Expert take: Age and motivation in Counter-Strike
Last month we found that age correlates with a decrease in fragging power for CS:GO's best players. But is there causation?
In our first article we proved — albeit rather unscientifically — that an increase in age does correlate with a decrease in performance when it comes to star players. What we didn't do is attempt to explain why this seems to occur, given the multitude of factors and my personal lack of expertise in the topic. This is why we're diving into the topic of age in esports once more, but this time with the aid of sports psychologists and players themselves.
Is the drop-off physical or mental?
Our experts generally agree that the observed decline in KPR as players age is probably to do with mental factors rather than physical; the difference in reaction time between a 24-year-old and a 29-year-old is too small to justify the difference we saw in KPR between the two age groups. Michelle Pain, psychologist for AVANT in 2020, found that "in her experience, it isn't lack of reflexes that get you in the end." Edward Cleland of Mind Body Esports, who has worked with Complexity, 100 Thieves, Evil Geniuses, and Renegades, re-iterated this, choosing to emphasise how "age is a poor predictor for a growth mindset."
Former professional player Jacob "Pimp" Winneche echoed this sentiment: "You have F1 drivers in their mid-30s driving cars with 350+ kph. You may get slightly slower, but it's not defining for your play." Nathan "NBK-" Schmitt agreed, saying that age mattered "to a degree, but not necessarily because of in-game level decay." Another player to concur was Fredrik "roeJ" Jørgensen: "[Reflexes are] nothing [...] compared to psychological things" in terms of "having a hindering effect on your career."
This was not a universal opinion, however — Troels Robl of Heroic believes that "the physical limit is the first hindrance" and that mental challenges come later as players cannot keep up with the mechanical skills of younger players. His father, Vitality's Lars Robl, agrees: "[The decline in KPR with age] is actually first and foremost to do with a physical decline" as players' reflexes, ability to recover, and other general physical factors deteriorate.
The stresses of a career in esports
Benjamin Sharpe, Cognitive Scientist and Lecturer in Psychology from the University of Chichester, emphasised the stressful nature of a career in esports, pointing to his recent paper that showed esports players recorded lower sleep quality and higher depression scores when compared to a non-athlete. Career dissatisfaction, whether that is from poor performance, interpersonal issues in teams, the public nature of competition, or huge amounts of travel is understandably linked to anxiety and stress.
The public narrative that players in their mid-to-late 20s are close to retirement can also increase stress for players, according to MAD Lions' Martina Čubrić: "Our beliefs have a strong impact on our performance at all ages." Stress is a familiar topic in CS, with players such as Lukas "gla1ve" Rossander, Andreas "Xyp9x" Højsleth, and Nicolai "device" Reedtz all taking breaks from competition citing burnout and mental health. Many players, though, do not take these mental health breaks, something that clearly leads to shorter careers.
Though most of these stressors are applicable in traditional sports too, workloads in esports remain even longer — and arguably just as intense mentally — than athletes' training schedules. A 2016 study found that 61.3% of elite esports athletes trained for more than 5 hours per day, which is less than the often-quoted 8-hour workday but still a serious amount of intense training.
It is more than just practice, too; the tournament circuit is jam-packed with events. Tier one teams are faced with the prospect of travelling to several LANs a month, whilst those in the tier below are denied real breaks as open qualifier after open qualifier is scheduled.
Endpoint's Callum Abbott warned against such long workdays, at least in the basic form of day-long scrims: "Very rarely (if ever) will a pro football player go to a venue with their whole team to play against another whole team for 5 days back-to-back (like we see in esports in scrims) [...] They may train for long periods of time, but this will be partitioned into different aspects such as fitness, strategy and technique with regular breaks incorporated, but we see less of this currently in esports."
The habits of CS:GO's first players, with practice from 6 PM to midnight after-school commonplace. "My retirement had nothing to do with my age, but everything to do with my desires, my workload, my stress levels, and my lack of desire to continue at the time," Pimp explains. "I peaked at 17 or 18. Most of my opponents were the same age, a few older [...] Had I played in an era where teams would practice from 10:00-16:00, [and] thus be allowed to have a life outside of gaming, I'm 100% sure I'd have lasted way, way longer."
Dan "apEX" Madesclaire has gone on record to 1PV of how reducing his workload has improved his life balance, something that is surely a key reason why he is still competing at the very top of CS:GO, though now as an in-game-leader rather than a domineering entry fragger. It is an approach common for many of the game's top players these days, and a key reason for that is the game's increased professionalism.
