In any other year, San Francisco Giants’ right-fielder Hunter Pence would be in the outfield catching fly balls on a given weeknight. Instead, he’s inside his home playing video games like World of Warcraft.
But Major League Baseball (MLB) players like Pence that are turning to video games aren’t just in it for a leisurely hobby (although it is a perk for dull quarantine days). Games are helping players keep their skill sets sharp while in quarantine so that when the time comes, they can return to the field in full force.
“There’s science behind games helping with quick decision making because, in a lot of specific games, you’re working on timing and anticipation…similar to recognizing a pitch at the plate,” Pence said.
Pence said playing video games — especially World of Warcraft — helps with his right-fielder skills like using his peripheral vision, which is needed when he’s in the outfield and has to focus on many things at once such as watching runners near the bases while also keeping an eye on the ball.
“I like to play World of Warcraft to help with my outfield because of the peripheral viewpoints in the game,” he said.
MLB players like Pence should be in their eighth week of the season right now. Instead, because of coronavirus lockdowns, games are on hold indefinitely, stadiums stand empty and quiet, and athletes are playing video games instead of baseball games.
Pence is an avid gamer. He even has a Twitch channel where he frequently streams his favorite games, which lately include the Diablo series, Magic: The Gathering, and World of Warcraft. His Twitch channel has more than 21,500 followers.
“During the season, I stream very little, but when I do get to stream on the off-season, I would say I usually stream on Twitch three times a week,” Pence said.
Video games can help keep the brain active and sharp, researchers have found. A 2017 research article published in the Frontiers in Human Neuroscience journal analyzed over 100 different studies and found that playing video games can increase certain brain skills. The combined studies found that gamers show improvements in skills such as sustained and selective attention.
Research also found evidence that video games can increase the size and efficiency of brain regions related to visuospatial skills, like how World of Warcraft helps with Pence’s peripheral vision.
Not all MLB players are hard-core gamers like Pence, though; some enjoy the competition that video games provide.
Jon Duplantier, a pitcher for the Arizona Diamondbacks, says he’s more of a casual gamer. His games of choice during quarantine are Call of Duty, Mario Kart, Super Smash Bros, and Madden.
Since Duplantier can’t get out onto the mound, video games are stoking that drive to compete.
“Video games keep up that competitive edge,” he said. “As athletes, we chase that feeling of competitiveness, of the goal to win.”
Lockdowns have also shut down a lot of the camaraderie between his teammates in person. But Duplantier says he’s found that type of connection through gaming.
“Video games are another way for people to connect and hang out,” he said. “Being able to go on PlayStation or Nintendo and get to connect with those guys and play games is important in times like this.”
Even in “normal” times, video games provide much-needed relief to these players when they are criticized for their every move on the field.
“As a professional athlete, everything you do is under such a huge microscope, and you can be too hard on yourself,” Pence said. “It can be tough to sit there after a loss or a bad game and just think about it, whereas sometimes you can get involved in a new game and reset, so to speak.”
Even when MLB reopens and teams face each other on the baseball diamond in real-life again, video games will still be a useful aide for players.
“Video games are definitely an escape,” Pence said. “I find a lot of joy entering these different worlds.”