Esports insights for gamers and beyond

A new study on spotting and stopping "tilt" could help esports coaches and gamers prevent dips in performance and even aid hybrid workers, too.

By Jackie Snow — June 1, 2023

Working at the University of Kentucky’s (UK) Esports Lounge, Graden Knapp watches players become fully immersed in their favorite games, their eyes fixed on their screens in concentration. A recent UK graduate, Knapp now manages and coordinates events in the lounge — the same space he used to game in as a student. Almost every day, he’ll watch someone play for hours, trying to climb the ranks, but struggle as their opponents seem to be getting luckier.

The player will try to keep their cool, but sometimes emotions get the best of them. As they get more frustrated, their movements grow erratic, and their performance gets worse even as they try to calm down. There’s a science behind this: Tilt — a psychological phenomenon in which a gamer’s focus is thrown off from a mistake or setback, causing a downward spiral of sorts where performance continues to slip  and they are more likely to lose the game. Throwing or breaking controllers is so common that Knapp says they keep extra ones on hand. 

“Everyone knows tilt is real,” he says. “We just don’t know how to manage it.” 

Esports have become one of the fastest-growing competitive activities in recent years, with a global viewership estimated at 532 million people and revenues of $1.39 billion in 2022, according to Cognitive Market Research. By 2030, revenues are expected to reach $4.47 billion. As more gamers enter the world of competitive play, the physiological and psychological impact of prolonged gameplay have emerged as critical challenges for both performance and gamers’ well-being. Players spend hours at a time in digital experiences that require sustained, quick decision-making, close attention, and rapid responses — all of which can be disrupted by fatigue, frustration, and tilt. 

For help, some teams employ coaches like Jordan “Len” Ross, who has coached Gen.G Tigers, a competitive esports team that plays the basketball video game NBA 2K, since 2019. Just like coaches in physical sports, Ross offers players perspective on the game that they often can’t see themselves, with advice on how to make the most of their strengths, overcome challenges, and continue improving. A former NBA 2K player himself, Ross says most of his work centers on making sure his team is prepped mentally so they can work well together and avoid tilt. New research could arm Ross and other coaches with insights that could not only help prevent tilt for gamers, but extend into tools and applications to help remote and hybrid workers stay productive and on top of their game.

Cathal Duane

“In physical sports, there are a lot of mental aspects, but you can get over it at times with physical ability and physical gifts,” he says. “Esports is 99.9% mental.”

Studying tilt in action

While there are no established best practices for avoiding tilt and staying in the flow of a game, recent research funded by HP’s HyperX, which develops gaming gear and accessories, could help coaches and players level up by shedding light on why and when tilt happens.

The idea behind the study, says Dustin Illingworth, in-house Web 3 and influencer marketing lead for HyperX, is to help address some of the pain points faced by gamers so that they can have the best experience possible. “Supporting gamers’ well-being is just as important as making great products,” he says. 

Tilt, though common, remains a bit of a mystery to researchers.  

“We don’t know exactly what tilt is,” says Aurel Coza, a biomedical engineering professor at Arizona State University who led the HyperX study. “We’re still trying to figure it out, but we assume it’s related to fatigue.”


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Coza designed an experiment using webcams, eye-gaze tracking software, and wearable devices to gather data while participants played popular games like Call of Duty, League of Legends, and Valorant for five hours at a time. Coza tracked 26 different areas of the gamers’ physical responses and gameplay, such as eye movement, heart rate, emotional response, brain activity, and whether they won the game.

The study found that eye movements slowed down up to 30% after a few hours of play. Surprisingly, gamers’ performance didn’t suffer along with this physical sign of fatigue. Coza says that this suggests that the brain could be stepping up to pick up the slack, which means mental focus may be even more important to players’ performance than previously thought.

The study also found a strong correlation between performance and emotion, which Coza measures using software that detects facial expressions and corresponding emotions. A negative emotional response can trigger a change in heart rate, a measure of fatigue that’s used in physical sports. Esports players’ heart rate may not increase as much as physical athletes — it tends to stay at a constant 80 to 90 beats per minute, a rate that a jogger might maintain — but unlike physical athletes, gamers’ heart rate may stay at that level for six to eight hours straight.

“We can predict whether you will win or lose the next game by looking at your emotional response in the previous game.”

— Aurel Coza, biomedical engineering professor at Arizona State University

Stopping tilt before it happens

Taking all of this data and putting it through a machine learning algorithm, Coza found that the game immediately preceding the onset of tilt reveals signs — like slower eye movements or negative emotional responses — that could alert a coach or player so they can respond before performance is affected. 

For the three games used in the research, Coza’s model was able to predict whether a gamer would win or lose the next game with 83% accuracy. For other video games, the model’s accuracy rate was more than 70% — results that Coza says point to how much of the mental experience of tilt can be observed in a player’s physical response.

“One of the potential misunderstandings in the esports space is that performance precedes emotion,” he says. “People think, ‘I will be sad if I do poorly,’ right? Our study shows that emotion precedes performance. We can predict whether you will win or lose the next game by looking at your emotional response in the previous game.”

What’s next: Tools to prevent tilt

Coza says he plans to do future research to validate his results as well as test methods to help people prevent tilt. The work might also expand outside of esports — some of the insights into how quickly the eyes fatigue could help office workers who are also looking at screens and required to sustain attention for long stretches. 

For gamers, insights from the research could inform how coaches guide players to minimize the effects of fatigue on their decision-making capabilities as well as new products that could provide real-time feedback to help players improve their performance.

For example, HyperX's Illingworth says the company is exploring wearables that can give players feedback during a game or training session.

“We’re going to create a program that essentially acknowledges tilt is happening but then suggests ways to stop it and get you back to a neutral place,” he says. For esports competitors, he adds, “that kind of edge can make a huge difference between taking home the prize money and going home empty-handed.”

Coza’s research could also inform enhancements to tools like HP cameras powered by artificial intelligence or a keyboard that can sense changes in keystrokes in real-time. These tools could be used by casual gamers, coaches monitoring players’ performance, and eventually, anyone who needs to maintain focus and mental agility while working at a screen. 

For now, Ross says he and his team work on their mental game by getting enough sleep, developing their communication skills, and even talking about nutrition as they eagerly await new insights and tools.

“The more research the better,” says Ross. “We need all the information we can get to help create a better gameplay plan.” 


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