Given the continued oversaturation of events, it is a relief that, for most teams, the 8 hours of scrims of years gone by have been replaced in many teams by 3 or 4 high-quality scrims supplemented by tactical work and time in the gym. The impact of Astralis' sports psychologist Mia Stellberg en route to victory at ELEAGUE Major Atlanta is well documented — perhaps overly so — but much of what she said at the time rings true to modern approaches: "I think the biggest problem is that players travel 200 days a year and quit at 24 because they simply burn out [...] I've made the boys run and go to the gym, forgo Red Bulls and burgers, and tell them to go to bed in time."
Now, professionals like Stellberg are part of the furniture in organisations; Martin "STYKO" Styk told HLTV that getting in talks with "physiotherapists, nutritionists, and athletes from other sports" are a must for players now, while he has spoken at length on his blog of the importance of sleep, posture, diet, and hand exercises even he ignored for the first half of his career, something re-iterated by the psychologists we spoke to.
One member of that Astralis side was Peter "dupreeh" Rasmussen, who has a higher rating 2.0 in 2022 aged 29 (1.10) than his career average of 1.09 — he is a shining example of a player who has managed to extend their career without sacrificing fragging power. Lars Robl, who has worked with dupreeh since 2018 throughout the Astralis era and now at Vitality, told us that working with dupreeh has seen him revisit his "DNA" as a CS:GO athlete: "Peter is aware of not relying on his past successes and to renew his — what we define as — conditions for functioning."
Yet, sports psychology is not a magic wand — Markus "Kjaerbye" Kjærbye, MVP of that win at Atlanta, retired at 23, saying he "no longer had the hunger and determination to compete at the top level." He later told Dexerto that he had not listened to his body or respected his mental health in his career, in the same interview he announced he was returning from his retirement. "Just sitting down and only playing Counter-Strike is not what brings out the best version of myself," he said.
A work-life balance
It does not have to be stress or demotivation that curtails a player's career, of course. More positive aspects of what comes with age, like family and relationships, can also reduce a player's propensity to compete. gla1ve took paternity leave in 2021, while one of the primary factors in Nick "nitr0" Cannella's decision to switch to the more NA-friendly travel schedule of VALORANT in 2020 was to be at home with his newly-born child more often. Increased responsibility is an inevitable product of age.
Managed correctly, out-of-game 'distractions' can actually prolong and improve careers: The grind that accompanies a teenager's path to pro carries a "huge risk that these young athletes do not develop an identity other than that of an athlete", explains Lars Robl. "That might be sufficient as long as the athletes have success in the game. But when they reach the point where they lack success I often see them continue too long towards a "dead-end" because the alternative to the identity as an athlete does not exist and that is even scarier than the dead-end they are facing. And that is what leads to burnout, depression etc." Again, both Robls are in agreement: "If all [a player] has is esport and esport is not going well then life is not going well."
Battling this phenomenon is not easy; the 15,000 hours Ilya "m0NESY" Osipov has sunk into CS:GO already is a direct reason he is one of the best AWPers in the world at the age of 16. What can be done, then, to make sure someone like m0NESY does not burn out?
A key factor for Lars Robl are the role models who can "show — even though they do not possess it themselves — what it takes to be a professional athlete on the esport scene," "paving the way for the next generation." It is often assumed that the professionalism of the upper echelons of the scene, with shining examples like that of Finn "karrigan" Andersen or Patrik "f0rest" Lindberg and the YouTube content of Jonathan "EliGE" Jablonowski and STYKO, will create a virtuous cycle whereby good habits will trickle down to up-and-coming players, but it is no guarantee that young players will come to this conclusion themselves.
However, as the 'wild west' of esports is gradually brought more in line with conventional sports, these players are coming into contact with health professionals and better habits earlier. Infrastructure like the WePlay Academy League motivates organisations to find players earlier in their development, thus being able to drum in correct practice earlier.
Another change for today's up-and-comers is that a career in esports today is far more stable than in years gone by. For Michelle Pain, this is an especially important point, as she believes a major reason for early retirement was how "esports careers are unstable, and in some regions (mine in particular, in OCE/ANZ) financially non-viable [...] Professional esports players — like in traditional sports — have pressure in their mid-20s to 'have a normal life' (unless they are spectacularly and financially successful) from their family and friends."
Yet, we have not completed this journey. Teams like Bad News Eagles, Looking For Org, and Party Astronauts have competed at tier one events in 2022 without an organisation supporting them. But, progress has been made. Now 28, roeJ was proficient at 1.6 but told Thorin of how he only began playing CS:GO at 23 after watching tournaments that proved "it could be a way of living."
Experience is good, actually
Our experts were also at pains to point out the positives experience brings to a team. Anthony "ImpressioN" Lim is "more confident than ever" at 26 due to improved knowledge both of the game and of how to improve. Pain echoed this, saying that "with more experience, you can become 'wily' and [...] compensate for decreasing reflexes using pre-aim and a better understanding of angles." Experience, according to NBK-, also means that players can "fill spots easier, supporting youngsters that [...] can overtake games" while Troels Robl pointed out that age also forces players to think in different ways — "you don't need to react as fast if you can anticipate the action of your opponent."
