Caffeine is a naturally occurring dietary ingredient which is found in coffee beans, cacao beans, kola nuts, guarana berries, and tea leaves including yerba mate (1). 

In the 21st century, the consumption of caffeine – particularly within the esports community, has become more and more popular, making it the most widely consumed legal stimulant to date (2) with over 85% of the US population consuming it on a daily basis (3). However, this is no surprise given its psychoactive effect and ability to improve both our mood and overall cognition. The effects of caffeine are achieved by blocking central and peripheral adenosine receptors which are responsible for the initiation and promotion of sleep (4), and by triggering the release of dopamine and adrenaline which both contribute to the euphoric feeling we get after that first cup of coffee in the morning (5,6).

Caffeine also has a number of health benefits, including reduced risk of several cancers, cardiovascular, metabolic and neurological conditions (7) – even in dose as small as 40mg. It is also an antioxidant and can help to burn fat through the mobilisation of fatty acids.

You can see why it has become so popular! 

It’s safe to say that consuming caffeine within esports is not only a part of the culture but a must when it comes to peak performance and staying on top of your game.

Once again, this comes as no surprise given the multitude of cognitive benefits that caffeine provides and the emergence of various energy drinks and pills which have become so readily available. However, with ease of access comes overuse and with esports gamers having to make several decisions in rapid succession for anywhere between 5-15 hours a day, it is easy to see how players can become sleep deficient and caffeine dependent.

Ninja with his custom Red Bull can.

Furthermore, with so many different drinks and pills now available it is very easy for the modern gamer to become unaware of just how much caffeine they are consuming. Fortunately, recent evidence has suggested that up to 400mg of caffeine per day is safe to consume – the equivalent of about 8 cups of coffee (8). Nevertheless, education is key and for the sake of this article I am going to provide the relevant pros and cons of the ergogenic aid alongside my and advice on caffeine consumption for gamers. 

Benefits of caffeine consumption for gamers: 

  • Improves reaction time (9) 
  • Vigilance (10)  
  • Attention (11)  
  • Alertness (12)  
  • Judgement (12)  
  • “Caffeine is particularly beneficial when factors that degrade performance are present” (13)
  • Reduced perception of effort (14)  

 Negatives of caffeine consumption for gamers: 

  • The effects of caffeine are dose-related with anything above 5.5mg/kg degrading performance (13).  
  • Caffeine has positive effects in sleep deprived individuals. This is an issue for esports players as it masks the fact that they probably aren’t getting enough sleep each night leading to more serious issues later down the line. 
  • Reduced sense of pain (15). Now you may be wondering why I have put this as a negative given that many people take caffeine to achieve this effect. However, it is context dependent. Esports is mainly a cognitive task and although there are hundreds of fine motor tasks executed per minute which involve upper limbs, when physical pain is felt within a gamer this is normally a cause for concern and a sign of overuse or burnout.  Therefore, caffeine can potentially mask these issues.
  • The effect that caffeine has on the central nervous system can become addictive and many struggle to function without it. For gamers, this can become a serious issue as they feel that they need to consume it in order to play well. This has a knock-on effect into other areas of their life such as sleep, given that caffeine has a half-life of 5-6 hours. Over long periods of time can lead to serious health implications and also burnout!
  • Caffeine dependency is also linked with anxiety and depression (7). This is as a result of the low you can experience after the stimulants’ effects wear off and the need to consume more in order fulfil daily tasks develops.
  • As aforementioned, caffeine stimulates the release of adrenaline from the adrenal glands. At the same time, it also produces cortisol which, although labelled as a stress hormone, is needed for the fight or flight response and adaptation. However, long term, too much caffeine can lead to adrenal fatigue (16) which causes a rise in cortisol release and a down regulation of caffeine’s effects.  

My top tips for caffeine consumption and the modern-day gamer: 

  1. Avoid caffeine late at night (preferably not later than 5). Remember that it has a half-life of 5-6 hours (active).  
  2. Save your caffeine for when it is most important i.e. before competition or before an important game! 
  3. Train low (no / very little caffeine) compete high is a good strategy to really feel the effects of caffeine and avoid dependency. 
  4. For competition / peak performance consume 3-6mg/kg of caffeine 30-90 minutes before (17).  
  5. Caffeine has more of an effect when taken in anhydrous form (pill / tablet / powder) compared to coffee (18). Stick to anhydrous for competition and other forms for training.  
  6. Know what you are taking! The majority of gamers tend to go for energy drinks. This is perfectly fine but BEWARE, many of these concoctions contain much higher amounts of caffeine than normal and have many other added ingredients which are only there to make them taste nice. Alternatively stick to black coffee, it comes with a multitude of health benefits and is easy to track in terms of caffeine dosage (50-80mg a cup).  
  7. Take a break from caffeine now and then. Research has shown that dependency is built up relatively quickly, hence why many esports players report that caffeine has started to have less of an effect on them and thus have to consume more in order to feel the same as before. Therefore, when you’re not playing, avoid caffeine all together. 
  8. Switch out fizzy drinks for squash! A can of Coca-Cola contains 32mg of caffeine which is enough to keep you up at night. If you really can’t help it, try switching to the decaffeinated option! 
  9. Get to know yourself and what works for you. Everyone has different tolerability levels in terms of what makes them feel best or what stops them from sleeping! 
  10. If you can’t avoid taking caffeine late at night as you have an important match, check out some top tips in our sleep infographic.

