Bridging worlds at breakneck speeds, today’s elite athletes are racing through virtual circuits and scoring in digital arenas with the same zeal they bring to physical sports. Max Verstappen and Neymar Jr. aren’t just names on the leaderboard of sports but also gaming scoreboards. And they’re not alone.
In this deep dive, we explore how professional sports icons from Formula 1 tracks to soccer fields, football arenas, basketball courts, and fighting rings, extend their competitive edge into the realm of online gaming.
We also delve into how a gaming VPN can help you optimize your connectivity, potentially leveling the playing field, and allowing you to game as competitively as the athletes you admire.
Max Verstappen, renowned for his three Formula 1 World Championship titles, has also made a name for himself in the digital world of FIFA (now EA Sports FC). One could even say his dedication to the virtual sport is as intense as his passion for racing. In 2018, Verstappen ranked 31st globally in FIFA Ultimate Team game mode, an impressive feat for someone balancing a high-octane career on the track. The following year, he climbed even higher, reaching the 21st spot worldwide, showcasing his growing skills in the gaming arena.
Verstappen’s passion for FIFA was even highlighted during the 2021 U.S. Grand Prix in Austin, Texas. Red Bull team principal Christian Horner revealed that Verstappen had spent a significant amount of his time that weekend, approximately 14 hours, immersed in FIFA. This gaming marathon didn’t deter his racing focus, as he went on to claim victory in Austin over Lewis Hamilton.
And Verstappen’s gaming skills aren’t just limited to solitary play. He comfortably outperformed fellow F1 driver Lando Norris in a three-match FIFA series during the 2020 season. Moreover, he nearly beat five-time Dutch FIFA champion Koen Weijland during a friendly digital match toward the end of 2023.
Charles Leclerc isn’t only known for his racing skills on the track but also for his proficiency in the gaming world. Leclerc’s interest in gaming, particularly in racing simulation (sim) games, gained significant attention during the pandemic. With real-world races on hold, he and other drivers, including George Russell, Alex Albon, and Lando Norris, formed what became known as the “Twitch Quartet” of F1, streaming their gaming sessions to fans. This move helped Leclerc amass a substantial 986,000 fan following on Twitch, where he regularly showcases his gaming setup and skills.
Leclerc has invested in a high-quality gaming rig, including a Fanatec Podium Racing Wheel, ClubSport pedals, and two ultra-wide Samsung monitors. In addition to his gaming pursuits, Leclerc has been actively involved in the F1 e-sports scene. He participated in the F1 Esports Virtual Grand Prix series, joining other current and former F1 drivers.
During the 2020 Formula 1 Virtual Grand Prix series, Russell emerged as a dominant force after he clinched victories in Spain, Monaco, Azerbaijan, and Canada. This performance not only crowned him the Virtual GP champion but also solidified his status in the e-sports realm.
In addition to his role as a member of the Twitch Quartet, the global lockdown spurred the Mercedes driver’s deeper engagement with sim racing. What started as a casual interest quickly turned into a serious pursuit, as evidenced by his professional-grade sim racing setup.
Norris’s passion for gaming and streaming is reflected in the growth of his Twitch following, which soared from around 185,000 to over 1.6 million followers in two short years. This rise in popularity is partly attributed to his regular streaming activities during the lockdown, where he engaged with a large online audience.
Taking his commitment to gaming a step further, Norris launched his own e-sports and content creation team, named Quadrant. This venture blends gaming, content creation, apparel, and racing, and represents Norris’s ambition to create a versatile and expansive presence in the e-sports world. The team aims to go beyond just racing games, with Norris expressing a desire to expand into various e-sports segments.
Neymar, the renowned Brazilian soccer star, has expanded his influence beyond the soccer field into the online gaming sphere. His noteworthy entry into this arena was marked by an exclusive streaming contract with Facebook Gaming. On this platform, Neymar regularly streams various games, engaging with a global audience.
Before this Facebook Gaming deal, Neymar was active on Twitch, streaming popular titles like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Call of Duty. His gaming sessions on Twitch were well-received by his over two million fan following, with him showcasing his impressive gaming skills.
