When competitive video game players gather in Germany this weekend for ESL One Cologne, the world's largest Counter-Strike: Global Offensive tournament, they will be subjected to an E-sports first: the Electronic Sports League will conduct random testing for drugs on the World Anti-Doping Association's (WADA) banned substances list, including marijuana, stimulants, and yes, steroids.
The association with WADA is perhaps the surest sign yet of E-sports' ascendance from LAN party hobby to major, multimillion-dollar international industry. It also raises a question: are E-Sports truly adopting the aggressive drug-testing regimens favored by traditional sports organizations in order to protect competition integrity and athlete health, or is it just a credibility-enhancing public relations ploy?
E-sports leagues such as the United States-based Major League Gaming (MLG) previously have banned many or all of the substances on WADA's list, but few if any measures were being taken to enforce the prohibitions—despite rumors of performance-enhancing drug (PED) use among competitors.
In July, Kory "Semphis" Friesen, a professional gamer, admitted that he had used the stimulant Adderall while playing in another ESL Counter-Strike: Global Offensive event in Poland.
"I don't even care. We were all on Adderall. I don't even give a fuck. It was pretty obvious if you listened to the comms," Friesen said in an interview.
"Everyone does Adderall at ESL, right?" the interviewer asked, drawing an affirmative from Friesen.
"Just throwing that out there, for the defense," the interviewer added.
A prescription drug used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy, Adderall is banned by WADA, the Olympics, and major American sports leagues because it can improve focus and reaction times while reducing fatigue—effects that certainly could provide a competitive edge in E-sports.
"It was amazing—like a kind of legal speed," an American gamer recently told Eurogamer.net. "Before, I'd suffered from nerves when competing in front of an audience. The atmosphere got to me. But when I played on Adderall and I was only focused on what was in front of me. It made me a far better player."
Less than a week after Friesen's interview aired, ESL spokesperson Anna Rozwandowicz told Wired that integrity of its competition is of the organization's utmost concern, and had kick-started a process to "change our rules" while "reaching out to authorities for support." Days later, ESL announced its partnership with NADA, Germany's national anti-doping agency and a member of WADA, and the first round of drug tests to be administered at the Cologne tournament. In early August, Rozwandowicz told VICE Sports via e-mail that "we don't think there is such a thing as the 'esports Adderall problem.'
"Doping at esports events isn't widespread," she wrote. "We never had a case where we had to discipline a player for competing while on PEDs, and we believe the great majority of players understand the negative influence of PEDs.
"However, we also believe that with further professionalization of esports and the rising stakes in competitions, implementation of an anti-drugs policy and testing is a great next step on the road to bring esports closer to the traditional sports."
And there's the rub. E-Sports may or may not have a drug problem. They definitely do not have a popularity problem: The International Dota2 Championships, one of the industry's premier events, sold out Seattle's Key Arena within minutes and offered a prize purse of $18.3 million, nearly double the prize purse of both The Masters and Wimbledon. The 2014 League of Legends world championships drew 27 million viewers on ESPN3, a larger audience than either the World Series or the NBA Finals.
No, what E-Sports have is a respectability problem. Despite its mass appeal, the industry struggles to be taken seriously by the mainstream. Coverage of E-Sports outside its bubble tends along the lines of this 2013 Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel segment, in which Star Trek jokes are tossed around and panelists dismiss it as "a game, not a sport," a phrase Eurogamer refers to with familiarity as "that famously non-obvious distinction." The idea that E-Sports are loaded with teenage boys popping Adderall and Ritalin like candy does nothing to help its reputation, whether with sports pundits like Gumbel or, more importantly, corporate sponsors.
Enter WADA and its affiliated national organizations, like the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). Doping controls offer more than just urine tests and arbitration hearings; they offer athletic credibility. E-sports aren't the first to seek out their legitimizing glow. When the Ultimate Fighting Championship partnered with WADA earlier this year, fighter Michael Chiesa told Yahoo Sports the move was "making us in line with the NFL, the NBA and baseball."
