Sleep, Play, Win: Sleep and Gaming Performance, Part 2

Welcome to the second piece in a 3-part series on sleep and gaming performance! We’ll be going over how sleep affects cognitive and physical function, as well as how sleep disruption affects performance.


Recap

Let’s start off with a quick recap of the first article in this series, where we introduced the basics of sleep physiology:

  • Your Circadian rhythm is the approximately 24 hour cycle of awake/asleep, and a full sleep cycle takes about 90-120 minutes
  • Light, caffeine, alcohol, time zone changes, and exercise can all alter your circadian rhythm
  • There are 4 phases of sleep, all of which correspond with different types of brainwaves and different types of benefits to your physical and cognitive function.

Sleep and Performance: Brain Function

Artificial Intelligence, Brain, Think, Control

When it comes to cognitive function, REM sleep and the certain stages of non-REM sleep provide significant benefits. REM sleep is key to the formation of long-term memories, while NREM Stage 2 is integral to the consolidation of memories and pruning of unnecessary connections in the brain.

“Executive function” refers to your brain’s ability to control itself and regulate processes sequentially and simultaneously. These processes are things like attention, memory encoding, and control of arousal or stress.

We know that sleep impacts attention mostly because research has shown us what happens when we don’t get enough sleep: the networks across the prefrontal and parietal lobes that regulate attention, allowing the brain to focus on relevant information and filter out the irrelevant, are less active when the brain is deprived of sleep. That, in turns, leads to decreased memory encoding during the following night’s sleep. Basically: lack of sleep means you don’t take in what matters, and not taking in what matters means you don’t encode that information in long-term memory as well.

When it comes to gaming, attention and memory are important, as is your ability to to control your degree of stress or excitement. Cortisol, the stress hormone, causes an increase in heart rate and blood pressure while decreasing immune function. The hormones released while sleeping improve your ability to regulate your emotions and your thought processes, as well as to counteract the effects of cortisol.

Sleep and Performance: Physical Function

Sport, Skating, Halfpipe, Skater, Skates, Skateborder

Sleep doesn’t just affect how your brain functions. It also affects how your body functions when it comes to things like reaction time and endurance. When Stanford University basketball players were tracked over several months, an extra 2 hours of sleep per night relative to their baseline sleep amounts resulted in 5% increase in speed, 9% increase in free throw accuracy, and faster reflexes. While most existing research is in traditional sports athletes rather than competitive gamers, we can still use these data to improve performance in esports. 

Let’s take a look at the research on reaction time, which is pretty damn important in gaming.

In a recent study of 18-25 year old men, participants were asked to perform quick-reaction tasks twice. Participants who were well-rested saw their reaction time and accuracy improve by 4.3%, while those who were sleep-deprived performed 2.4% worse. This is in line with what other research has shown: inadequate sleep results in slower reaction times and less accurate/less precise movement, while adequate good-quality sleep results in more consistent performance. That’s in part because of the benefits to learning we talked about above, but also sleep results in improved endurance.

When it comes to esports, endurance refers to your ability both physically and mentally to compete at a particular level without a decrease in performance. One of the biggest causes of decreased performance in gaming is pain related to inflammation and overuse. Sleep deprivation and circadian rhythm disruption both increase the levels of inflammatory factors in the body, which means muscles get sorer and tighter faster and take longer to recover. Lack of sleep doesn’t just mean not doing as well as you could, it means actively doing worse.


Knowing that sleep has so many benefits, while a lack of sleep has so many negative impacts, it’s clearly important to get good sleep consistently. That’s not always easy, so the last piece in this 3-part series will be all about how to get your best night’s sleep, both at home and when traveling for competition.

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