However, Neymar’s streaming career hasn’t been without controversy. Notably, his involvement in live-streaming gambling activities on Twitch has been a subject of considerable debate. Neymar reportedly lost an estimated 1 million USD during one of these online gambling sessions. This incident highlighted the complex issues around celebrity endorsements and the promotion of gambling content on streaming platforms. The controversy was further fueled by allegations of differing standards in Twitch’s content moderation, with critics pointing out a perceived leniency towards celebrities like Neymar compared to other creators.
The Italian soccer legend has a strong affinity for video gaming, especially PlayStation. His autobiography, I Think Therefore I Play, reveals how he views PlayStation as a crucial part of his life, ranking it among the top inventions, just behind the wheel.
His passion for gaming was deeply intertwined with his soccer career. For a decade, he shared a room with teammate Alessandro Nesta at Milan and the national team, developing a close bond. They often played PlayStation games, especially when rooming together, making it a regular part of their routine before and after training sessions. Pirlo says that gaming was how they relaxed, particularly after matches when they found it hard to sleep.
Moreover, Pirlo’s PlayStation hobby was integral to his match preparation. He famously spent the afternoon before the 2006 World Cup final playing PlayStation. In his words, he didn’t feel the pressure and used gaming to unwind before leading Italy to World Cup victory later that night.
Porto’s renowned center-back isn’t just making headlines on the football field but also in the world of online gaming. A surprising yet engaging side of Pepe has emerged through his participation in live gaming streams on YouTube, particularly with the game Destiny on PlayStation. His involvement in gaming, a stark contrast to his on-pitch persona, offers fans a glimpse into his life beyond soccer.
The U.S. striker’s passion for gaming was prominently showcased when she appeared on the cover of FIFA 16, a landmark event for both her illustrious soccer career and the representation of women in gaming. This move by EA Sports, featuring Morgan alongside Canadian player Christine Sinclair and Australian player Steph Catley on regional FIFA 16 covers, was significant as it was the first major sports video game to feature female athletes so prominently. This decision not only acknowledged their soccer abilities but also underscored the growing importance of female representation in the e-sports sphere.
The former Arsenal player’s love for gaming runs skin-deep, quite literally. Bellerin’s dedication to Call of Duty is permanently inked on his body. This tattoo, a homage to his favorite game, is a symbol of the bond formed with his teammates at Arsenal’s academy. The tattoo, inscribed in the Greek alphabet as “tato” (brother in Spanish), is a testament to the friendships forged in the heat of virtual combat.
And Bellerin’s gaming interests don’t stop at Call of Duty. He’s also intertwined his passion for gaming with his football career. His creative contributions to FIFA 21, where he designed several kits, showcase his artistic side. These designs, like the Perma Club kit, touch on themes of sustainability, diversity, and cultural identity—reflecting his advocacy for sustainable living.
Beyond his personal projects, Bellerin has also participated in high-profile gaming events, including the launch of Call of Duty Black Ops 3 Beta. He live-streamed the event on YouTube for millions of fans in the lead-up to its 2015 launch.
The Liverpool forward has expanded his career into the e-sports arena by establishing Luna Galaxy, an e-sports team, in collaboration with Galaxy Racer. It’s a significant move into competitive gaming for Jota, who has been previously successful with his own e-sports organization, Diogo Jota Esports.
Luna Galaxy, the rebranded version of Diogo Jota Esports, has already made a mark in the FIFA gaming world, including a notable victory in the RIC Cup in 2022. The team competes in various games such as FIFA/EA Sports FC, Dota 2, and Rocket League.
Jota’s vision for Luna Galaxy is to bridge the gap between e-sports and traditional sports, leveraging his experience in both domains. He aims to captivate a wide audience, combining the fan bases of gaming and football. This collaboration with Galaxy Racer, which boasts a reach of over 600 million digital audiences, positions Luna Galaxy to make a significant impact in the competitive gaming scene.
Furthermore, Luna Galaxy is dedicated to nurturing new talent in e-sports. They organize bootcamps in Portugal and the Netherlands, providing coaching and mentorship to aspiring e-sports professionals. This initiative demonstrates a commitment to the growth and development of the e-sports community.
