Adderall Didn’t Make Me Better at 'Counter-Strike'
Performance enhancing drugs can keep you up, but they’re not going to magically make you better at video games.
I'm looking at the long doors on Counter-Strike: Global Offensive's de_dust2 map through the scope of my AUG rifle. The green dot at the center of my scope is floating between the narrow gap between the far set of double doors. All I have to do is wait for the balaclava-adorned head of an enemy to pop into that gap, pull the trigger, and get the headshot.
Professional eSports players compete in Counter-Strike for hundreds of thousands of dollars. On one level, it's an incredibly complex game that requires flawless teamwork, fluid strategies, and superhuman reflexes, but on another level, it's incredibly simple: point the green dot over the enemy's head and shoot.
These days, with an attention span ruined by various media addictions, I usually listen to a podcast while I play games and check Twitter on my phone between rounds, but I took an Adderall XR (extended release) 15 mg pill a couple of hours earlier, so I'm dialed in. Eyes wide, pupils dilated, it's just me, the gap between the two doors, and that green dot. The head will pop in and I'll shoot it. Simple.
But that's not what happens. The terrorist in the balaclava popped in alright, I fired, but I missed, and before I realized what was happening he shoots me in the head. That's usually what happens these days. The average Counter-Strike player is much better than me, and I don't think there's any drug in the world that can change that.
That's not what I expected given the scandal that rocked the Counter-Strike eSports scene earlier this year, when pro player Kory "Semphis" Friesen admitted in an interview that he and his team at the time, Cloud9, "were all on Adderall" during an ESL tournament where they competed for $250,000 in cash prizes.
The story, which prompted The New York Times to equate Semphis with Lance Armstrong and made the tournament organizer ESL introduce new anti-doping tests, confirmed what has been rumoured since before eSports was a giant industry that games market research firm Newzoo expects to generate $4.63 billion in annual revenue by 2018:
Some players use Adderall, a psychostimulant that's usually prescribed to treat people with attention deficient disorder, because they think it gives them an advantage. In the same way that baseball player Barry Bonds used steroids to build muscle mass faster and hit balls farther, players like Semphis allegedly use Adderall to be better at games, though it's not as clear how Adderall makes you better.
Rod "Slasher" Breslau, a former eSports player, commentator, and reporter who's covered eSports for 15 years, told me that Adderall use is most common with first-person shooters, and with American teams in particular. In October, the ESL also told me that at the moment it's only testing Counter-Strike players for Adderall. Historically, Americans were always big fans of first-person shooters like Counter-Strike, which Breslau told me pair well with the Adderall.
"Having to move through a 3D world and having to be very quick in your reaction time, aiming from one person to the next, deciding what you want to do, it works better with amphetamines than strategy games, where you have to think ahead," he said. "Americans play Dota, Starcraft, and League of Legends, but we really like to shoot people here in America, and then you combine that with a culture that takes Adderall probably more than other nations."
Studies that describe the benefits of psychostimulants like Adderall—improved memory, alertness, motivation to performs tasks, and other cognitive abilities—sound a lot like Ritalin (Methylphenidate), another psychostimulant I was prescribed in high school. It helped me suffer through hours of matriculation exams in subjects that bored me to death. Without Ritalin, I just didn't have the stamina for a test that took more than 90 minutes. The longer the test last, the worse my answers got. With Ritalin, I'd get a kind of tunnel vision that allowed me to focus on the test. It didn't seem as boring.
Adderall worked similarly, but much better. I took the pill at around at 8 AM. I started feeling my brain crackling at around 8:30 AM. I crushed my inbox in half an hour, replying to emails that have been languishing there for weeks, then jumped into some Counter-Strike.
I then moved to Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. When Counter-Strike: Global Offensive players want to flaunt their experience with the game these days, I often hear them say they've played it since Counter-Strike 1.6, a version of the game from 2003.
I've played Counter-Strike on and off since Counter-Strike 1.3, which was released in 2001, and I was never great at it, but I used to be a little better than I am now. This was back in junior high and high school, when I had the time to play for hours a day, join a clan with my friends called Shoot 2 Kill (hell yeah), and even go to internet cafes where we once played for 12 hours straight.
But these days, I don't have that kind of time to practice. The average Counter-Strike player on any given server is much better than me, and I didn't do much better with Adderall in my blood. I played for about an hour on two maps: de_dust2 and de_cbble. The short version is that I got thoroughly pwned, as I always do. For a hot minute my kill/death ratio was in the positive, meaning I killed more players than killed me, but I didn't suddenly become better. Mostly, I felt like a burden to my team.
I also tried playing this car soccer game, which I'm better at than Counter-Strike, but didn't see and improvement there either.
The only benefit I could see to taking Adderall is that, if I had the time, it would allow me to give the game a high level of attention for more hours. Like my boring high school math tests, I could just sit there and play for hours, focusing only on the game, without listening to a podcast or checking Twitter. If I was a pro player competing hours a day, every day, Adderall would be especially useful.
In October, several eSports teams started forming a union, and one of their main concerns was negotiating with tournament organizers for shorter days. A soccer match might be more physically taxing on the body, but it only lasts 90 minutes plus overtime. eSports players, on the other hand, will play several matches a day, and can easily compete for six hours day.
Semphis declined to comment for this story, as did numerous other players and teams I contacted. It's impossible to say how many people are using Adderall, but it could certainly help you practice for longer hours, and stay focused during a long day of competition.
"I think it has happened, and it still could still happen, which is why these [anti-doping] guidelines are in place," Breslau said. "But I don't think it's as widespread as to make giant names fall if there was more testing... I really don't want to eat these words if that's not true."
But whatever boost I got from Adderall, it didn't make me better at video games, just like Ritalin didn't magically give the answers to math tests. It helped me suffer how boring they were, but I still had to study. Adderall too can help you stay focused, but as far as I can tell, it's not going to help you get headshots.
Lit Up is a series about heightening—and dulling—our sense of perception. Follow along here.
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- Counter-Strike: Global Offensive