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Genetics and Gaming: are Gamers Born or Made?

13 October 2021Ananto Joyoadikusumo

You might have heard the phrase that some gamers are "built different". In this article, we will be taking a look if this notion is true.

One of the things that I used to love about gaming is its accessibility. You can play video games no matter who you are, tall or short, thin or fat, ugly or good-looking; video games are for everyone. Unfortunately, this notion is often misleadingly extended to the esports or the professional scene.

Many gamers, including myself, have always believed that, with enough practice, grinding, and grit, all of us have the potential to become a pro. This belief, whether it is true or not, is perfectly understandable due to gaming’s accessibility when compared to other sports. If you aren’t born tall, you will probably never be a professional basketball player. If you are naturally thin, the chances of you becoming a weightlifter is incredibly slim (pun intended). On the other hand, most of us are inclined to believe that pro gamers don’t have any of these genetic prerequisites that separate them from the normal population. However, what if I tell you that this notion is not true? What if I tell you that being a pro is in our genes?

In this article, we will be exploring the evidence that supports each side of the argument and investigating the genetic traits that make up an esports professional. We will also be taking into account the perspectives of pro players themselves. As a side note and a minor spoiler, there is currently not much scientific data or research about the correlation between genetics and gaming. So yes, some speculation might be needed, and a full-fledged answer to our question might not be feasible to produce. Nevertheless, let’s see if gamers are born or made.

What the Pros are saying

To answer our question about the correlation between genetics and gaming, why not ask the individuals who are already been there. Here is what current VALORANT pro, Steel, has to say about the topic.

Although the video is over 5 years old and is from his CS:GO days, I think that Steel’s points still stand. He believes that gaming is in the genes. “Being good at CS is genetics,” Steel said. “Any player who can be pro today needs to be Global Elite (CS:GO’s highest rank) in one year after they pick up CS even if is their first FPS.” If you have 3000 hours on CS and never got Global, you will most likely never be a pro, according to Steel. Of course, his comment received both positive and negative responses. Fortnite pro, NRG Zayt, agrees with Steel, as seen from his tweet below.

Calc from BBG also seems to have the same opinion.

Many of the comments who challenged Steel’s perspective usually goes along with the belief that you can do anything you set your mind to”. Indeed, this is what we are constantly thought in school by our teachers or parents. However, Steel argues that this idea is rather naive and is only suited for encouraging us to explore the different career options we might have in life. In reality, some people are innately better or worse at certain activities than others.

On the other side of the coin, ShahZaM, IGL of Sentinel’s VALORANT roster and winner of VCT 2021: Stage 2 Masters in Reykjavík, had an opposing opinion in this matter. ShahZaM said that he and most of his pro teammates actually believed that being a pro is a learned skill. “Everyone of us in the CS:GO pro teams said it is not genetics, while everyone that worked in the (esports) industry said it’s genetics,” ShahZaM mentioned in one of his stream clips.

Shahzeb “ShahZaM” Khan | Source: Dot Esports

He argues that nobody is predisposed to being good at certain activities, contrary to what Steel mentioned. Instead, ShahZ believes that some people simply learn certain things faster, which is what most people refer to as talent or genetics. A player can be a pro in 2 years while others might take 4 or more years, but there is no gap in skill ceiling or skill level that is purely determined by genetics.

But what about reaction time? Well, ShahZaM thinks that the reaction time argument is overrated. “The spread in reaction time is never significant enough to make a change in the game,” he said. “I promise you.” In contrast, game sense or practicing to become aware and anticipate specific situations is far more impactful in affecting the speed at which we react. Of course, all of these are trained and not predetermined by talent.

Furthermore, ShahZaM also emphasized the importance of being critical to improve our gameplay. Some players may have 10 000 hours of experience in a game and never reach pro-level just because they never play to improve. If we can’t be productive of the time we put into games and mindlessly play for fun, then we will hardly ever get better. Unfortunately, a lot of gamers fall into this traphole and consequently blame their genes for not being to carry them to the pro scene.