Gordon Hayward, an NBA player for the Charlotte Hornets, has made a significant mark in the e-sports world. He first achieved a milestone by signing an endorsement deal with HyperX, a prominent brand in the gaming accessory market. The agreement made him the first NBA player to secure an e-sports endorsement.
Hayward is also a huge fan of Fortnite. After a tibia injury during the 2017-2018 NBA season, he started playing Fortnite: Battle Royale during rehabilitation. At one stage, he claimed he was the best Fortnite player in the world. These days, Hayward’s interest in gaming is focused on League of Legends, a popular multiplayer online battle arena game.
His dedication to gaming also extends beyond leisure; Hayward has invested in Beastcoast, a North American e-sports organization. By serving as a senior advisor and investor, he demonstrates a commitment to influencing the future of e-sports, especially in his home state of Indiana.
The Phoenix Suns guard isn’t only a skilled basketball player but also a passionate gamer. His fondness for Call of Duty is well-known, highlighted by his cameo in the trailer for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare III. In addition to enjoying gaming as a hobby, Booker has leveraged his gaming talent for charitable causes.
He demonstrated his abilities by winning the NBA 2K20 Players Tournament. In this charity tournament, organized amid the pandemic, Booker showed his mastery of virtual basketball. He won the tournament undefeated, including a best-of-three final against his teammate Deandre Ayton, where Booker used the Houston Rockets and Denver Nuggets to win the two games. This victory not only highlighted Booker’s gaming skills but also contributed to COVID-19 relief efforts, as he received a 100,000 USD prize to donate to charity.
Lin, famed for his dynamic NBA career, has an intense enthusiasm for Dota 2. He started playing Dota in high school and continued with Dota 2, using it to keep in touch with friends and family. In fact, Dota 2 became a significant part of his life, particularly when he was recovering from injuries during his time with the New York Knicks.
Lin’s interest in the game even led him to the e-sports industry. He bought and renamed a Dota 2 team, J.Storm. Beyond playing, Lin contributes as a commentator for Dota 2, providing insights based on his experience in professional sports. He draws connections between the teamwork, strategy, and commitment needed in both e-sports and traditional sports.
The Minnesota Timberwolves center has also made a name for himself in the gaming world, particularly in Call of Duty. His love for gaming runs deep and extends beyond casual play; he actively engages in gaming events and streams his gameplay for fans. This includes participating in competitive gaming tournaments and interacting with the gaming community through his streams on platforms like Twitch and YouTube.
In 2021, Towns took a major step in the gaming community by joining Luminosity Gaming—a pioneering e-sports organization known for signing traditional athletes. This marked Towns as a prominent figure in the e-sports scene.
And Towns’s skills in gaming aren’t just for entertainment. He proved his mettle by winning the MTN DEW Call of Duty Celebrity PRO-AM tournament in 2019, alongside world champion Scump. The tournament brought together big names from various fields to compete, with Towns emerging as the champion.
Furthermore, Towns’ involvement in the gaming community extends to his interest in other popular games like Apex Legends and Fortnite. He’s discussed his dream teams for these games, indicating his deep understanding of gaming strategy and the importance of team chemistry in competitive gaming.
Davis, a key player for the Los Angeles Lakers, is also known for his engagement in gaming, particularly in Call of Duty. He’s often seen playing and streaming the first-person shooter game and once humorously had a session interrupted by a call from LeBron James. Davis has also been vocal about game updates, such as criticizing the Call of Duty: Warzone loadout drop system change in the Pacific update.
Previously, players could purchase loadout drops at any time, allowing them to quickly access their custom weapons and equipment. However, with the Pacific update, the ability to purchase loadout drops was restricted until after the first circle closed in the game.
Davis is also an enthusiastic player of NBA 2K. He became a talking point in the gaming community when a video of him playing NBA 2K, where his in-game character suffered an injury, went viral as it highlighted the overlap between his real-life career and his gaming pursuits.
Moreover, Davis has explored the virtual world of Grand Theft Auto (GTA) Online, participating in GTA Role Play.
Johnson, also known as OchoCinco, is not only a celebrated former NFL player but also a notable figure in the gaming community. Post his football career, Johnson has channeled his competitive spirit into the realm of video games, particularly excelling in titles like Madden, Call of Duty, and FIFA.
