Pros vs. Joes Part II: The Mind Unleashed

Last time, we started a discussion about what sets professional competitors apart from those striving for greatness. We are inevitably lead to the nature vs. nurture debate; are people just born with talent or can anyone train into greatness? This debate has raged on long before I was born, and will continue to rage on long after I am gone.

In his autobiography, Sir Alex Ferguson of Man United fame makes great distinction between players he dealt with who have a “quick brain” and those that make up for it with sheer athleticism. A player’s mind is arguably his most powerful asset. Consider this passage where Alex expresses what he thinks is necessary to train a good footballer:

“What makes the difference in the last third (of the game)? It’s your decision-making. We were on to players about it all the time. If I were starting again, I would force every player to learn chess to give them the ability to concentrate. When you first learn chess, you can be three or four hours finishing the game. But when you’ve mastered it and start playing 30-second chess, that’s the ultimate. Quick decisions under pressure. What football is about.”
Sir Alex Ferguson


Consider that for a second. Starcraft has been called chess on crack and League players are familiar with the statement “LoL is all about your decision making.”

For a critically acclaimed coach of a sport with the highest average player fitness (unlike other sports where fitness varies by position) to say that the most important attribute is their decision making, is a powerful statement about greatness. Before we get into what separates good decision making from bad, allow me to preface this article with why I am fascinated enough to spend my life studying excellence and the optimization of performance.


I spent most of my formative years in a small country called Lebanon. I went through school younger than most and turned to video games for solace. Being extremely competitive, I hated to lose at any game and practiced my ass off whenever I could, or rather my parents said I could. Lebanon also didn’t have that fancy thing the rest of the world did at the time, the internet.

Heck, the backwater town I was from didn’t even have 24 hour electricity. So, as the rest of the world was playing Starcraft and Warcraft online, Lebanese played everything in concentrated areas known as network cafes.

Lebanese gamers were a tiny community and this era was reminiscent of the great arcade era. Competition was fierce and everyone who played seriously knew who you were, provided you were good enough. There were a few prestigious networks scattered across the country that housed the greatest talent and players would travel through the nightmare traffic of Beirut to challenge each other.

It was a small community and we were nowhere near as good as the greats playing online, and in other areas of the world, but everyone possessed pride, passion and a tremendous hunger to win… as well as have a good time. Bonds of friendship that would last me a lifetime were forged on those battlefields.

Arcades are still popular in Japan. Players who grew up in an arcade environment have a different mentality that intense face to face competition breeds.

If you asked anyone at that time, who was the luckiest player out there, the unanimous answer would be one person: my middle brother.

Remember, we were young, and young people tend to attribute a lot of things to luck, so these recounted tales may or may not reflect reality. BUT no one knew anyone else whose Warcraft 3 games would net 2 tomes of experience on lost temple from his 2 creep camps, on a consistent basis. Or anyone with such an amazing evasion passive on a level one demon hunter.

We probably all know someone like him. Their mistakes somehow transformed into bountiful opportunities, wherever they went and whatever game they played, a great mystical aura of good fortune would follow. Can you imagine how infuriating it is to have a rival brother with this special power?

Where my brother excelled most was fighting games. I would spend endless hours practicing combos, learning the move list and getting my timings down just to stay even with him. He had no interest in these things. One week, he went up to the mountains on a school trip to spend the week skiing. The game of choice at the time was Tekken 3, arguably the best Tekken ever, and the definitive 3D fighter of that time.

He played Jin, I played Hwoarang. I decided I would learn a new character whose move-set was so unpredictable that there would be no way he could stand a chance when he came back.

I learned Xiaoyu. We played… It seemed my plan was working. I was ahead 5-0 in our game till 10 match. Then, the tables turned. I lost 10 -7. The amount of frustration stored up inside me would have shamed any of those nerd rage videos (shown below) circulating on the internet today. My brother would go on to continue having an edge on me in fighting games well into my mid 20s. He would humiliate me by winning a Soul Calibur series to 10 without using his weapon (he was only allowed to kick and evade, while I could use all the buttons… the shame still haunts me!).

The thing about my brother: He hated losing too, but not like me. Frankly, he didn’t care… as long as he didn’t lose to me. When we would play vs people in the arcade, I would be taking names and he would drop in beat me, lose to the next guy and casually shrug it off. Rinse repeat. There’s a saying that goes like this:

“Talented people who know exactly who they are don’t seek anything. Those who don’t know who they are… They’re the ones who struggle hardest to win in order to prove something.”
Jou “Butterfly Joe” Koizumi

It’s from a great anime series that goes into some deep life topics and even the concepts such as talent, lack of talent, and the effect of training. The art can come off as jarring, but once you get past it, you’ll thank me. Oh and have read this when you are done watching. Long story, but my brother was one of the first people who made me question talent vs training, so you have him to thank, or hate, for this article.

After my sponsored gaming stint with Fnatic, I realized that although my strategic prowess was top notch, there was a lot preventing me from being the best I could, namely my ability to execute. I had spent some time studying martial arts and reading a myriad of Zen philosophies, and decided to undertake a more serious exploration of meditation and focus.

