Team Liquid is one of the first sports organizations to use cognitive testing to improve player performance, as well as to promote better nutrition, hydration and sleep.
Why it matters
This is the latest way in which sports adopt what traditional sports have refined – in this case, immersing themselves in player behavior and improving player health.
It remains to be seen whether cognitive testing will improve player performance to give Team Liquid an advantage in competitions, but it is a sign of increased professionalism in sports.
NeurOlympics is a deceptively simple test.
A 60-minute assessment guides people through four uncomplicated video games. One involves the memory of disappearing icons. The second is a quick reaction exercise. The performance of the person on the test then takes place through an algorithm that evaluates performance in memory, speed and other characteristics.
Team Liquid, a professional sports team based in California and the Netherlands, believes NeurOlympics results could be key to winning League of Legends, Valorant and more than a dozen other professional games.
Team managers use the results to determine if a player is fit for typically five-member teams and in which role he could best fit. Armed with an understanding of player behavior, Team Liquid staff also see NeurOlympics as a way to tailor coaching to better nurture talent and skills.
“Coaches will know more about player learning styles,” said Tanner Curtis, newly appointed Team Liquid team development coach. “We will be able to identify their strengths and areas for improvement that they will focus on.”
Team Liquid, together with the sports team of the Alpine F1 racing group, takes a page from the book of professional sports, a highly competitive area in which every element of performance – nutrition, sleep, training, mindfulness – is examined, analyzed and discussed. The NFL has long used the Wonderlic test, a 50-question multiple-choice test designed in 1934 to assess the intelligence of future players, although it was withdrawn before this year’s scouting plant, which will use a computer-based player assessment test. Matt Ryan, an NFL quarterback, used the NeuroTracker cognitive training system to improve his awareness of the situation.
Testing players’ cognitive abilities is not without controversy. Wonderlic has been criticized for racial bias. At least one player deliberately passed the test to avoid scaring teams that might have worried he would get bored as a line player, his position. In a broader sense, some observers question whether constant measurement has practical value in improving results.
There is no evidence “to suggest that these measures in any way predict current or future impact on the task,” said Mark Williams, president of the Department of Health, Kinesiology, and Recreation at the University of Utah. “They really can’t be used to identify talent.”
Still, Team Liquid wants to have more than 120 people to take over NeurOlympics. As with any experiment, a larger sample size means more comprehensive results, so Team Liquid also wants to start testing players outside the organization, including regular players.
“In an ideal world, we would like the best 300 to 500 players from every game,” Curtis said. “But we would like some casual players that we can use as a reference point.”
From football to scorers
NeurOlympics was developed by BrainsFirst, a Dutch research firm that conducts corporate cognitive evaluations. The test was launched in 2013 and was quickly used by European Premier League football teams. It was later adapted for testing by air traffic controllers at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, as well as employees at McKinsey and Deloitte, both consulting firms.
Marieke Dresmé, director of customer service at BrainsFirst, says the different physical activity of footballers and sports players challenges a similar approach to disciplines.
“The average brain of elite football really looks like the brain of an sports strategy,” Dresmé said. “It simply came to our notice then [esports] shooting brain, we see comparisons with [soccer] an intuitive attacker. “
BrainsFirst sent me a one-hour version of NeurOlympics. Four tests are taken in a quick sequence to track memory, reaction speed, recovery time, strategic thinking and other metrics.
The game is different. One game required me to click on the icons as they appeared and disappeared, a test of spatial consciousness. Another demanded that I fire projectiles at falling targets, something like the apocalyptic arcade game Missile Command, to test anticipation and precision. Despite the simple graphics, the games required intense concentration and quick reaction. The experience was exhausting; I threw myself for water between rounds as if I were taking a break from training.
Tests are far from the complexity of strategy games, such as League of Legends, or shooters like Counter Strike: Global Offensive. Still, it was easy to see how the basic metrics could be applied to shift the situations involved.
A week after my test, Cheng Ko, Team Liquid’s director of performance, gently told me I wouldn’t get a place on the team. However, he took my results seriously, explaining the cognitive strengths and weaknesses they discovered.
The test divides player abilities into 16 different categories into four broad groups: memory, attention, control, and anticipation. Categories are scored from 0 to 100. The numbers are a relative measure of your performance on NeurOlympics compared to the performance of others who took the test. Scoring zero in the category means that everyone else who tested is more skilled than you. A score of 100 means you are more skilled than everyone else. The results are presented in a spider chart with each of the categories located on the perimeter.
Who passed some of the basics. I scored well on Stress Resilience (97), which suggests I could perform under pressure. But my result on the Attention Guide (9) showed that I did not follow my progress as closely as most others. He continued with personal questions about my favorite games, my roles in those games, my career, and my preferences regarding the work environment. Taken together, he said, the test and the interview gave an insight into my natural inclinations and how I could act as a player and a member of the team.
The experience reminded me of a working review with a touch of tarot reading.
Gym for players
NeurOlympics is just part of Team Liquid’s training. Four years ago, the organization teamed up with Dell’s gaming brand Alienware to build two Pro Labs, high-tech gaming gyms, in California and the Netherlands.
The Pro Lab does not occupy most of Team Liquid’s headquarters in Santa Monica, California. Computer stations are decorated with the Alienware logo. One station, which Curtis uses to guide players through their NeurOlympics spider maps, has six monitors. At the back are several dedicated computer stations that players use to warm up with cognitive and motor skills exercises, as well as gravity-free chairs that help players relax after tough games.
“We will focus on everything from recovery to cognitive warming to motor skills before [players] come in [scrimmages]”said Curtis, who is in charge of Pro Lab as part of his role in team development.” We really want a holistic approach to their entire training day, including downtime, recovery time, how much water they drink, things like that. “
Many years ago, Curtis was a professional in sports just like the players he now helps. He competed in Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG), a scorer, under the auspices of 7Teen until he joined Team Liquid in 2019 to coach his PUBG team. Now 29 years old, he became the organization’s first team development coach a few months ago. While other Team Liquid coaches focus on how players behave in training and professional matches, Curtis monitors their mood and condition throughout the day.
Curtis and Ko say coaches will provide better direction to players if they use NeurOlympics results to lead them. But that is not a universal opinion within Team Liquid.
André Costa, who leads the Rocket League team, says the game, which involves players driving cars to hammer huge soccer balls into goals, is still evolving as a professional competition. Since no one really knows how competition in games will develop, mastering the Rocket League is more important than relying on the incremental insights that NeurOlympics could provide, he says.
“If one team is better than another, you don’t have to think too much about the game,” Costa said. “It works because we are just faster and better than everyone.
Costa compared Rocket League to League of Legends, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and DOTA 2, which have more established professional player communities. If Costa’s team played the League, he concluded, he would benefit from insights derived from NeurOlympics results.
Costa, 22, oversees a team of two 15-year-olds and one 16-year-old. For young players in a game that is not fully developed as a competition, NeurOlympics insights are a hindrance, he says.
Bradley Bennyworth, 21, has played on one of the Team Liquid League of Legends since January and took the NeurOlympics test in April. Because his coach noticed a poor memory score, Bennyworth was given the task of playing a memory training game. He says he has noticed that he has performed better in his league games since then, although he is credited with some progress in playing with teammates, running exercises and relaxing in zero-gravity chairs.
As in traditional sports, Bennyworth’s progress could be reduced to training and player health. (Team Liquid prioritizes nutrition and hydration.) The focus on physical and mental performance, of course, is old-school professional sports. But it is relatively new for esports.
“None of that is carved,” Curtis said. “This is the first opportunity we’ve had where we have the technology and the space to explore and figure it out ourselves.”