Game Changer

WORDS: Michael Jacobson PHOTOGRAPHY Southern Cross University

Australians love their sport and love it even more when Australians are winning. With future success in mind, the Australian Institute of Sport is funding two new research projects at Southern Cross University, including its first-ever grant for the rising field of esports.

Imagine it, Brisbane 2032, the final about to begin and the Australian team coming in as the hot favourite. In a packed auditorium and before a global audience of tens of millions, the Aussies strike, taking down rival players left and right and executing brilliant team strategy. When the screen flashes ‘Game Over’, Australia wins the first gold medal in the new Olympic discipline of … wait for it … esports.

Sound unlikely? Well, think again, because esports – the competitive playing of video games – is already an international phenomenon and is only getting bigger. As the Olympic movement strives to remain relevant, particularly among young people, esports are in the spotlight.

The Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) is certainly taking notice, recently awarding Southern Cross University a $37,000 grant to develop a model for our future elite esports players. It was one of two grants awarded to a new research group – Physical Activity, Sport and Exercise Research (PASER) – within the Faculty of Health.

The second grant is worth $49,500 and will see the Coffs Harbour-based team of Associate Professor Christian Swann, Associate Professor Chris Stevens and Dr Scott Goddard in partnership with Athletics Australia, the University of Wollongong and the University of Canberra, build a research-based framework for understanding the psychology of optimal performance in elite sprint, power, and endurance athletes.

Dr Christian Swann leads the new PASER research group at Southern Cross University

As PASER Lead, Associate Professor Swann says the two grants are significant given competition for AIS funding is always strong, coupled with the fact that PASER formed only last October. It also speaks volumes for the relevance of research conducted at Southern Cross University.

“Such recognition affirms the credibility of sport and health-related research at Southern Cross University,” says Associate Professor Swann. “These grants are a fantastic start for PASER and both projects will lead to exciting outcomes.

“We have around 25 members in total, all of whom are doing great research, so we’re expecting more successes as we build our profile in sport, exercise and physical activity research at Southern Cross University.

“We are also proud that both grants feature early-career researchers who are bringing exciting expertise to the field and building promising track records.”

Dr Dylan Poulus is one of those early career researchers, having completed his PhD less than two years ago. For the esports project, he and colleague Dr Kyle Bennett will collaborate with Federation University, UTAS and the University of Groningen in partnership with Guinevere Capital, the biggest investor in esports in Australia.

Dr Dylan Poulus brings expertise to the field and is building a promising track record

“This is the first time the AIS has funded esports-related research and it reflects contemporary thinking around the nature and perception of sport,” he says.

“Esports continue to grow exponentially, with competition leagues for multi-player games such as League of Legends, DOTA 2 and Counter-Strike attracting huge prizemoney and global audiences and fan groups in the millions.

“We don’t know what makes the best gamers in the world, but we do know that luck is not a major element in these games. Like any sport, performance and outcomes are determined by your ability to make complex decisions and perform under extreme pressure.

“So, we will talk to the best coaches, players and team owners to build a model of performance which might then be applied towards Australia’s competitive future in esports – perhaps even inclusion in the Brisbane Olympic Games in 2032.”

Dr Poulus studied sports psychology at Queensland University of Technology (QUT), where he established the first university-supported esports program in Australia. Within a year it became QUT’s biggest sporting club. After completing his PhD in esports psychology, he joined Southern Cross University in 2021.

He also supports and consults to various professional esports teams in Australia, including Team Bliss (Brisbane) and Dire Wolves (Sydney), which both play in the League of Legends competition. He has previously consulted for international teams and also supports Higher Degree Research students who are investigating aspects of esports participation and player performance.

Guinevere Capital CEO, Mr Dave Harris, has welcomed involvement with Southern Cross University, saying: “We’re really pleased to be involved in this important piece of work co-funded by the AIS, framing the requirements for elite esports competition and investigating how talent can best be developed.”

The 12-month project could not be more timely, especially given the International Olympic Committee (IOC) recently announced nine esports games to represent it’s continuing foray into the field. This follows a virtual series associated with the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

The chosen nine comprise six video game simulations of existing Olympic events – cycling, taekwondo, tennis, archery, sailing and baseball – with the remaining three being motorsport, chess and dance.

And while staunch esports fans may bemoan the fact that the most popular esports games do not feature on the list, the IOC says the line-up is not complete. In other words, the game is not over.

Whatever happens, the AIS is keeping a close watch on developments and keenly anticipating the research findings.

Says AIS Executive General Manager Ms Matti Clements: “This work aligns with a key priority outlined in Australia’s High Performance 2032+ Sport Strategy to deliver world-leading knowledge, innovation and practice to ensure our athletes, coaches and performance support can work as high functioning performance teams.”