All Stan Horaczek wanted to do was to play Overwatch with his son. It should have been easy for Horaczek, who spent his college years fragging in Unreal Tournament LAN parties, to keep up with his 9-year-old son in a game that is, essentially, inspired by every major first person shooter from the past two decades. But Horaczek was struggling.
"At some point it became very obvious that he was way better at me at it," Horaczek told me over email. "I really enjoyed playing with him, but I was starting to feel like I was letting him down when we played."
Like any seasoned player, Horaczek thought the answer was simple: "Git gud," as players like to tease each other in competitive online games. And so after his son went to bed, he would log extra hours in Overwatch. "Especially, if I played bad during our games together," he said. "I'd treat it like training or practicing a musical instrument." When he wasn't playing, Horaczek would read strategy guides for his main, Moira, trying to make the most of her healing and support abilities to compensate for his lackluster ability on the offensive.
Eventually, Horaczek got himself to a place where his son wouldn't have to carry him every time they played, but now Overwatch is just about the only game the two can play together. Attempts to play any other modern competitive shooter, like Fortnite, only ends in Horaczek getting owned while his son can only look on in frustration—a gamer parent's worst fears made manifest.
Looking at his son's ability to just pick up a game and be good at it, and his own inability to do just that, Horaczek, who is 36, came to a simple conclusion: He's just too old to be good at video games.
"[My son] can pick up whatever and just play it and learn it," he said. "My old man brain doesn't work with that kind of quickness anymore."
Millennials grew up with some world-changing developments: The internet, cell phones, the free market's inability to provide basic things like affordable healthcare, and most importantly, video games. According to a Nielsen report released this past summer, they now make up 40 percent of the video game audience. They play more online games than their Gen X counterparts, watch nearly as many Twitch streams as Gen Z, and spend more money on video games than any other cohort.
As millennials creep into their 30s, they're only now just seeing the ravages of time take their toll. But unlike previous generations, personal experience and recent research suggests that they face a unique and harsh reality: They're just not that good at video games anymore.
Some, like Horaczek, can feel this intuitively as their performance decline as they get older, despite earnest efforts to improve. Others see headlines that the most recent Fortnite World Cup singles champion, who won $3 million, is just 16 years old, or that most esports pros retire before they even hit 25, and assume that their own decline is due to age.
But current research suggests that aging might be the wrong word for what’s causing millennial gamers to fall behind their younger peers. A better one might be obsolescence.
You're Getting Too Old For This Shit
If professional sports are a young person's game, then esports seems to be an even younger person's game. Compared to the MLB, NHL, NBA and NFL, every major esports athlete is, on average, younger than their traditional sports counterparts. The average age of the last three Counter-Strike: Global Offensive major tournament winners is 23.
Still, while people expect their faculties to decline with age, they also expect to compensate with experience. At the professional level, older players are almost always understood to retain their greatness through playing smarter, not harder—think Tim Duncan, Ichiro Suzuki and Serena Williams. This logic, however, appears to break down when it comes to millennial gamers. Somehow, even with all their experience growing up playing video games, the younger generation just seems to effortlessly own them.
The simple answer seems to be that older players just don't have hours every day to dump into playing. Here you are, a responsible job-having adult just trying to unwind after a long day, and BONGLORD420 is ruining your evening. While you're out there, participating in your mandatory wage labor, BONGLORD420 has all day to get good.
But a few months ago I suddenly found myself with an extra eight hours a day to play video games. Great, I thought, now I can finally get good again. With more play time I could finally shake the rust off from a decade of intermittent play. Playing just three to four hours a day, I thought, would sharpen my aim, refine my movement and give me a familiarity with the games to a point where I could play and not be constantly relearning how to play. Once I was back up to speed, I could focus on learning higher level game concepts, the collection of best practices and match strategies that are collectively called “the meta” in competitive games. Think character builds in Destiny, or map control in Quake Champions. In other words, I'd finally have enough time to get decent, so I could begin to get good.
But after a month and a half of logging the same in-game hours I did when I was 14 and had nothing to do all summer but play Counter-Strike, I didn't see any noticeable improvements. I was missing shots that I felt like I would have hit if I was a teenager, and I didn’t know why. Practice had always yielded results before, but now suddenly it didn’t seem to make a meaningful difference. It was as baffling as it was frustrating.
The good news is that while millennials might be getting too old to be good at video games, they are just getting old enough to be in positions to actually study and publish research on the relationships between age and video game performance. The bad news is that their findings don’t look good for people like me.
In 2014, Joe Thompson, then a psychology Ph.D. student at Saint Francis University, published a study that examined player data from over 3,000 Starcraft II players ranging in ages from 16 to 44, and found that reaction times slowed with age. Not exactly groundbreaking, except for the fact that Thompson found that the decline among these players began at age 24.
Perhaps even more upsetting to aging players, Thompson found "no evidence that this decline can be attenuated by expertise," he wrote in the conclusion of his study. Even the best older players exhibited slower reaction times compared to their younger peers. And although they could "indirectly" compensate for that decline with better tactics, there was no way to improve reaction time once it started to decline.
A year later, Shoshanna Tekofsky, an AI researcher who was working on her doctorate at Tilburg University, published a paper on the influence of age on player behavior in Battlefield 3. Drawing on player data from over 10,000 Battlefield players, and examining the relationship between age and various player actions—things like scores, objective captures, class ability use—Tekfosky noticed an interesting trend in the ratio of kills to deaths, arguably the gold standard for determining first person shooter performance. It was highest for players in their late teens and early 20s, and then declines among players in their mid-to-late 20s.