Leadership is another thing that seems to come with age, as Edgar Chekera spells out: "Older players [have] developed the ability to communicate more effectively with not only players but also coaches. They seem to be more aware of their emotions and have resources that can help manage them in the toughest of situations." Čubrić points to several studies that show "anticipation of movements, strategy, team leadership, and cognitive skills such as verbal abilities, spatial reasoning, simple math abilities and abstract reasoning skills stay intact or even improve in middle age."
Late bloomers like roeJ and Rafael "saffee" Costa, meanwhile, prove that age does not always have to be a weight on your shoulders. "In terms of maturity, way of working and [...] functioning well in a team environment I definitely think my age has helped me," roeJ told HLTV. "But then on the other hand not really being able to grind 140 hours every 2 weeks to be able to reach my absolute individual peak is one of the bad things [...] Life is just so easier when you're living at home being young and you don't have much to worry about in life other than doing what you like." On the value of maturity, Čubrić agreed: "[Our] brains are fully developed by the age of 25. That means that emotional bursts, impulsivity and ‘high highs & low lows’ are less likely to happen once over 25 years of age."
Maintaining motivation through metas
Another reason that age might correlate with a decrease in performance is simply that old habits die hard. Counter-Strike is a fluid game that has meta shifts every event; players who have been active in the scene for so long actively have to 'un-learn' things that they have done for years. In an interview at ESL Pro League karrigan raised this point: "You also have to think about the level people are playing at right now compared to five years ago. It’s so tough to stay individually in form." STYKO, too, argues that the game is harder now: "Years ago some teams were easy to out-aim and win based on that. Now, you have to think about all different tricks and strats at any time, even against full-eco, to make sure you do not lose your fight that eventually could cost you a round and a game. Complexity of the game went up, focus has to naturally follow."
The challenge of staying in-meta and skilled enough to compete with the new generation is one that either makes or breaks a player's career, and the buzzword we hear all the time around this point is motivation. For Pain, motivation is all about goal setting — "if a player is unmotivated [...] you need to make sure there are achievable steps that lead to success in [...] the next step on their journey," something especially applicable to karrigan, who is still hunting the era that could make him the greatest in-game leader of all time.
NBK-, though, believes that players need to be able to perform even when they lack motivation. "You're always as good as your last tournament result and to keep a competitive level you have to work on your discipline every day. Motivation comes and goes, consistency will bring you further." This was similar to the point of Chekera, who said that he "likes to emphasise that commitment will always trump motivation [to his players]." He added that "if you're looking to constantly be motivated, you're looking at something that is really unstable."
Can the impact of aging be prevented? Or merely delayed?
As we said in the last article, every career is different, as is every peak. The topic of age is unbelievably nuanced, despite the clear trend observed in HLTV Top 20 players peaking in their early 20s. Counter-Strike is a game and scene that evolves rapidly, and the 'peak age' for star players of 20-24 I theorized in the last article may seem naive or downright stupid in ten years' time, as more and more players take the advice of STYKO and their sports psychologists. This is a point Pimp emphasised: "CS:GO has only been out for less than 10 years, how can we possibly know [...] if Oleksandr "s1mple" Kostyliev or Mathieu "ZywOo" Herbaut are going to be 'stars' in five years' time?"
Ultimately, though, it is a case of delaying rather than preventing age-related decline. Even for a professional with as good habits as STYKO, the effects of ageing are felt: "You sometimes struggle to stay focused for 12 hours and keep playing — something that was no issue when I was 19 or 20." He added, "I personally struggle when I do not take breaks each hour for a couple of minutes [like] in open qualifier marathons [...] the commitment to the game has to be absolutely 100% at any given time and that is exhausting." roeJ commented on this too, saying that "not really being able to grind 140 hours every 2 weeks to be able to reach my absolute individual peak is one of the bad things" that comes with age.
Like in nearly every scientific piece, the only conclusion we can reach is that more research and data are needed. Can the current generation of players, who have had access to healthcare professionals throughout their career, carry on posting superstar numbers into their late 20s and early 30s? We will just have to wait and see.
You can find the psychologists who contributed to this article here:
- Michelle Pain: Twitter; Website
- Benjamin Sharpe: Twitter; His Research
- Callum Abbott: Twitter
- Edward Cleland: Twitter; Website
- Edgar Chekera: Twitter; Website
- Troels Robl: Twitter
- Lars Robl: Twitter
- Martina Čubrić: Twitter
To see the full interviews with everyone who contributed to the article, click here.