As esports continues to further legitimise itself as a populous competitive activity with a glowing betting handle, it’s being held to the same standards as professional sports. Integrity has been a tricky issue to solve within the virtual playing-field, now raising concerns of doping in esports has thrown another wrench into combative efforts against integral issues.
A few loose confessions prompted the belief that if esports are to be viewed as a legit sport, then they need to regulated in a similar fashion. With so much controversy around the use of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) in esports we decided to do a bit of investigating into the issue in this week’s ESI Gambling Report, Powered by Thunderpick.
Before moving forward with this report, we must first state that we are in no way condoning the illicit use of of prescription medicine as use without the consolation of a certified medical professional is very dangerous. This is a highly sensitive discussion and the consumption of this article must be treated with delicacy.
Popping the lid off esports doping
Professional Counter-Strike player, Kory “Semphis” Friesen, opened up a deep can of worms when he very openly and casually admitted that he and his teammates were taking Adderall during a tournament. “We were all on Adderall,” he said. “I don’t even give a f**k. It was pretty obvious if you listened to the [communication channels].”
ESL, which hosted the tournament Friesen was referring to in his statement, responded quickly matching the intensity brought on by a professional player so loosely admitting to doping during an event. Starting just days later, ESL announced they would implement anti-doping measures in the form of random drug screening at their events.
While ‘doping’ in esports may not exactly mirror the same list of performance-enhancing substances that infiltrate traditional sports, it presents the same issues – competitors using drugs to gain an unfair advantage. With prize winnings spanning from thousands to tens of millions (as we saw at The International 8), motivation for wanting to garner that competitive edge seems clear.
Though steroids and growth hormones that are popular within cycling or baseball are a world apart from the likes of Adderall or Ritalin used in esports, they can easily give players the inside track against their opposition. These medications are often administered to patients with conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) – however, these substances can greatly improve a user’s concentration and reflexes. The effects of these medications provide a highly desirable quality in esports where split-second reactions and stamina across long, drawn-out tournaments mean the difference between winning thousands of dollars or leaving empty-handed.
As a gamer, whether you’ve heard of Adderall or any other agents seems to just depend on what level you competed at or simply the chance you happened to be exposed to it. From experience playing the popular first-person shooter, Halo, Adderall was regularly in talks among competitors even at the local level.
For more insight on its prevalence, we reached out to former professional Halo player, Clete “Assault” LoRusso, who competed for a number of years at the top-level and still regularly plays competitively on Twitch.
“As the years went on it was definitely a playing factor at major tournaments for large prize pools.”
“When I first started competing, maybe even the first few years, I never heard of Adderall. The first time I heard of it was in 2009 just from players online and at locals in my area. As the years went on it was definitely a playing factor at major tournaments for large prize pools.”
It doesn’t come as a major surprise that players would take advantage of PEDs when sizable amounts of cash are at stake, especially with word spreading of a substance that can greatly assist your performance in-game. Just as Friesen admitted so nonchalantly, LoRusso mentioned how the use of substances like Adderall was frequently discussed among the community quite freely.
“I played one of the best tournaments of my life.” he said. “I played so well that a bunch of the pros and some of my [real-life] friends questioned me [jokingly] that I took something that made me play better.” LoRusso confirmed that he did not – although he joked around saying he had his “fair share of Red Bulls” – as he is a sponsored athlete by the energy drink giants.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact prevalence of PEDs in esports and there are certainly arguments on both sides of the spectrum. Former SK Gaming executive Bjoern Franzen was fairly adamant in his own report detailing its widespread nature in esports. Franzen nodded to the astonishing improvements in comprehension and reflexes provided by neuroenhancement agents claiming its use in esports had become nearly “second nature” in the digital sport. In Franzen’s opinion, the rampant outbreak of usage will sooner or later pressure other top competitors to give in to its temptation:
“The problem is if you want to compete on the same level the people using some or all of the above agents do, sooner or later you will probably see the need for an equalizer.”