His enthusiasm for gaming is even evident among his fans and peers. Johnson actively engages with his audience through gaming, often taking up challenges thrown at him on social media. A notable instance of this was when he flew back from the Bahamas to Miami to accept a FIFA challenge from a fan, going so far as to show up at his house.
Johnson also regularly plays games on his Twitch channel, offering fans insight into how he has seamlessly transitioned his on-field tenacity to the virtual gaming world.
The New England Patriots wide receiver has gained significant recognition in the gaming world, especially with Fortnite. His notable entry into gaming was marked by his participation in a record-breaking Twitch stream on March 15, 2018. Teaming up with Ninja, Drake, and Travis Scott, the stream attracted over 635,000 concurrent viewers, setting a new viewership record.
Smith-Schuster’s gaming pursuits also include participating in the Streamer Bowl, a charity Fortnite tournament. Teaming with Kyle “Bugha” Giersdorf, the Fortnite World Cup winner, the event combined competition with charity, contributing to the positive image of gaming in the public eye.
Outside the competitive gaming scene, Smith-Schuster’s commitment extends to community initiatives. Through Camp JuJu he offers an esports camp experience that focuses on both gaming skills and life skills like teamwork, problem-solving, and communication. The camp, which caters to various popular games, also balances gaming with physical and cognitive activities. This initiative is part of Smith-Schuster’s broader effort with the JuJu Foundation to support youth initiatives, reflecting his commitment to making esports accessible, particularly for children from diverse backgrounds.
MMA and Wrestling
Better known as “Mighty Mouse” in the mixed martial arts (MMA) world, Johnson has made a notable transition from the physicality of the octagon to the digital realms of gaming and streaming. His gaming roots trace back to his childhood, starting with Nintendo games played with his mother at age 4. This early introduction ignited a lifelong passion for gaming, a journey that eventually led him to Twitch streaming under the alias MightyGaming.
His channel, which boasts a following of over 170,000 fans, showcases his skills in titles ranging from Ghost Recon: Wildlands and H1Z1 to Resident Evil 7 and Street Fighter V. Notably, Johnson steered clear of streaming UFC games, preferring to keep his professional and gaming lives separate.
The evolution of Johnson’s streaming career also coincided with his personal life. His initial foray into Twitch occurred during the nights spent rocking his son, Tyren, to sleep. It was during these moments he reconnected with childhood favorites like Mega Man X and Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Encouraged by his wife and supported by Twitch, Johnson upgraded his setup, turning streaming from a casual activity into a serious pursuit.
Johnson’s audience initially comprised MMA enthusiasts, but he aims to broaden this to include the wider gaming community. His game selections are diverse, including titles like Bloodborne, Dark Souls, Overwatch, Diablo, and StarCraft.
Parallel to his wrestling career, the WWE fighter has cultivated a strong presence in the gaming world. As a prominent gamer, he stands out for his skill and dedication to the gaming community. Woods runs a successful YouTube channel, UpUpDownDown, where he shares his gaming experiences with over two million followers and interacts with various guest stars.
Woods has also expressed a strong desire to see WWE branch into e-sports. In a recent interview, he shared his vision of creating a professional gaming team under the WWE banner, highlighting his role as the “gaming guy” of the company. This ambition aligns with WWE’s exploratory steps into gaming, evidenced by their trademark filings for “WWE SGL” and “Superstar Gaming League.”
The idea of a WWE-sponsored esports team, championed by Woods, could significantly impact both the wrestling and gaming industries. Such a venture would offer WWE a new avenue to engage with its audience and tap into the rapidly growing esports market. For Woods, leading this initiative could mark a groundbreaking moment in his career, merging his athletic and gaming talents in a pioneering way.
The former UFC featherweight champion says that gaming plays a unique role in his professional career as a fighter. He’s mentioned using the EA Sports UFC game as a tool for understanding and developing fighting techniques, an unconventional but effective approach that has contributed to his success in the octagon.
Holloway’s foray into gaming is well-documented through his YouTube channel, where he frequently posts content related to his gaming pursuits. The channel serves as a platform for him to showcase his skills in UFC, as well as popular games like Call of Duty.
