Taylor Johnson on bringing sports performance coaching to esports
When you think of professional players, you think of them sitting down for hours on end in fancy gaming chairs and simply using a mouse and keyboard or controller. What you don’t see is the effort that’s now being put in to physical and mental performance to make sure these players are on top of their game.
Over the past couple of years, physical coaching and performance fine-tuning has been rolled out in organisations that have plenty of resources and the inclination to ensure the stars are giving it their all. One person who’s played a part in implementing such an important aspect of performance in the industry is Taylor Johnson.
“My background is in performance in traditional sports, I worked in collegiate sports and the NFL for about 10 years,” Johnson told Esports Insider. “I always told people that my passion is performance but it’s my curiosity that navigates me through the world. Being in the NFL was great, however I didn’t see the opportunity to have a bigger impact and to innovate. Climbing through the ranks until I reached the NFL, I was always set on being a performance coach in that league. That was my path.”
Johnson reached his goal through, like the professional players that inhabit in esports, through hard work and discipline. Once he started working in the NFL, he realised that “there’s more than this” and his curiosity led him to seek out alternatives. “I started reaching out to friends and mentors to figure out what else there was for me to pursue. One of my friends, who’s the CEO of a technology company, informed me about esports. I had known of it but didn’t realise how big it had come,” he explained.
“When I started to really unpack it through the lens of performance, I realised that there were way more similarities than differences. The void that I saw, however, was health and wealthness. Back in 2017, it didn’t seem like it was being addressed.” And that was that, using initiative and networking, Johnson realised that he knew more people in esports than he initially had realised.
He flew out to Europe to work with a Dota 2 team during their boot camp and, after taking in his surroundings for a couple of days, spotted a flaw in their daily routines. “I realised that the biggest issue was around the structures, systems, and scheduling of these players. They needed guidance on how to structure and optimise their day. When I flew back, I was hooked.”
Johnson eventually got connected with Chris Chaney, the future President of Infinite Esports & Entertainment – the eventual parent company of esports giant OpTic Gaming, Overwatch League franchise Houston Outlaws, and an ecosystem of small, supplementary business units.
Starting out as a director, he was soon promoted to VP of Performance at Infinite Esports & Entertainment and built out the Innovative Performance Institute. “That department that basically served all of our five professional organizations and 14 teams,” Johnson said of the business. “It was taking the best of the models of what worked well in traditional sports and then adapting them to the esports environment. You can’t fit a square peg in a round hole and that’s one of the things I always say to encourage teams and coaches who want to get into esports performance.”
With the eventual downfall of Infinite Esports & Entertainment and OpTic Gaming’s eventual purchase by Immortals Gaming Club, it was time for him to move on. “I would say it was a success, I felt really good about the work that we did. I feel like we had an impact on the players’ lives. The brilliance of what Infinite Esports & Entertainment had devised – though it unfortunately didn’t get a chance to really flourish into what it could have been – was having all those business verticals. It was a massive incubator.”
After a stint of consulting with companies and start ups that were looking to enter esports, Johnson was introduced to Wayne Mackey, CEO of Statespace. What was supposed to be a 30 minute conversation turned into an hour and a half of passion-fueled chatter and plotting. “By the end of it, we were just like “Hey, let’s do something. Let’s figure this out.” He is incredibly passionate about performance and pushing esports to the next evolution of what’s possible. His background was as a neuroscientist at New York University so it seemed like a great fit,” Johnson said of the encounter.
Statespace is a neuroscience and artificial intelligence gaming company, and also the parent company of esports arm Klutch. It has developed an esports training platform a called Aim Lab, a tool put together to to train speed, precision, accuracy, and reaction time in a game-specific environment.
“What we saw as an opportunity is that a lot of actual end-game performance is very similar to a lot of the tasks you’d find in a neuroscience lab,” he said of Aim Lab. “We built out the analytics to be able to give you feedback on how well you perform. There’s an AI component that’s built in that tracks your progress and curates your training experience based upon how well you’re doing. That’s the kicker in all of this: the AI that’s built into it. It’s like you’re like your own personal coach.”