And it wasn't just in kill/death ratio that Tekofsky found this peak. In a number of other in-game metrics, she noticed these inverted u-shaped curves—where teenage players were OK, players in their early 20s the best, and older players getting worse with age—in a number of other metrics like unlock scores and objective scores.
"You have a lot of u-shaped curves, and these are all correlations with age," Tekofsky said. "And they generally, the peak of these is more or less around your 20s."
Of course, reaction time isn't the only thing that makes a good player. In discussions of professional player skill, esports fans typically break it down into two elements: execution and strategy. Younger players typically tout incredible shots and other feats of skill, while older players somehow always manage to put themselves in the right place at the right time.
"The hypothesis might be that the u-shaped curve, we don't know for sure, but it's maybe due to different influences working in opposite directions," Tekofsky said. "Your reaction times and your cognitive speeds, I would expect those to linearly decline with age. While at the same time, as you grow older you grow more experienced and more strategic."
It's generally accepted that our motor skills decline with age, but that experience and accumulated knowledge only grows. As such, you'd expect that "game sense" would peak much later than when our reaction times peak, right?
Well, maybe not so, according to a 2017 study that examined the relationship between intelligence and performance in League of Legends and Dota 2. In the first part of the study, researchers brought in local League of Legends players, tested their fluid intelligence levels, essentially, their ability to come up with strategies on the fly, and compared that to their matchmaking ranking (MMR), a in-game score that's derived from who a player wins and loses to—the higher the MMR the better the player, essentially. Unsurprisingly, players with the highest fluid intelligence scores were also the highest ranked in-game. The second part of the study then compared the MMR data from four games— Destiny 2, League of Legends, Battlefield 3, and Dota 2—to age. Athanasios Kokkinakis, the study's lead author, saw the same peak that Thompson and Tekofsky found. Players with the highest MMRs were in their early-to-mid 20s. In other words, it would appear that physiologically, younger players are just flat-out better than their older peers.
Waiting to Respawn
Based on a surface-level reading of the research, it would seem that older players are just doomed to be owned for the rest of their life. But all three studies present one major confounding factor to their findings: the cohort effect.
Every generation grows up differently. And video games haven't been around that long to demonstrate anything definitive about age and performance. Someone who started gaming with Unreal Tournament in college has had a drastically different experience than today's teen who is literally growing up with Fortnite. To say that the difference between the two is age omits a lot of factors and influences.
The best example of this is the Flynn effect, explained Kokkinakis. "Essentially, for the past century, the younger generation has kept out-performing the older generations in IQ tests," Kokkinakis said. "Some people said it was nutrition. Some people said they were just better at taking tests." We can see something similar happening in other measures of human performance: We just broke the sub-2:00 marathon. NFL lineman are now running 40-yard dash times that rival wide receivers. Modern skateboarding is now closer Tony Hawk's Pro Skater than to what it was in the '90s.
"There are so many nuances in Counter-Strike, that if you're not playing day-in and day-out, you kind of slowly slip out of the meta."
Kokkinakis believes something similar could be happening with video games. Millennials might have been the first to jump into online matches, but younger players might be benefiting from growing up in a time where they can easily adopt all the hard-won knowledge of their elders. "If you asked someone how to play [ Counter-Strike] 10 years ago, they would tell you 'Oh, just shoot them in the head'," he said. "Now… there's all these abbreviations, and then there's this way to practice recoil with the guns."
This is something that Eric "adreN" Hoag, a veteran 29-year-old CS:GO player who now coaches Team Liquid, echoes in his own experience of playing at the top level for nearly a decade. The reason why the best esports players tend you skew younger is twofold: they have the time and energy to put in the hours, and more importantly, they've inherited a solid decade of institutional knowledge, leading to an explosion of young talent.
"There are so many nuances in Counter-Strike, that if you're not playing day-in and day-out, you kind of slowly slip out of the meta," Haog said. "When you're younger you're finding new edges and little new things about the game."
In Hoag's estimation, it's certainly possible that we could see the average age of professional esports athlete tick-up, with prize pools growing, and games like Dota 2 and CS:GO enjoying nearly a decade atop the esports scene. But right now, years of little pay and changing games means that the generational divide between young and older players is especially pronounced.
"These new guys coming up, they only know CS:GO so they don't have any bad habits from Counter-Strike: Source, or [Counter-Strike] 1.6 (one of the earliest versions of the game). They're kinda just bred in the game that's currently played right now," Hoag said. "There's a certain meta of how to exploit the game and be the best within those mechanics, that I think for some of the older players, it's just really hard to adapt to that."
What's more, as the popularity of video games grow, so does the talent pool. "The competition has just risen so much that the best players 10 years ago are not nearly as good as the players coming up now," he said.
The same thing is most likely happening at the casual level, Kokkinakis said. It could be that we're just becoming better at video games overall. As simple as that.
This presents and even more dire existential crisis to those suffering the plight of the aging gamer. "When I played DOTA, back in the day, I remember being good," Kokkinakis said. "It could be that my memories are false, and I was just kind of good and I just played against bad opponents."
Those who grew up playing games online know just how easy it is to blame poor performance on factors outside of your control. That person who's just absolutely wrecking you? They're obviously hacking. And now, as Millennials grow older they have yet another convenient excuse at their disposal: I'm just getting too old for this shit.
But it's the more likely scenario that's the hardest to accept: It's not that you're getting worse at video games, it's that everyone got a lot better. As a younger, bigger, and more-skilled generation has finally emerged to take your spot among the leaderboards, you cannot "git gud." In our slow march towards oblivion, we must choose: get owned, or go play something else.