Playing a more current role on the defensive end of establishing anti-doping measures in esports is the Esports Integrity Coalition (ESIC) headed up by Integrity Commissioner, Ian Smith. Smith and the ESIC were the ones chosen to back ESL’s aforementioned doping control effort. We reached out to him regarding a number of talking-points – firstly, we inquired how large of a problem he suspected doping in esports was today.
“Over the last 2 and a half years we have tested over 300 tier one professionals at ESL events, surveyed over 400 and received all the relevant Therapeutic Use Exemptions and there have been no positives and no indication of a problem.”
Although Smith was able to ease us that there were no cases of doping at the top-level within tier-one ESL events, he mentioned that use in lower-divisions was still dubious for leagues that are not ESIC members.
“There is no testing anywhere in the world below tier one ESL events, except at the recent FIFA world championship, so there’s no way of knowing if doping is a problem in the lower tiers.”
Intrigued by the idea of doping control in esports and what it looked like, we extensively discussed with Smith the procedures and whether or not there were opportunities for players to ‘slip through the cracks’ under their supervision. ESIC released this video from ESL One Cologne 2018 showing the testing centres at the event for those who are more visual learners. The video documents the testing of CS:GO players using oral samples to test substance levels, a procedure Smith states is very accurate.
“We are assured by the accredited laboratory that the tests are very accurate for our prohibited list” he said. “It is true that most stimulants are only detectable for a relatively short time after they’re taken – say 6 to 12 hours or, at best, a couple of days depending on the substance, but our policy is aimed at stopping cheating at the event, so, if we can’t detect the substance immediately after a match when we test, then, even if they had taken it before, it would have provided no benefit to the player in terms of cheating.”
We had some concerns that a player may able to utilise a substance following a screening and allow them to bypass the anti-doping program leading us to probe the timing of these screens. Not only are these tests completely random, Smith explained to us that the draw may even cause one player to be tested multiple times throughout a tournament – not an ideal scenario if you plan on cheating at an ESL event.
“It usually works out that every player gets tested at least once; particularly if they are in the knockout stages, but the draw for testing is random, so it happens that some players get tested more than once and some don’t get tested at all in that event.”
Others slow to the movement
While the exact prevalence of doping seems to be a bit dubious due to its current largely unregulated nature, the question of why other tournament organisers and leagues seem lackadaisical to back anti-doping measures remains somewhat of an open-ended question.
Likely first on the minds of those responsible for implementing preventative actions is the cost of such testing. Smith confirmed for us that a testing program similar to what they’ve introduced at ESL can cost anywhere between $5,000 – $10,000 each event – a weighty price tag most esports event organisers simply can’t afford. However, there are a few groups that should be able to front the costs of such testing – which, either they don’t believe it’s a potential problem, or worse…
“I have no idea what the excuse is for the Overwatch League, LCS or the Valve Majors… I just speculate that they assume their gamer communities would never cheat… or, more cynically, they don’t want to know if they do.” Smith stated.
Smith raises an excellent point that introducing testing could land these organisations in hot water and in their minds, cause more trouble than it’s worth – stirring a pot that is, at the moment, placid.
The solution to all this still remains somewhat of a riddle – doping in esports would appear to be the invisible elephant in the room without proactive measures to combat its usage in esports.
While we commend ESL and ESIC for taking the inaugural steps into this minefield, there’s still a long road ahead of us before this problem is effectively resolved. While we wouldn’t recommend anyone holding their breath until other tournament organisers issue preventative programs of their own, Smith assured us that we can support these efforts in the meantime through education.
“Education is by far the best deterrent. There’s no evidence these drugs actually enhance performance at all and if players understand the risks, both to health and career, they’re not likely to do it – however, apart from ESL and ESIC, no-one in esports is doing any anti-doping education.”
Ian Smith, ESIC Commissioner, will be speaking at ESI London in September