. But looked fit doing it.