Evidence is mounting that performance-enhancing drugs – usually prescription stimulants like Ritalin and Adderall – are used by gamers to boost their focus, energy and reaction speed at times when maintaining their competitive edge is the most crucial, like tournaments.
“As eSports grows, a lot more issues are going to come out,” said high school student and professional gamer Eric Dong in an interview with the Times at the recent Enthusiast Gaming Live Expo (EGLX) in Toronto.
“People want to be more serious about it, people want to win, people start cheating,” he said, voicing an opinion expressed by other participants at the EGLX’s tournaments as well.
The growth of professional eSports since the late 2000s has been explosive: more than 70 million people watched eSports events in 2013, and by 2015 that number had tripled to 226 million. Professional gamers today navigate their way through a billion-dollar industry and it is becoming apparent that, like other athletes, eSports competitors are sometimes willing to cross ethical and legal lines.
“I’ve heard all about in the (Counter-Strike GO) group,” Dong said. “There was an incident — a North American team who in a tournament actually used Adderall. It created a lot of controversy.”
The team in question is Cloud9, and they were competing at the Electronic Sports League One Katowice tournament in March 2015, with a prize pool of US$250,000. Cloud9 is a high-profile team and the incident was picked up by every major gaming publication at the time. However, as Dong went on to say, it was then quickly “swept under the rug, and it just kind of went away.“
It doesn’t seem to be registering as much of an issue here at Algonquin; at least not yet.
E-sports club representative Frank Talwar dismissed the possibility of drug abuse among members of his club, saying that their top players “don’t need the extra boost to win tournaments.”
Algonquin Video Game club leader Andrew Kramer shared a similar opinion, adding that he doesn’t see using stimulants in non-medical contexts as a good idea. “Everyone has their own kind of coping mechanism when it comes to tournament stress,” Kramer said, citing alcohol, cigarettes and even green tea as the go-to’s for some of his players.
Contrasting these things with prescription medication, he commented on players using Adderall as a performance enhancer.
“That’s going to screw them in the end.”
Stimulant drugs are banned by many major sporting organizations such as the NFL, and users run the risk of addiction and mental and physical health problems. But at the higher levels of competitive eSports, the temptation exists, as tournaments put a considerable mental and physical strain on players.
“They’re up there, playing for hours on end (and) I can see people doing it to try to keep focused,” said Richard Howell, professionally known as St. Trick, who competed at the EGLX Dragon Ball FighterZ tournament.
Although he does not himself use prescription drugs, he acknowledged the appeal they have to some players.
Part of the reason eSports officials are reluctant to engage in an open anti-doping campaign is that it is difficult to regulate drugs that so many competitors are prescribed for legitimate reasons.
Cameron Little, web development student at Algonquin, is prescribed a stimulant medication for his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and said he has experimented with it in a competitive gaming event.
“I don’t generally take my meds at all. I have, in like one tournament,” he said, adding he noticed a difference. “I think I did slightly better just because it’s easier to focus on specific things. You are acutely aware of more stuff.”
Kramer agreed that along with the risks there are also benefits.
“(On) the subject of Adderall; you’re emotionally dull and you’re concentrating, you’ll probably have a better shot at winning.” He went on to say that another strong appeal stimulant drugs have are as a study aid for college students.
The discussion of nootropics – non-prescription drugs and supplements used to enhance cognitive performance – has been intensifying in recent years, with a lack of consensus in both the medical community and general public over whether “smart drugs” should be more restricted.
A particular nootropic named Modafinil – originally designed to treat sleeping disorders – has become particularly popular among students over the past decade. Many media outlets have written on the subject of Modafinil and other study drugs, with The Guardian and The Independent in particular running numerous stories on the subject since 2010.
In the UK nootropics are more accessible and can even be purchased online, and the subject of abusing them as an exam aid is currently being looked at as a developing issue in education.
Meanwhile, it can be argued that in North America, study drugs have largely become a reality of life for students. A widely publicized Statistic Brain Research Institute poll found that more than a third of U.S. college students have taken Adderall.
“I do remember back in university,” Kramer said. “When I was working on projects or studying for exams, there were people dealing Adderall in the library.” Little agrees that stimulants can help getting through exam season, saying “It is so helpful for cranking out anything, like if you have to write an essay.”
In a July 2017 Deutsche Welle article, Esports Integrity Coalition commissioner Ian Smith was quoted describing the current standard of checking for performance enhancement drugs “hopelessly inappropriate.” The article focuses on the current lack of enforcement from regulatory bodies, arguing it is motivated by a fear of controversy that might hurt professional eSports’ image in the public’s eye.
“It’s also not going to be very appealing to many players,” Dong said on the subject of mandatory drug checks at tournaments, adding that participants “just want to play the game, they want to have fun.”