Learning how to focus, relax my nerves and be aware of the patterns of my mind has allowed me to harness my knowledge and focus on the present moment. Let’s just say I do much better at fighting games now vs. my brother. I want to share with you some of the observations I have found through experience and science.

Mind Your Gaze

That was a lengthy introduction to what I really want to talk about: If you haven’t seen the video I filmed with Curse (Video below), I advise you watch it now. Pay special attention to the parts about eye tracking (~9:40 in, if the link doesn’t work).

Methods: The eye tracking was done using a Tobi X-60 device with Xsplit being used as an external recorder. This was done to avoid frame rate issues with the video playback, as recording directly from league was causing massive stuttering making analysis and syncing impossible. I would like to thank my colleague and friend Robert Wentz for helping me get through portions of the setup.

While exhaustively searching for solutions to the frame rate issue, we were told by tech support that we would need a 600 dollar investment to fix the frame rate. Thankfully, we found a workaround by using Xsplit as a secondary capture tool.

Tobi X60 Eye Tracker: Placed underneath the monitor. Uses corneal reflection and when properly calibrated can detect individual’s gaze on the screen.

I like to think of eye tracking as a gateway into a player’s mind… it’s not perfect, but it’s the best we have. It allows us to gain some understanding of their thought process and the sequence of information processing leading up into their decisions. This article will dive into that thought process a little more, but before we do let’s think about a few basic concepts behind your gaze, focus, fixation, and the thoughts that govern these mechanisms.

First, let’s do a simple experiment!

I want you to keep scanning and shifting your eyes, never letting your gaze fix on one object. While doing this, I want you to think of something profound that requires some decision making or memory recall on your part: name everyone in your high school class, plan tomorrow, recall the last 5 champs you saw go godlike.

Really hard?

Can’t do it?

Let’s come at it from another angle, what happens when you zone out and lose track of time? It’s usually because you are deep in thought about something that has nothing to do with what is in front of you.

Your brain is like an information superhighway. It’s constantly receiving, processing and outputting information. Like any highway, it gets clogged. Sure, you can add more lanes to the highway, but there’s only so much space, and so much time.

In Yoga, there is term called Drishti: it represents your gaze fixation and focus. When you enter and hold a pose, you are taught to fixate on one point “without actually fixating” and never late your gaze wander. In martial arts, there are similar techniques that revolve around this concept.

Processing Information

That’s all neat information but how does this relate to eye tracking and League of Legends.

Let’s carefully examine Voyboy’s video: his gaze never rests in one place. He’s not really engaging in conscious thought, he’s not planning his next move, he’s not thinking about what item to build. He knows, through millions of games of repetition what needs to be done. I bet he spends a lot of time outside the game thinking about what he does or did, but not while he’s doing it. This is the spider’s web that I, and many like me, have been caught in. Too much thought, not enough feel.

Observing Voy leads us to believe that he is definitely able to enter the zone and flow with his subconscious intuition. All of us would like to think we have been in the zone at some point, but we definitely don’t play like Voy. Is there more information we can deduce from studying these videos?

In fact, there is plenty of evidence to support this visual processing difference between novice and experts in traditional athletics. In the first chapter of David Epstein’s “The Sports Gene” (a book I highly recommend for those interested in this topic), he discusses relevant research that shows differences between experts and professionals in the domains of chess and other sports. Experts at the top of their field are able to instantaneously (up to 1/16 of a second!) process action packed images of their domain, and give an accurate description of what is happening.

Think about what you just saw with Voyboy. Recall how quickly he grasped the rapidly evolving team fight situation. Players do this by chunking the information in their environment, associating related processes and the important information to make snap decisions.

One example of this phenomenon is how quickly pro LOL players press tab and look at the information. I can’t do this! I have made it a high priority objective to learn how to tab and pick out the important information. Imagine how hard this is for someone who never used tab when playing for 2 years!

For those of you still thinking their reaction times govern their ability to react in team fights. This is a simple reaction time test. Of interest, no statistically significant difference between pro baseball players and random college kids has been shown. They all have a reaction time of about 200ms. Baseballs reach home plate approximately 400ms after leaving the pitchers hand… It definitely can’t be reaction time that allows good batters to hit consistently. This is a point I will expand upon in the next article, which focuses on exploring the mechanical aspects of league play.

Applications in League Of Legends

Let’s take a look at the counterpart video of the Voyboy one. Disclaimer: I am NOT picking on our diamond 4, this is just the material I have to work with and greatly appreciate his willingness to allow data use and collection. First of all, due to less practice and repetition, his LOL information superhighway isn’t as big as Voy’s. My theory is that our natural reaction to stressful situations where we are being overwhelmed with information is to tunnel in on the information we CAN process.

