Professional sports make up a huge industry. Hundreds of billions of dollars are generated each year by teams and leagues as TV companies, fans, and sponsors all hand over cash to be associated with these competitions.
In addition to buying a cable or satellite television package to be able to watch games live, many sports fans will spend hundreds or even thousands every year on merchandise, fantasy teams, hospitality, and betting. Frugal fans will take advantage of promotions like free bets from bookmakers and discounts from clothing retailers to help save themselves some cash, but it can still add up.
On top of that, many also like to play the video game recreations of their favourite sports as it allows them to step into the virtual shoes of their idols and recreate the iconic plays they performed in real life.
For most of these gamers, playing is just a bit of fun and a great way to relax. But can playing a digital recreation of a sport actually make you a better athlete?
The most obvious way to assess whether a video game can make you a better athlete is by asking whether playing the digital version requires you to develop transferable skills that you can apply to the real world.
While playing FIFA isn’t the same as kicking a football around in a field, driving a car around a virtual circuit is very similar to throwing a physical car around a race track.
The quality of video game design and computer hardware has come on leaps and bounds in recent years. That has allowed racing simulation titles to more accurately reflect the real-world physics of a race car.
Modern versions of games like Forza Motorsport, Formula 1, GRID, and Gran Turismo allow players to tweak the setup of their cars with incredible detail. While older video games allowed tweaks to brake balance and the level of aerodynamics, contemporary titles allow for minuscule changes to ride heights, anti-roll bars, rubber compounds, gear ratios, toe, camber, tyre pressures, and suspension stiffness.
Changing these settings will make a noticeable difference to the performance and handling of the car on the track, with more or less over/understeer, better speed through the corners, and a different top speed.
The most dedicated drivers, who are often known as “sim racers” will also invest in pricy steering wheels and pedals that plug into their PC or console. With modern racing simulator games and high-tech hardware, the digital driving experience is almost identical to real life.
In fact, some drivers have even made the jump from sim racing to racing on real tracks. The GT Academy is the most famous example of this, with players of Gran Turismo being offered seats in race teams by Nissan since 2008.
Many of the current generation of Formula 1 drivers are also known to be avid sim racers, using their real-life experience to excel in video games.
The same can’t be said for video game versions of other sports. Moving digital characters around a screen isn’t the same as being on a football field while trying to score a real goal.
But that doesn’t mean FIFA or Madden can’t make you a better athlete in some ways. In 2018, Krzysztof Piatek said in an interview that he’d used FIFA to look up all of his new teammates after signing for Genoa.
A few years earlier, Alex Iwobi told the New York Times that he had used the game to see who his opponents would be. He also said that, earlier in his career, he would see some of the moves players made in games and then try to recreate them in the real world.
At a more academic level, a football coach named Amy Price told the BBC that players of video games become good at “metacognition”. This essentially means that players are “thinking about thinking” and problem-solving, things that are important for anyone that wants to perform well strategically.
However, Price doesn’t believe that sports games necessarily hold any advantage over other genres. Instead, she argues that it is the inherent problem-solving element of games that can help athletes improve their abilities.
So it seems that all athletes can benefit from gaming, although racing games have more directly transferable skills that can be applied to their real-world equivalents.