With AI still being in a formative state in many applications, it’d be easy to dismiss Aim Lab as merely a gimmick. As Johnson explains, however, Statespace has found an application that truly makes sense in gaming and esports. “Say you’re doing a basic target practice. Let’s say Aim Lab is picking up that you have a discrepancy on your upper-left quadrant so you’re not hitting targets as well as you should relative to the other areas. The AI will actually start to populate targets in your upper left quadrant to train you up to increase your precision and accuracy in that realm. It gives you instant feedback on how well you did.”
Sure, hitting the target is the basic requirement of passing such a test – but you can go deeper into it. “It’s not just about whether you hit the target? It’s about how you hit the target. Did you overshoot, did you undershoot, and so on,” Johnson stated emphatically. “There’s tonnes of data in the background that we’re collecting, which makes it very rich to be able to look at performance metrics over time.”
So, if Aim Lab utilises AI in such a productive manner and it can truly help players to level up their performance, can we expect to see such intelligence utilised more across the board in esports? “It’s definitely going have a heavy hand in it, there’s so much data that you can collect with AI,” he explained. “It’s not like when I was working with my athletes in American football where you have an RFID, which is like their GPS, so you’re tracking them moving in space. It’s not as accurate as being in front of a keyboard with a mouse and you’re able to look at so much information on the go.”
When it comes to the more intense physical component – that in which is taking place outside of the server – Johnson has spent a lot of time thinking about, too. “We look at what’s the minimum effective dosage of exercise that you do for a player to have them improve blood flow,” he said. “You want to improve the cardiovascular system because it helps to improve cognitive function. It’s always reverse-engineering.”
“They’re sitting down and playing for long periods of time so the cognitive output is through the roof. Everything we do is to support their cognitive state,” Johnson continued.
With all of the different elements that can go into cognitive performance, Statespace put on its own summit to spread accurate, actionable information. “Wayne and I were thinking back to when I joined Statespace and we’re really passionate about providing information and education,” Johnson said of the summit’s inception. “Some of the best ways to do that is through content and conversation.”
The Science of Gaming Summit, which took place in November last year, gathered people together to talk about, well, the science of gaming. As with anything, there’s a lot of information online on the subject but not all information is entirely accurate.
“We had researchers, coaches, players, analysts, practitioners, and healthcare specialists come in and we had 20 minute panels – all the videos are located on YouTube – and we built a storyline of addressing different aspects of gaming and esports, what’s happening in the space, and what’s possible in the future,” explained Johnson.
With all of this talk of performance, we’d have been remiss to not mention Astralis. Those behind the scenes of the Danish Counter-Strike: Global Offensive powerhouse swear by the performance model they have in place, including bringing in psychologists to make sure the players are mentally ready for whatever task is ahead.
It’s unreasonable to attribute all of the team’s success to its emphasis on performance outside of the server, but it does beg the question as to how much it plays a part. “I would say it’s probably down to both natural skill and the performance model,” Johnson said of Astralis’ success. “You have to ask yourself “Are you successful because of, or in spite of, everything you’ve done,” which is really hard to answer.”
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they’ve been able to be dominant for as long as they have because they realise the importance of building out a holistic program that addresses all aspects of performance,” he continued. “I would love to see more organisations adopt that way of thinking because that’s what’s going to keep player burnout low and performance high.”
We’re seeing more and more organisations invest in having expensive facilities with resources galore and all the supportive staff a player could dream of, and as Johnson reaffirmed throughout the conversation, it’s a worthwhile investment if done properly. As esports continues to grow, physical performance will only receive more attention and priority.
“The best investment any team could make is in their players as that’s going to have the biggest ROI – they’re going to be able to play for longer and win more games,” he concluded.
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