This is what Lucian does, fixates on relatively small areas of the battle field. This doesn’t necessarily prove that he’s consciously thinking about his actions but merely he is not able to process the same amount of information. A fantastic recent study in Starcraft 2 players shows the disparity of information processing and acting capabilities of players at different skill and age levels. Focusing on what you CAN understand is a quick way to do well, so the Lucian is probably Diamond 4 because he has identified what to focus on with his limited experience.

Let’s take a look at another example where fixation happens differently between the two.

Here is a video of Voyboy and D4 Lucian farming (I apologize for the quality, I’m recording on the road). D4 fixates quite a bit doesn’t he? In his defense, he also looks at the map a fair amount. One explanation is he could be plotting his next series of moves or even talking to some people around him during the testing. He probably also hasn’t developed the right habits to be successful. He definitely hasn’t developed his LOL information superhighway to Voy’s level.


In contrast, we can see that Voyboy has cultivated the restless habits that are needed for success in LOL. He is always looking everywhere, never resting, never thinking. The processes are automatic, his decision making honed over thousands of games played.

We have established two things: bad habits are easy to form and thinking deeply during the game is bad.

The two are probably related and lead to a host of common problems that plague aspiring league greats: tunnel vision, slow decision making and bad decision making. Like many sports and games, League decisions are made in split seconds. Games are won or lost… or thrown rather. Provided you have practiced the necessary mechanical aptitude, most people can improve the decision making to reach that level.

Let’s take a look at one more video.


Here is a comparison of Voy and D4 Lucian doing dragon. Notice that even as an AD carry who doesn’t have to worry about smiting Dragon, he pays an abnormally large amount of attention to the dragon. Why? Notice that Voy spends considerably less time and uses the down time to plan ahead while scanning the environment. This is a great example of good habits vs. bad habits.

There are two huge problems with bad habits: they are hard to recognize on your own, and they are even harder to change once you do. This is probably the number one reason the industry needs good coaches! It’s impossible to recognize our bad habits if we don’t develop self-awareness. Most of us have minds too full to have the awareness to recognize our mistakes. When you start getting emotionally involved in other players bad plays (something very easy to do in League), it takes a few lanes out of your super highway and degrades your awareness and decision making ability.


With Worlds already underway, everyone’s hedging their bets on who will win and which players are better. After an exciting but swingy regional finals where teams like Roccat and Fanatic changed leads massively within a game due to flawed decision making (engaging a 2 v 3? 5v5 with half the team running?). Series that I fell asleep watching turned around from 2-0 to 3-2, leaving me shocked and heart broken. I’m left analyzing and wondering what will happen next.

The dominant train of thought, with Monte as the heralding champion, is that Korea will dominate and I can see why he thinks that. Having seen first hand the demeanor, discipline and effort Korean players bring to their game, it’s easy to hedge your bets on consistency. In a world where western income is dominated by popularity and streaming, it’s hard to bet against the machine-like effectiveness of Korean infrastructure. But the unknown is what sports is about… Inconsistency means nothing when passion can fuel a team to play at 130%. I’m excited to say the least.

Edit:This article has taken a while to make it out, and after the first week of worlds, it’s hard to argue with Monte given the consistency and machine-like ruthlessness with which Samsung White has dispatched their foes. It’s also easy to see what the passionate teams like TSM are capable of. It’s been a hell of a weekend and I’ve been killing myself trying to watch worlds and conduct studies that monitor performance in a hypobaric chamber. Below is a terrible picture of me caught in the act of watching worlds while I should be paying attention to our subject.

Caught in the act watching worlds on my phone instead of paying attention. #This is how I worlds?

Caught in the act watching worlds on my phone instead of paying attention. #This is how I worlds?

The other factor that underlies the dominance of Korean teams is the level of teamwork they display. As mentioned before, teamwork is an intrinsically complex topic to quantify. The good news is that video games record actions and data extensively. “Initiation moves” are easy to identify, and in the future we could examine metrics like time from initiation to teammate followup. We could also look at the amount of silence in voice communication, as quantifying silence is a lot easier than voice. I would argue better teams keep comm channels clear, but I don’t know what the average amount of chatter for a good team is.

For my next article, I will add some data from the eye tracking videos to this article: average fixation rates, mini-map time spent, cooldown bar time spent,etc…I will also try and add in mechanical data taken from our cognitive test. Until then join the discussion with me on twitter @Dr_Uthgar. I would love to discuss the intricacies of expertise in League of Legends.  What’s holding your expertise back? Do you know Quas played on 300 ping before coming to the US? I can’t imagine a larger barrier to overcome.

Thanks again to Team Curse, especially Steve, and Alienware for making this possible. Also thanks to Cloth 5, Denise and Will especially for helping this article become great.

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I have been playing competitive games at a high level for 10 years, 2 of those years were spent playing WOW for Fnatic. I dialed back the intensity to finish my PhD, and now extensively study human performance. My research focuses on understanding optimal performance in extreme environments ( think Mountains Climbers and Fighter Pilots), specifically cognitive performance. Follow me on twitter @Dr_Uthgar for regular physiologic insights on E-sports.

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