Written by Jamie Kiff, Performance Scientist at G-Science

REFERENCES 

  1. Heckman, M.A., Weil, J. and De Mejia, E.G., 2010. Caffeine (1, 3, 7‐trimethylxanthine) in foods: a comprehensive review on consumption, functionality, safety, and regulatory matters. Journal of food science75(3), pp.R77-R87. 
  2. Fredholm, B.B., Bättig, K., Holmén, J., Nehlig, A. and Zvartau, E.E., 1999. Actions of caffeine in the brain with special reference to factors that contribute to its widespread use.Pharmacological reviews,51(1), pp.83-133. 
  3. Mitchell, D.C., Knight, C.A., Hockenberry, J., Teplansky, R. and Hartman, T.J., 2014. Beverage caffeine intakes in the US.Food and Chemical Toxicology,63, pp.136-142. 
  4. Porkka-Heiskanen, T., Alanko, L., Kalinchuk, A. and Stenberg, D., 2002. Adenosine and sleep. Sleep medicine reviews6(4), pp.321-332. 
  5. Acquas, E., Tanda, G. and Di Chiara, G., 2002. Differential effects of caffeine on dopamine and acetylcholine transmission in brain areas of drug-naive and caffeine-pretreated rats. Neuropsychopharmacology27(2), p.182. 
  6. Graham, T.E., 2001. Caffeine and exercise. Sports medicine31(11), pp.785-807. 
  7. Grosso, G., Godos, J., Galvano, F. and Giovannucci, E.L., 2017. Coffee, caffeine, and health outcomes: an umbrella review. Annual review of nutrition37, pp.131-156. 
  8. Crippa, A., Discacciati, A., Larsson, S.C., Wolk, A. and Orsini, N., 2014. Coffee consumption and mortality from all causes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer: a dose-response meta-analysis. American journal of epidemiology180(8), pp.763-775.  
  9. Santos, V., Santos, V., Felippe, L., Almeida Jr, J., Bertuzzi, R., Kiss, M. and Lima-Silva, A., 2014. Caffeine reduces reaction time and improves performance in simulated-contest of taekwondo.Nutrients,6(2), pp.637-649. 
  10. Lieberman, H.R., Spring, B.J. and Garfield, G.S., 1986. The behavioral effects of food constituents: strategies used in studies of amino acids, protein, carbohydrate and caffeine.Nutrition Reviews,44, pp.61-70. 
  11. Einöther, S.J. and Giesbrecht, T., 2013. Caffeine as an attention enhancer: reviewing existing assumptions.Psychopharmacology,225(2), pp.251-274. 
  12. McLellan, T.M., Caldwell, J.A. and Lieberman, H.R., 2016. A review of caffeine’s effects on cognitive, physical and occupational performance. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews71, pp.294-312. 
  13. McLellan, T.M., Caldwell, J.A. and Lieberman, H.R., 2016. A review of caffeine’s effects on cognitive, physical and occupational performance.Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews,71, pp.294-312. 
  14. Maughan, R.J. and Gleeson, M., 2010. ‘The endurance athlete’. In: (2nd ed) The biochemical basis of sports performance. Oxford University Press (pp 127-173)  
  15. Duncan, M.J. and Hankey, J., 2013. The effect of a caffeinated energy drink on various psychological measures during submaximal cycling.Physiology & behavior,116, pp.60-65. 
  16. Wilson, J.L., 2014. Clinical perspective on stress, cortisol and adrenal fatigue. Advances in Integrative Medicine1(2), pp.93-96. 
  17. Harland, B.F., 2000. Caffeine and nutrition. Nutrition16(7), pp.522-526. 
  18. Goldstein, E.R., Ziegenfuss, T., Kalman, D., Kreider, R., Campbell, B., Wilborn, C., Taylor, L., Willoughby, D., Stout, J., Graves, B.S. and Wildman, R., 2010. International society of sports nutrition position stand: caffeine and performance. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition7(1), p.5.