Reaction time

Powerlifters or boxers need big muscles. Sprinters like Usain Bolt have fast-twitch muscle fibers. Basketball players are somewhat generally tall and above 6 ft. But what do gamers need? Intelligence, motor skills, quick decision-making, hand-eye coordination, and reaction time (in particular) are some of the traits that will affect your in-game skill.

To test out your reaction time, you can visit humanbenchmark.com. On the website, you can also see the statistics of reaction times from all the data that the site has collected. The average or median reaction time, according to humanbenchmark.com, is around 273ms. We can presume that professional FPS players are more likely to have reaction times of 200ms. The basic logic behind the assumption adds up: if you have a slow reaction time, you will simply never be able to out aim a pro in CS or VALORANT, and they will always have a slight edge.

Reaction time statistics | Source: humanbenchmark.com

Indeed, there is some evidence that shows that you can improve reaction time by constantly practicing. Many different factors, such as sleep quality, also affect reaction time. But practicing can only go so far.

For instance, age is highly correlated to reaction time, which is why most FPS players are incredibly young. Most old players simply retire because the young guys out-aim them significantly. Sure, there are some outliers like the boomer himself, Hiko, from the 100 Thieves VALORANT roster. But you get the point. Note that all these old pros have the all mechanical and knowledge prowess of the game and used to have fast reaction times in their primes. However, just because their reaction time is getting slightly worse, their careers soon fall out. What about normal people like us? Well if you are currently having 290ms reaction time, you will most likely never be a pro FPS player. You can train every day to get 250ms, but you’ll probably lose out on time at this point.

Hiko is still able to compete in VALORANT at the highest level despite being 31 years old | Source: Dot Esports

However, the argument of reaction time is often flawed as it we cannot measure how impactful the 50ms difference of reaction time plays out in a game. As we have previously seen, ShahZaM thinks that reaction time rarely makes a difference. But again, it is not easy to quantify, prove, or disprove all of these hypotheses.

Pro Siblings

Yawar “YawaR” Hassan and Syed Sumail “SumaiL” Hassan are siblings who are both Dota 2 pros | Source: VP Esports

A prevalent argument to “prove” the effects of genetics in gaming is the prevalence of professional player siblings in esports. Indeed, there is a fair share of pro siblings that may be can attune to the fact some families simply have innate gaming genes. In DotA 2, we have SumaiL and YawaR. In CS:GO, we have Freakazoid and Cooper. We also got ScreaM and Nivera, who recently reunited in Team Liquid’s VALORANT roster. These are just some famous examples of siblings who were able to thrive in the esports scene. In truth, however, the list is incredibly long. Therefore, there must be some genetics that runs in the bloodline of these pros that causes their whole family to be good at gaming.

Does Practice make Perfect?

Source: imgflip

Obviously, when we constantly train, we will eventually get better. Some may even argue that we can practice up to the point where we exceed or be up to par with talented individuals. However, this is not always the case. As Steel previously puts it: skill = practice + talent. Yes, you can practice for 10 hours a day, but talented players can perhaps have the same or better results with 2 hours. If you force the same talented individual to practice 10 hours a day, they will undoubtedly surpass the normal person.

But again, this means that there is still some hope for untalented individuals to shine or perhaps go pro. However, they need to carefully select their games and suspend the mindset that “you can be anything” or “hardwork beats talent” mentality. If you aren’t good at something, realize it sooner and find another game that might be more suited for you.

On the other side of the coin, there is also the assumption that everyone has the same skill ceiling. Therefore, given enough time, you can be a pro. At some point in a pro player’s career, they will reach their peak (also referred to as skill ceiling) and not be able to improve anymore. Some players reach their skill ceiling in 2 years, while it may 5 years for others due to the difference in natural talent. As a result, the 3 years headstart would not really matter in the end since both individuals end up being a pro.

The other skills required to be pro

It’s safe to say that going pro is not all about being cracked or mastering the game mechanics. If you can’t work with other people, you will never make it to pro play. Comms and teamwork can be more beneficial skills to have at the pro level than you might think. Sure, you need the master the fundamental mechanics, but fostering your team is also equally important. After all, most esports out there are team-based games. Most orgs will pick up team players than cocky individuals. These communication skills might be somewhat genetic since they are tied to our personalities, but they can still be trained or learned regardless.

