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Fortnite is one of the new generation of online video games popular with competitive esports players. (Photo: James Shewaga)

Examining esports excellence

The global esports phenomenon is growing at an accelerated pace, boasting audiences in the hundreds of millions of spectators. A University of Saskatchewan (USask) computer scientist aims to find out what causes the players of these games to succeed or fail.

Short for electronic sports, esports is the growing world of competitive video gaming. While it’s a massive industry, it’s also a fledgling industry. With game titles such as League of Legends and Fortnite attracting millions of players, despite a lot of money being at play, much of the industry is not yet being guided by research.

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Dr. Madison Klarkowski (PhD) is a computer science researcher in USask’s College of Arts and Science. (Photo: Submitted)

That’s something that USask computer scientist Dr. Madison Klarkowski (PhD) aims to change. A professor in the College of Arts and Science, Klarkowski is studying the skill development and performance of esports athletes—people who play video games at a highly skilled and professional level—while also looking at the performance from a computer science perspective and how this can translate into skill acquisition.

“Many of the participants in esports are quite young—teenagers or people in their early 20s—and these are the players that are the cream of the crop. We want to see what puts them in the top percentage of players for their particular game,” said Klarkowski. “What is it that they do to reach this level and if this can translate into other things like learning a programming language, for example. There’s a lot of opportunity for researchers to look into how this relates to other domains."

In a new study—supported by a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada grant—Klarkowski will investigate the factors behind why and how esports athletes both excel and fail. It’s established in sports that there are moments of “clutching” (excelling under pressure) and “choking” (cracking under pressure). These concepts are accepted in esports by those athletes as well, said Klarkowski.

“We have run a study where we got people to recall their experiences with choking and clutching and we are looking at identifying those factors in competitive video games that lead to these moments. And if we can identify those factors, we can look into solutions and we can facilitate and encourage those factors that lead to clutching.

“If you start overthinking and not reacting to things the way you normally would engage with, you can start screwing up and becoming slower,” said Klarkowski. “We hope to have recommendations of how to facilitate performance under pressure.”

While she is currently examining the performance side of esports, Klarkowski has a background in the study of using online competitive games for good. Currently there are huge esports communities that emerge around certain personalities in the games and those who gather to watch and discuss a specific live streaming. These communities aren’t always connected in real life, and Klarkowski hopes to shine a light on how networks are formed through gaming and the influence that professional players wield over their fanbase.

“We’ve been looking into online behaviours and toxicity and harassment, and we found that one of the reasons why toxicity is so rampant in online competitive games is that it’s become normalized. It’s just something that happens.

“And there are personalities within the game that are quite positive and professional and often there are communities that evolve and emerge around those players that mimic those personalities. We might be able to use esports personalities as ambassadors to help influence these more positive behaviours.”

Obtaining her PhD in Human-Computer Interaction from the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Klarkowski has spent much of her academic life in Australia. While she has been excited about the opportunities with working at USask, the move to Canada has not been without challenges, as Klarkowski arrived only months prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I got here in July of 2019 and at this point I’ve spent more time working from home than I have working on campus,” said Klarkowski. “That said, part of the reason I was so excited to move across from the other side of the world is because USask has an amazing international reputation, especially in my field of human-computer interaction. And specifically getting to work in the same lab as several titans of this field.”

While she is looking forward to getting back to interacting with students and colleagues in the Thorvaldson Building on campus, due to her area of research in online gaming and esports, Klarkowski is already well-suited to navigating online communities during this time of remote learning.

“It’s been helpful to use platforms like Discord,” said Klarkowski. “We have game nights where the professors jump in with the students and it’s been a lot of fun to be a part of these events.” 

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