How pro LoL players move so fast: the science behind gut reactions in gaming

MikeYeung has been one of the biggest talks of the split. He’s an 18-year-old rookie who’s been a Challenger-level player since the age of 13. His super aggressive playstyle, lightning fast reactions, and confident jungle play have brought him to the international limelight–but how is Mike able to do all this? What makes esports players great decision-makers?

I’m Amine Issa, Founder and Warchief of Science at Mobalytics, and I’ll start answering that question by breaking down one moment from Phoenix1 vs G2 at Rift Rivals. At the start of this clip, MikeYeung thinks he sees Blitzcrank solo-warding and instantly goes for the famous Insec kick. Realizing Blitzcrank is not alone, Mike has to get out immediately. He uses Flash, which is his only mobility spell left, to get away from Blitzcrank and the rest of G2. G2 engage and, once Trick is on top of him, MikeYeung’s only escape route is the Blast Cone in front of him.

Xpecial comes in with a clutch Lantern and Locket shield to give Mike time to take the cone toward his team. As Mike is running away, he sees the red buff still up in the direction he wants to leave in, so he dashes to it with Q and uses Smite to heal himself. Trick is still hot on his tail, but since enough time has passed, Mike uses W one last time with a Trinket to ward-hop away to safety. To escape, it took a Lee Sin Flash, a Thresh Lantern shield, a Thresh Locket shield, a Thresh Exhaust on Elise, a Lee Sin Q to dash to Red, a Lee Sin Smite on Red Buff to heal, and a Lee Sin W to ward-hop.

Any hesitation or delay on any of these actions would’ve resulted in Elise being able to close the gap earlier and kill Mike. So what kind of thought process went into this play? How fast did Mike calculate these moves? We can hypothesize and break stuff down and analyze all we like, but why don’t we just ask Mike? Okay, so Mike didn’t do any superhuman analysis in the moment of that play. Then how did he pull it off?

The answer lies in the power of a pro’s unconscious brain. the power of a pro’s unconscious brain. In the real world, Mike had mere microseconds to react to his circumstances. With no time to think about things thoroughly, he had to go with what people refer to as “gut” or “instinct.” With infinite time, do you think he could have done better? We don’t think so.

To an outsider, longer thinking time can seem to correlate with better decision-making, but to a practiced veteran who’s been in thousands of games and similar scenarios hundreds of times, their brain is wired so that the first decision they immediately reach is usually the best one. Overthinking and hesitation will usually lead to incorrect decision-making. Why is this? The human brain is wired so that your unconscious brain has infinitely more processing power than your conscious brain. This is what people are actually talking about when they refer to “instinct” or “game sense.”

Think about it: you make split-second decisions all the time, including stuff as simple as whether you like someone when you first meet them. Evolutionarily, if we weren’t capable of making these quick decisions, we would probably be wiped out as a species. Your unconscious brain stores tons of micro-information and past experiences you’ve accumulated over the years, ranging from muscle memory to reviewed footage, and then it processes it instantaneously when you encounter similar scenarios. These neural pathways are built up and developed over time.

The nervous system even has its own way of priming these decision pathways: it’s called Myelin. Myelin is an insulating sheath formed around nerve fibers, increasing the speed at which impulses are conducted, allowing for these critical pathways to run even faster than the rest of your nervous system. Maybe you still don’t believe that your unconscious mind is the powerhouse of the brain. Let’s take a simple example that most of us can relate to: driving. Companies spend millions of dollars trying to create self-driving cars, because while computers can master chess and breeze through advanced calculus, they just can’t seem to master driving.

Yet, our brains can drive just fine on autopilot. In fact, much to your family’s dismay, it can probably easily do it while you eat, talk on the phone, or ponder how to get better at League. Heck, you might even be able to do all these things at once and be just fine, because your brain is calculating tons of velocities and trajectories without you even noticing. But seriously, put away your phone and keep your eyes on the road. You don’t respawn IRL! People talk about being “in the zone” all the time in sports: moments where they stop thinking and the unconscious mind takes over, and they experience better, less hesitant, and more fluid play.

Tiger Woods once said, regarding his golf performance, “When everything is on the line–all my adrenaline is pumping, I’m in the flow of the tournament, and everything is riding on a certain shot–I have what I would describe as a blackout moment, where I don’t remember, later, actually performing it.” When players are in the zone, they can even forget what exactly transpired. They may remember pieces of the puzzle, but they are so in-the-moment that further thinking would be nothing more than a hinderance. Many athletes and pro players like MikeYeung couldn’t tell you the specifics of how they execute their performances because, to them, it’s as natural as breathing. When people think of the zone, they most often think of physical sports, but it’s definitely not limited to that.

The zone exists in the arts, speeches, conversations, moments of intimacy, etc. By virtue of being much more mentally focused than traditional sports, esports requires more mental processing. Switching tasks rapidly and processing information on different players, their cooldowns, and their summoner spells at all times is no easy feat. Add on map state, recent champ minimap information, and tabbed item info, and you have a lot to constantly be keeping track of, especially if you’re communicating in a team environment.

There’s also a lot of game knowledge to go around: League is a complex game with 137 current champs and approximately 90 different completed items. That makes the Number of Possible Team and Item Comps… a lot. If pro player brains weren’t able to chunk the information into collective bites of significance, they would never be able to master the game. We can see the power of unconscious thinking even more when we look at the physical limitations of the human body. The average reaction time for humans is 0.25 seconds to a visual stimulus and 0.17 seconds to an auditory stimulus.

Some of the faster moves in League of Legends come out in about 0.3 seconds. There just isn’t enough time for players to think everything through. Pro players practice day in and day out to get to this level of automatic processing. If you want to be like Mike, you have to work hard too–really hard and really smart.

You don’t have to take this journey alone – that’s why we founded Mobalytics. It’s basically an online tool for League that can identify your personal strengths and weaknesses and help you improve as efficiently as possible. We’ve had over 30,000 players in our exclusive beta use Mobalytics to quickly track and improve specific skills like farming and vision. I’m excited to say this beta is finally open to everyone, so visit this link and check it out.