Like many child stars, eSports is having an awkward adolescence. It's not quite straddling a wrecking ball and dry humping a middle-aged man at an awards show, but it could definitely do with a stint in rehab.
Despite having more money than it knows what to do with, the scene has a bit of a credibility problem. While it's drawing a crowd, if it wants to be taken seriously it's got to deal with issues like match-fixing scandals, sexism and perhaps most importantly the ever-present rumours of doping.
Doping, for those who prefer their drug use to be strictly recreational, is "administering drugs to in order to inhibit or enhance sporting performance". Usually it's reserved for greyhounds, race horses and traditional athletes, but for years now there's been many claims that professional gamers have been self-administering drugs to enhance their concentration for matches.
The industry hasn't been around long enough to see the impact of doping if these rumours are true. The problem is if we see a lack of trust in games as a competitive sport, we could see all players doping just to try and maintain a competitive edge – or, at least, that would be the public perception. Big money tournaments like Dota 2's The International (with a prize pool of almost $18 million at the time of writing) would be hounded by the accusations. The fallout from similar scandals in professional cycling still hasn't blown over, and if an eSports pro suddenly went full Lance Armstrong, we might see the death of the fledgling industry.
None of the eSport bodies have taken any actions toward the persistent rumours, until now. Recently, eSports organisation ESL has announced it'll be introducing random drug tests in August and English outfit Gfinity spoke up to say it'll be following suit.
My initial reaction to eSports doping is: so what? Teenagers have been taking pills to excel in social situations for decades. Why shouldn't they dose up on Ritalin or Adderall to concentrate better at video games?
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It's all about image: eSports is striving towards mainstream visibility, but if it becomes tarnished by drug-taking rumours it's going to be hard to bring in and maintain the big corporate sponsors that keep everyone swimming in baths full of money.
This doesn't change my initial reaction, but I'm biased, of course. Teenage LAN parties I attended were littered with cans of Rockstar and first-person-failure. I think if you had offered me a pill that could enable me to whip my friends at video games I'd have taken it, and that's before considering getting my hands on a multi-million dollar prize for doing so.
So why ban performance-enhancing drugs? I thought I'd start by asking a doctor. Engaging dad mode for a minute, taking prescription drugs you haven't been prescribed is A Bad Idea – and if eSports dominance were really as easy as dropping a few Adderall and storming to a lucrative victory, we'd all be doing it. What could go wrong?
Ritalin and Adderall have long been the drugs of choice for those trying to gain a competitive edge in mental challenges like studying, exams or in this case competitive video games. Ritalin is primarily used to treat ADHD, and on occasion narcolepsy. The doctor I speak to, who asks to remain anonymous, outlines precisely what could go wrong.
"In a healthy patient, [Ritalin use] will cause a flood of neurotransmitters which over-activates the system and can cause hyper attentiveness. What's actually happening is Ritalin is inducing a constant state of 'fight or flight' in the human body when taken. The strain this has on a healthy body should not be overlooked. Especially when taken chronically, in the long term."
Long-term effects of taking Ritalin read like a who's who of medical bad news: insomnia, anxiety, restlessness, hypertension (increase in blood pressure) and mild tachycardia (increase in heart rate) could all be on the cards for habitual users.
An overdose isn't going to do you much good, either: vomiting, muscle twitching or even a coma could await if you take too much, and this is something that's easier done than you might think, factoring in that many of these drugs are acquired illegally and can have different formulas from country to country. Consider the young average age of eSports athletes – late teens to early 20s – and the prize money available at the biggest competitions and it's not hard to see why pressure to perform could lead people to take performance enhancers, despite the risks.
Alex Tutty is an associate with the law firm Sheridans, and represents a variety of games and eSports companies. "The entities running the tournaments need these people to compete in their events, so making sure there's a level playing field would seem very sensible for them," he says. "It is also important that they take steps so that no one's going to get hurt because in order to gain a competitive advantage they take drugs that they probably shouldn't be taking."
Tutty is well placed to talk about the trouble eSports governing bodies might have bringing about a code of conduct that's fair: "Putting rules in place is potentially quite difficult, because whenever you put a rule in place – which is something lawyers love to do – you put together a framework and then some people will try and work out how to get around it. So you need to future-proof things as much as possible. But, eSports is in an enviable position in that there are so many other sports it can look to, and codes of conduct, and those governing bodies that they can say, 'What are your policies and how do you implement and enforce them?' By looking at other solutions they can pick out the best and most effective bits and learn from other's mistakes in this area. One example would be the WADA limits on certain prescribed drugs, the use of therapeutic use exemptions, and then the list of banned substances. eSports can use these examples to help create its own codes."
One thing to bear in mind is that it's important to be reactive with rules. "If something else comes onto the scene, someone will always go, 'Oh, actually, this drug's not banned. Let's start taking this one,'" Alex says, "and at that point in time you need to be reactive to that and say, 'Right, this one is banned, now.'"
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A code of conduct should go a long way towards lending eSports the legitimacy it's so eagerly searching for. Chris Higgins, editor of MCV's competitive gaming supplement, eSports Pro, thinks that this is a turning point.
"There have been a number of times in the past few years that the subject of performance-enhancing drugs has come up in eSports," he tells me. "Most of them have been as sort of phantom rumours and hearsay, but a few have been more credible – though still anonymous – whistleblower sources. But until now a lot of them have been brushed aside or not acted upon. The fact that ESL, one of the biggest tournament organisers for top-tier play, has reacted to another fairly unsubstantiated claim is notable.
"Them acting to prevent the use of PEDs (performance-enhancing drugs) shows that the industry has reached a point where it wants to shake off the spectre of unsportsmanlike or unfair play, and involving a global authority on the matter cements the approach. There's a possibility others will want to follow suit to ensure that they aren't seen as allowing the cheats to prosper in their own ranks."
While eSports professionals messing about with drugs could be causing themselves hassle further down the line, the real reason to step in and mandate what you can and can't take is to present a squeaky clean image that sponsors can buy into. This testing is a public proclamation of eSports protecting its future.
It's too early to make a call on whether or not these drug testing measures will be the first steps towards a more comprehensive code of conduct and full testing or not, but it issues a strong message: eSports is growing up and has no place for performance-enhancing drugs.
Thanks to Alex Tutty and Chris Higgins for their contributions.
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