Accessibility and Early Exposure to Gaming

Source: Freepik

It goes without saying that a majority of the pros out there were able to reach their peak because they start playing at an early age. If you have ever watched an interview that asks pros how they get started with gaming, most of them have the same cliche answer: parents have a computer lying around in the house and maybe have an older sibling that introduces them to games. Simply put, being able to learn the basic mechanics and the grand logic behind all games from a very young age will, without a doubt, help you mold into a skilled gamer in the future.

We can prove this point by observing the unfortunate lack of PC-esports pros in the SEA region. If you didn’t know, most of the countries in SEA are not classified as first-world and a majority of the children do not have access to PCs. Instead of conveniently playing games in their homes, they have to scramble their way to the nearest internet cafe and use their lunch money to play games. Even so, they only have access to mediocre quality PCs, keyboards, and mouse. Don’t even get me started with the internet stability that Pinoys refer to as peso net or cheap internet. And no, I am not making this up because I experience all of this first-hand.

Some ghetto internet cafe in Indonesia | Source: kaskus

To recap, most SEA players need to run to an internet cafe to play and have underperforming PCs, setups, and internet. With all of this information, do you really think that there is any viable competitive opportunity to arise in local communities? Do you think that young talents in this environment can be nurtured to be the best in the world? Maybe, but it is highly unlikely. Therefore, having easy or constant access to gaming at a very young age is key to planting the seeds of greatness as an esports pro and is outside of what we define as being part of genetics.

Environment and Culture

Source: Pexels

Tying closely to the previous point, the environment in which are brought up can also affect the development of our gaming mindset (not necessarily skill). Take the example of the pro siblings. We previously discounted our reason for the prevalence of pro siblings in esports as genetics. However, it could also be argued that having brothers or sisters who love playing games can form a competitive environment that fosters the growth of skill. If your siblings continuously trash you at CS, you’ll probably start to watch tips and tricks on YouTube and train your aim in the hopes of getting revenge. This back-and-forth sibling rivalry is perhaps what causes players like SumaiL and YawaR to be an expert in their craft instead of merely concluding that Dota 2 runs in their family’s genes.

Culture also plays a part in affecting our environment and growth as a gamer. Each major culture in the world has its own unique view when it comes to gaming and esports. Most European parents might have less of a problem when their child says that they will play games for a living. In contrast, children discussing their dream of becoming an esports professional might not have the same amount of luck when confronting the stricter perspective of Asian parents and culture. And no, I am not being stereotypical. Take a look at the different approaches Denmark takes towards gaming in contrast to China. While Denmark is constructing esports schools to cultivate their young potential talents, China is limiting children under 18 to play only three hours a week.

Denmark’s prime minister visiting Astralis shows the willingness of the country to accept and participate in esports | Source: Red Bull

I, myself, have experienced a fair share of conventional Asian views towards gaming. I was constantly told that gaming is bad for the brain, that it is addicting, has no future, and whatnot. As a result, I never strive to seek a career as a pro player and became an esports writer. Close enough, I guess.

Conclusion

So, is it genetics? Well, for now, no one couldn’t say for sure. There are several pieces of evidence and aspects in our genes that may play a part in our gaming skills. After all, each of us is born unique, making it very likely that some of us are just inherently better at gaming. Faster reaction time, hand-eye coordination, and decision-making are all key genetically ingrained skills to have as a pro.

However, it is not easy to determine the genetics will make a difference when competing at the highest level. Are milliseconds of faster reaction time going to be the game-changer in a match? Furthermore, many other elements affect our journey and outcome as a player, such as our environment, accessibility to gaming hardware, and mindset. Even if we are born with all the traits of being a skilled gamer, we will never be a pro if we are not brought up to be a pro.

Until there is a scientific breakthrough in this matter, whether or not you think that some people are built differently for gaming is up to you to decide. I personally think that genetics will always play some part in everything we do in life. However, it is always in our power to cultivate, train, and use our talents for the better.

Featured Image: Freepik

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