Image credits: pxphere

Words By: Rhys Mather

Athletes have been doping for as long as competitive sports have existed, and a staggering number of them do it. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) reported that 44% of the athletes who competed in the 2011 world athletics championships had used banned performance enhancers at some point in their careers. The conversation around doping entered public consciousness in 2012 when professional cyclist Lance Armstrong was found to be guilty of using performance-enhancing drugs, and again in 2015 when Russia’s state-sponsored doping programme was uncovered. Both cases characterise the most common form of doping – athletes taking performance enhancers (usually anabolic steroids) to bolster their physical abilities – but as the popularity of competitive gaming continues to grow, and our definition of what “sports” are is changing; should our understanding of doping change with it?

E-sports are huge. CNBC (Consumer News and Business Channel) reports that the market was worth $1 billion in 2019 and is projected to be worth $4.27 billion by 2027, this year the annual ‘Dota 2’ international boasted a prize pool of over 40 million US dollars. So, while the appeal of e-sports can be elusive for many, the continued growth and popularity of the scene is undeniable. Winning a major e-sports tournament could make you a millionaire with hordes of adoring fans – someone, inevitably, was going to cheat. 

Cheating in E-sports is mainly done in two ways – one is the use of software to create an unfair advantage, the other is doping. In ‘traditional’ sports performance enhancers are most commonly steroids, but e-sports players have no use for them, instead turning to ADHD medication such as Adderall and Ritalin. The players utilize these stimulants in order to decrease in-game reaction times and remain focused, speaking to the Washington Post – a former semipro esports player had this to say:

“Typically I would be exhausted, tired and lose motivation after only a couple hours,” …. “With Adderall, I am able to play better than I ever have for up to 12 hours.”

The shocking prevalence of stimulant abuse in e-sports appears to be something of an open secret, even among the highest levels of play, the Washington post spoke to retired ‘Call of Duty’ player Adam Sloss:

“ “Nobody talks about it because everyone is on it,” former Call of Duty World Champion, Adam “KiLLa” Sloss said. When asked if Adderall abuse at events was something he had ever witnessed personally, Sloss replied, “Witnessed? Yeah, very frequently and a lot to be honest. It’s a major problem.”

After an eight-year career, Sloss stepped away from professional play in early 2019. Sloss said a big reason he has stopped competing was due to the rampant drug abuse. “The Adderall abuse was too much to keep up with,” Sloss said.”

One of the major problems in combating esports doping is the cost of testing, the Washington post reports that ESL (electronic sports league), a major esports organizer and production company, spends over 40 thousand US dollars annually on drug testing. A 40k bill isn’t a problem for large companies like ESL but smaller leagues and organisers simply can’t afford testing on this scale so many tournaments forego drug testing entirely. The COVID-19 pandemic also moved many esports competitions online, presenting further challenges to effective drug testing. 

However, the positive effects of stimulants, specifically Adderall, on gaming ability have been disputed. There is no evidence that Adderall makes you better at video games, taking a stimulant like Adderall will make you feel alert and awake but may provide no actual benefit for someone without ADHD. Speaking to PC gamer Dr William W. Dodson, a psychiatrist who specializes in adult ADHD, compares the effects of a neurotypical adult taking Adderall to having a few cups of coffee. Also speaking to pcgamer, Dr Ari Tuckman says: 

 “It’s also important to keep in mind that you may feel more focused and like you are performing better, but objectively you may not be. It’s like how when you’re drunk you think you’re much more hilarious than your sober friends think you are.”

Not everyone agrees, however, Adderall is considered a performance enhancer by WADA – and many professional players have voiced concerns over stimulant abuse both in terms of competition and the long term of effects of a neurotypical person taking ADHD medication. The side effects of prescription stimulants include: loss of appetite, anxiety, headaches, elevated heart rate and blood pressure – more concerning is addiction. The American addiction center (AAC) highlights the relatively low risk for people with ADHD taking this medication: “Regarding individuals who do have ADHD, a University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) research study found that taking Adderall or Ritalin did not increase their risk of addiction to these drugs or other drugs.”. Those at greatest risk of developing an addiction are neurotypical people taking unprescibed doses regularly, which is a common occurrence in the world of esports. 

Prescription stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin are taken by an extraordinary number of people, especially in the US. The readily available nature of these drugs makes it easy for young gamers looking for a competitive advantage to get their hands on them, regardless of whether or not they work any better than caffeine for gaming ability.  There have been recent legal attempts to combat cheating in esports. In Poland the legal definition of sport has been changed to any competition based on intellectual activity, holding players to the same legal standards as athletes. There also seems to be a general consensus among esports organisations to crack down on doping, with major competitions often having standardised drug testing – but for smaller tournaments with less money it seems pill-popping will be a mainstay of minor league esports.

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