Players filled the practice room for entirety of the four days of Smash Summit 2. Clicks of Gamecube controllers and the familiar beat of "Dreamland" emanated throughout the house. By mid-day, certain players opted to watch rather than play; I asked one of those on the sidelines if they would like to play some friendly matches.
"Sorry, I need to rest my hands for the tournament."
He looked for his braces and proceeded to place them on his wrists. Meanwhile, another player in the room stretched his wrists and forearms as he waited for his turn on the TV rotation. The top players know that they need to preserve their bodies if they want to sustain their esports careers.
One player in particular has not been so fortunate.
Aziz "Hax" Al-Yami was originally invited to Smash Summit 2, but had to decline at the last minute because of his chronic hand issues. These issues, along with his insomnia, have plagued him and hindered his playing career for nearly two years. The hand issues started at WHOBO MLG back in May 2014, when he felt "an explosion" in his left wrist while playing Melee.
Since suffering the injury, he has seen more than 10 hand surgeons, and underwent two different hand surgeries. The first surgery removed the ball of his wrist, but the problems persisted; Hax underwent a second surgery, during which nothing abnormal was discovered. He hoped that extended time away from Melee would help his hand recover.
Hax returned to the game in March 2016, hoping to gradually build himself back up into peak shape. Hax attended Pound 2016 in April, where he put on a tremendous performance on his way to a third place finish; he defeated Joseph "Mango" Marquez and Zachary "SFAT" Cordoni in his bracket along the way. In his post-game interview, Hax was hopeful that this was only a preview of things to come.
However, Hax felt hand pain the day after Pound ended. With his doctor having limited availability, he had to drop out of Smash Summit 2 until he could obtain an ultrasound. At this point, no one is quite sure what the exact issue is and Hax wrote about his uncertain future in his blog.
"I guess this means I'm retired again," wrote Hax. "I'll be honest at this point, there's a chance I never make a full return. My left hand feels ruined beyond belief...That being said, if there's a fix out there I'll do it. Smash aside, my hand is in constant pain even when I perform everyday tasks. I just hope I can get to the bottom of this soon."
- Hax$ (@ssbmhax) May 6, 2014
Hax's issues bring about an important question: how can Smashers maintain long term esports careers?
In the past two years, many players have transitioned from making Smash Brothers a hobby into a full time career. Previously, players have been able to remain competitive without putting extended hours; now, players are expected to play nearly every day for long hours. The human body is good at accommodating short term stresses, but repetitive overuse can cause potential damage from wear and tear.
In Smash, players usually grip their controllers intensely, and when this is combined with rapid repetitive movement, this is a recipe for disaster to both the tendons and the nerve tissues in a player's hand and wrists. Minor, localized injuries can quickly build up into far more complex problems. It's not definitive, but it's possible that Hax's "explosion" was more likely to happen as a result of fatigue, similar to how a sports star is more prone to injury without rest.
It will become more important for players to take a proactive approach to maintaining their own physical health as esports continue to demand more and more from its players. Identifying motions that are the most problematic will be helpful in mitigating heavy wear and tear. It will also be important for specialized physicians to play a larger role in consultations for esports players -- and Smashers (along with other console and hand-held controller-based gamers) in particular.
In sports, there are specialized doctors and physical therapists that understand an athlete's needs. A general doctor can be dismissive and give advice akin to telling a runner to stop running. Such advice could be demoralizing to gamers, and ultimately doesn't serve their needs. Esports doctors will be a much more valuable commodity -- especially as they start to understand how gamers use their bodies -- allowing them to prescribe proper habits in physical gameplay and posture. Physical therapists will also play an important role not only in providing rehab but also in preventing injuries. They will be the much needed first line of defense for gamers in curtailing issues.
Esports players in general are very young, and it's unfortunate to see players in their early 20s that already suffer from issues that don't typically spring up until much later in life. Not only does it affect their ability to play and maintain a career, but also affects their general quality of life. This is still a relatively unexplored area in Smash, and it's clear that a proactive attitude is needed by both the players and the community at large -- to sustain the growth of the game, but more importantly, maintain the health of the players.
This article would not have been possible without the help of Stephania Bell (@Stephania_ESPN), who provided valuable insight into health and injuries.