In addition to his YouTube presence, Holloway recently signed a streaming deal with Kick, a rising star in the streaming service industry. This deal marked a historic moment, as Holloway became the first MMA fighter to partner with Kick in an official capacity. His engagement with this platform extends his reach in the gaming world, allowing him to stream a variety of content, including Apex Legends, Fortnite, and Madden.
Ross’s journey from the virtual battlefields of Team Fortress to the physical scrums of rugby presents an interesting case of how gaming and sports can intertwine. The retired Irish rugby union player’s gaming journey began with Quake, a popular first-person shooter game of the late 90s. It was here that Ross discovered a modification for Quake called Team Fortress, which laid the groundwork for his future in competitive gaming. Joining a clan, Ross honed his skills on a dial-up connection from Cork, ultimately leading his team to win the UK national championships in 1999.
Despite his early success, Ross didn’t leave gaming behind. Transitioning from Quake to Battlefield, he maintained the team dynamics and communication skills honed in his Team Fortress days. He says that his approach to gaming, much like his approach to rugby, is strategic and team-oriented. So much so that he still games with the same group he’s played with for years.
The U.S. Olympic track-and-field athlete is making impressive strides in the world of gaming. Her engagement with Call of Duty Warzone on Twitch showcases her ability to excel not just on the track, but also in the highly competitive and strategic environment of online gaming. Bougard stands out as one of the few elite female athletes who have ventured into the gaming scene on Twitch, indicating a significant crossover from traditional sports to digital competitiveness.
Her efforts extend beyond personal achievement. Bougard’s initiative to establish a female gamer group is a notable endeavor, especially given her role as an LGBTQ+ advocate. This move is a crucial step in promoting diversity and inclusivity within the gaming world, which has historically been male-dominated. By fostering a supportive community for female gamers, Bougard is playing a pivotal role in breaking down barriers and setting a precedent for future generations in both gaming and sports.
Moreover, Bougard’s presence on social media platforms like TikTok, where she live streams her gameplay, is a testament to her commitment to broadening her influence and outreach. Her TikTok activities not only entertain but also serve a larger purpose by bringing visibility to female and LGBTQ+ athletes and gamers.
Who’s your favorite athlete-gamer, and why do they stand out to you in both the sports and gaming worlds? Tell us in the comments below.
6 ways a VPN can enhance your gaming experience
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FAQ: About athletes who are big gamers
How common is it for professional athletes to also be gamers?
It’s becoming increasingly common for professional athletes to also be gamers. Many pro sports stars, like Max Verstappen, Neymar Jr., and Gordon Hayward, are avid gamers. This crossover is growing as e-sports and traditional sports continue to intersect.
Can gaming positively impact an athlete’s performance in their sport?
Yes, many athletes find that gaming enhances skills like hand-eye coordination, strategic thinking, and stress management, which can be beneficial in their professional sports careers.
What types of games do these athlete-gamers usually play?
Athletes who are also pro gamers play a variety of games. For instance, Neymar Jr. streams ‘CS:GO’ and ‘Call of Duty’, while Max Verstappen plays ‘FIFA’. Others, like Gordon Hayward, are into ‘Fortnite’ and ‘League of Legends’.
Have any athletes participated in professional e-sports tournaments?
Yes, numerous professional athletes have ventured into the realm of e-sports, participating in various professional gaming tournaments. For instance, George Russell and Charles Leclerc, known for Formula 1 racing, have been active in the ‘F1 Esports Virtual Grand Prix’ series. This series was particularly prominent during the pandemic when physical races were on hold. Additionally, NBA star Devin Booker emerged as the champion in the ‘NBA 2K20’ Players Tournament, a charity esports event. Another example is Diogo Jota, the Liverpool forward, who established his own e-sports team, Luna Galaxy, and has competed in notable FIFA gaming tournaments.
Can I watch athletes play games online?
Absolutely, you have the opportunity to watch these athletes showcase their gaming skills on various online platforms. Many of them regularly stream their gaming sessions, allowing fans to watch live and interact. Platforms like Twitch, YouTube Gaming, and Facebook Gaming are popular among athlete gamers.
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