E-sports being a suitable field of research

In researching how stress is measured in digital games, the e-sports community appears to be a very suitable group to work with. After all, video games produce large amounts of accessible data, and e-sports player experience stress regularly. Playing and researching together in one physical space would address researchers' and players' needs, says Max Birk, assistant professor at IE&IS. But where on campus would there be space for both?

photo Sammy Go

Max Birk studies the interaction between humans and computers, focusing on preventive health. And he’s pretty good at it: he was recently named best young researcher at the TU/e Research Day. He uses an NWO Veni grant he acquired in 2021 to research game-based digital biomarkers for stress — he aims to predict stress from gaming data.

Therefore, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he’s happy the Student Sports Center Eindhoven (SSCE) purchased ten gaming computers and other equipment for the students of e-sports association Zephyr. After having been housed in lecture rooms at MetaForum for years, the association can now call the Fenix building its home. “It’s very important for gamers to have a physical meeting place. Unfortunately, that’s on the edge of the campus, hidden out of sight,” Birk says. "Showing competative gaming more promimently is an opportunity to display the community value of gaming and how professional e-sports is today.”

From experience, the researcher knows that TU/e has space for research into e-sports, particularly in performance, community building, and online behavior. He is curious about questions like: How does stress influence performance? How do players feel connected? How does team building come about, and what social structures are created in e-sports teams? “We can investigate the effects of social, cognitive, and physical well-being in video games. Groups of about five people play simultaneously and must make split-second decisions under uncertainty, draw from their experience and knowledge about the game and the group, and keep large amounts of information about the state of the game in mind, e.g., others' positions, their progress, and performance.”

Studying players

When he begins a research project, Birk interviews participants one-on-one. Where does stress come from? When do players blow a fuse, and what emotions are they experiencing? How do players or their coaches recognize players' emotions? What’s the best intervention for the coach? Observation studies are also conducted: What happens in a player environment? The next step is to make the emotions quantifiable using physiology and endocrinology. You can measure hormones like cortisol in the blood, as well as someone’s heart rate while they’re playing.

“Compare research on e-sports to research on the performance of soccer players. Understanding how soccer players behave requires digitizing their behavior first, e.g., by tracking their motion and behavior on the field. Research into the behavior of e-sport players provides access to a large amount of data—in-game performance, and player input, e.g., key presses, are already digitized. We can gain further insights using eye trackers or heart rate monitors. The ease of access to complex data makes e-sports a suitable field of research for behavioral change interventions and coaching. You can, for example, model how different coaching styles affect players.”

Hard to display empathy online

One of the major issues in gaming is toxicity. “Toxic behavior shows when players get angry with each other, for example, when they curse or suddenly stop playing. Toxicity is quite emotionally charged and harmful, and occurs in almost all competitive games. It is very challenging to address in online communities because players don’t see each other. They don’t pick up on signals like body language, facial expressions, faces turning red or eyes tearing up. Game designers and publishers in need of solutions that go beyond disabling a platform’s chat function or handing out social awards.”

If you play together in the same room, you are learning how your comments hurt someone (or not). “You’re more polite,” Birk says. “There will always be people who are aggressive about winning, but meeting fellow players in person will at the very least make them realize their behavior affects others.” These insights are important because games are played by large communities consisting of thousands of people—and playing together in physically co-located e-sport teams is a great way to learn to respect each other.


In the opinion of Birk, the Fenix building isn’t ideal for building a community. “It’s a start and certainly better than the lecture rooms at MetaForum, but people will only go there if they know about it. It’s better to have a public space where passers-by can see what’s happening.”

Sammy Go, chair of the eighth board of ESEV Zephyr, couldn’t agree more: “Unfortunately, the Fenix building is only available to us a few nights per week. Our dream location would be one where our members, and possibly others, can always use our facilities. Like how squash and tennis courts can be reserved and how other sports clubs have their materials available on site to practice.”

Go’s not entirely unhappy: “The layout of Fenix is fairly suitable for our association, enabling our teams to be together in a big room or break up into smaller rooms for matches. This makes for a cozy atmosphere while also allowing for competitive gameplay.” Though he sees the same disadvantage as Birk does: “Fenix is really remote, on the very outskirts of the campus. What would make a central location more attractive is that it would make the association more visible to non-members. Many students play video games but aren’t aware of us because they don’t see us and missed us during Intro in August. If you look at the field hockey pitches, for example, those are pretty hard to miss.”

Sharing space

Birk suggests the ideal place for Zephyr’s playing and member space would be at the heart of the Neuron building, but he doesn’t think this is feasible. “I know there’s not much space on campus. A spot somewhere at the SSCE may be more realistic. It’s good to integrate with other sports clubs. Because make no mistake, e-sports players also require physical practice to perform during matches. They need to be physically and mentally sharp.”

The SSCE doesn’t have space for Zephyr either, nor will this change once the expansion currently underway has been completed. Director of the SSCE Wim Koch advises Real Estate, the policymaker when it comes to the university’s property, on sports associations. “It would be great for e-sports researchers and players to be together in the same room. But a location just for Zephyr isn’t something I see happening. TU/e’s focus is on multifunctional spaces, also from a sustainability perspective.”

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