This is the bargain for E-Sports, same as it is for UFC: if you want to be a real sport, you must have the integrity of a real sport. Otherwise, you're professional wrestling. WADA promises to provide a solution. Whether it's an effective one is still a matter of debate.
Drug testing programs, whether carried out by a WADA member organization or simply influenced by its standards, have yet to stop athletes from doping. In December, Olympic sports were hit with their biggest drug scandal in years when a German TV documentary alleged that 99 percent of Russian athletes were doping, thanks to widespread collusion between athletes, testers, and the IAAF. MLB's Biogenesis scandal showed its testing program remains laughably easy to beat, as the number of tests conducted and the times testers are allowed access to the athletes allow large numbers of players to dope with impunity. And when the hammer drops, it often falls not on the stars, but on younger players, minor leaguers without union protection, players who can be unceremoniously tossed aside by their leagues and teams in the name of zero tolerance.
WADA may help e-sports flush out such obvious instances of cheating as Friesen's, but if other sports are a guide, drug-free competition won't follow. Rather, testing will encourage an arms race between players and screeners, leading to widespread use of masking agents or designer drugs meant to bamboozle the tests. Only the dumbest users will be caught, while players who have the money and the connections to beat the tests will do so. Players who otherwise might seek medical help for a drug problem–an Adderall addiction, a marijuana habit, steroid abuse—will have incentive to keep quiet, whether for themselves or for their teams.
E-Sports participants skew young—so young that one of the champions of this year's The International, Sumail, is only 16 years old. Drug testing will be unilaterally imposed by leagues; gamers do not have a union. What privacy and due process protections will these young men have?
Stephen "Snoopeh" Ellis, a League of Legends player, has strong feelings about players' rights within E-Sports, and is one of the few gamers who has discussed forming a union. He told VICE Sports that PED use—which is almost entirely Adderall use—is more common in fast-twitch first-person shooters like Call of Duty, but is still of concern in MOBAs (Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas) like League of Legends and Dota.
"I actually do support drug testing in eSports," Ellis wrote in an email. "I feel it's very important that there is some sort of deterrent in place for these kids. They are very impressionable and they are competing against millions of people to be the top of their sport. If you think your competition could be getting that 15% edge because he is using Adderall, then you might feel you have to take it in order to remain competitive."
The big question for the players will be in the implementation. "As a player, I would hope that the drug testing wouldn't be invasive and time consuming. A players association would certainly consider drug testing and without speaking on behalf of all the players, PEDs are going to be an important part of the conversation players take forward."
As E-sports push for legitimacy—whether from recognition as a "real sport," the acceptance of "gamer" as a profession, or approval from the cultural mainstream—and adopt drug testing to do so, the industry needs to answer some important questions. Will corporate teams and leagues treat their players as partners, or adversaries? Will they educate them about drug use and abuse? Will they offer help, alternatives, and ways out of addiction? Or will they simply tell them Just Say No? Will they treat Adderall abuse as a health issue, rather than a disciplinary one?
According to Rozwandowicz, the ESL is "currently also building an educational program around the origin, usage and side effect of PEDs, which will be distributed to all players participating in our competitions. We're hoping that this program, combined with the positive influence from players' direct environment (their coaches, families, friends), will help them understand what are the consequences of taking performance enhancing substances."
A fair response. Still, I'm skeptical. The problems of performance enhancing drugs are complex, and difficult to solve in a way that treats players—athletes or gamers—as humans. Partnership with WADA sends a clear signal that the ESL shares its belief in a zero tolerance policy, and zero tolerance—or the illusion of it—means players will inevitably be thrown under the bus in order to maintain the image of a clean sport. That doesn't promote integrity; it manufactures it. If the E-sports powers that be adopt PED testing as a way of deflecting bad press from the industry as a whole onto individual bad apples, they'll be playing a familiar game. Just like real sports.