Are esports athletes taking drugs? We look into the problem of drugs in professional gaming.

Ask yourself, what would be the coolest way to make a living? If you answered “Be Hugh Hefner” then yes, that would be a cool way to live, but we’re thinking of an even more awesome profession than that… no, actually, we lie; there’s nothing cooler than being a playboy. Okay, different approach: what profession would allow you to live out your gaming passion, gain a small amount of fame and glory, and yes maybe even a few groupies along the way? Why, being a cyber athlete, of course.

These days, electronic sports (esports) are becoming a global phenomenon, with thousands of people earning a living from their ability to frag the enemy better than anyone else. Take, for example, the almost rock star level of fame enjoyed by Jonathan ‘Fatal1ty’ Wendel, who has managed to win more than $1 million in prizes and has his name blazed across gaming equipment such as mice and video cards. A million bucks to play games! Where do we sign up?

And it’s not just a few people hanging around the top of the ladder who are earning big money; increasingly we are seeing competitions spring up that offer some fairly hefty prizes. Quake Con, which dates back to 1996, is an open-field competition, and attracts a horde of gamers to its Dallas digs each year, where some furious gaming takes place as they compete for cash and prizes.

World Cyber Games, which originated in South Korea, has now become the world’s largest videogame competition, with millions of dollars in prize money up for grabs each year (over various tournament stages). Gamers from all over the globe make the pilgrimage to this seven day tournament. The event even has its own worldwide torch relay! The WCG covers games such as Warcraft III, Starcraft, Counter-strike, Need for Speed, Guitar Hero II, Halo 3, and Virtua Fighter 5. With a constantly updating game roster, it’s conceivable that if you become good enough at any game then you’re in with a chance to compete. This year, the WCG is taking place in Cologne, Germany and already 700 players from approximately 74 countries have signed up and started to flex their gaming muscles in anticipation. The preparation that cyber athletes must make for the WCG is analogous to what Olympic athletes go through – and it’s strange to think that these people can make a living from what most of society perceive as just a hobby. That perception may need to be challenged, especially with the gaming business gaining steam like a runaway train. In South Korea, gaming is a national sport, and cyber athletes can earn as much as US$250,000 a year. The actual events are also super popular, managing to draw 100,000 spectators during finals.

As with any big sport, these cyber competitions and tournaments have created around them the associated media whose job it is to report and broadcast cyber events to the legions of interested fans with a dream of one day being just like their nimble-fingered heroes. To this end, professional gaming is broadcast on MTV, USA Network and Direct TV in the States, and there are numerous websites that broadcast matches, track scores and stats and report cyber gaming news. Yep, it’s big business alright.

Drugs are bad, m’kay
We’re all familiar with the scandals involving drugs in professional sports. Whether it’s blood doping, strange prescription meds from Thailand or just plain old ‘roids, there will always be athletes willing to try and get away with having an unfair advantage over the competition. The Tour De France is probably one of the best known worldwide sporting events plagued by drug cheating scandals. Even with rigorous drug testing procedures in place you can never be certain that the person who won actually did so out of pure skill and talent. A rather cynical approach to take, we know, but it’s an unfortunate side effect of such a high level of competition. Can the analogy be made with cyber athletes? With all of this money being thrown around at the big comps, is it possible that some elite players are looking for ways to enhance their performance – and if so, should drug testing be part of big gaming events such as the WCG? To answer these queries we need to look at the types of drugs or chemical enhancements that would even benefit somebody playing games, and then determine whether these drugs should be tested for. Here are a few gaming-related substances that we think might be lurking down the back of the couch in a few pro gaming athletes’ pads.

Amphetamines (Speed)
No, not that rather forgettable flick about a bus that should have blown up and saved the world from any future movies starring Keanu Reeves; the speed we’re referring to is an extremely potent stimulant that has been part of the casual drug scene for years. It’s very easy to imagine that your average pro gamer can get a hold of some speed on the eve of a big comp with no trouble.

Essentially, amphetamines such as speed act to increase the body’s activity, including heart rate, breathing and an increase in blood pressure. In terms of its effect on gaming, the promise of a heightened sense of awareness, confidence and well-being could be a lode stone to somebody looking for an edge on the competition.

As with any drug there are side effects, and the professional gamer who resorts to taking speed may find that any early advantage they gain is offset by the ‘coming down’ effects as the drug wears off. These include panic attacks, restlessness and hostile or aggressive behaviour. Total exhaustion is another symptom, which would undoubtedly affect the player’s performance in such a high-pressure situation. Therefore, instead of winning the contest, the professional gamer who dabbles in a bit of speed might just find him/herself kicked out of the competition for quite obviously being under the influence of amphetamines.

Dexamphetamine and Methylphenidate (Ritalin)
These drugs are usually prescribed to children suffering from ADHD. However, a black market does exists (mostly in schoolyards) for these pills, which offer a central nervous system stimulant that is more potent than caffeine but less than amphetamines. In fact, Ritalin is known generally as a ‘focus’ drug, getting little shits all over the world to actually settle down and behave at home or in schools.

Gamers may be attracted to Ritalin because of effects such as increased focus and attentiveness, appetite suppression (less breaks means more frags), and euphoria. Of course, the associated risks of addiction and negative side effects apply (not to mention the illegality of it), which makes you wonder why someone would risk their health for the chance to beat a room full of legit players.

FpsBrain is an interesting product because it may just be the first stimulant aimed directly at the esports market. The German manufacturer (in a [sic] worthy quote) claims that FpsBrain “optimizes perception and capacity of reaction and concentration – because not just a first-rate computer or a team well set up are the key to winning a competition, but also the physical and mental condition of each player.”

A closer look at the ingredients shows that caffeine is accounted for, as well as something called L-Tyrosine. In an investigation into this ingredient, and FpsBrain in general, MTV blog asked a registered dietitian to provide a report on the product. The results reveal that FpsBrain works through stimulating your muscles, heightening your awareness, decreasing your reaction time and easing your body during stressful conditions.

As always, there are caveats to such a product. Consumers need to be aware that it isn’t a super drug able to turn you into the best gamer ever – you need to have the intrinsic talent to be competitive. FpsBrain should also be taken alongside a healthy, balanced diet, something that is almost anathema to your average gaming sort. Seeing as it’s only currently available in Germany, we’re a bit wary of this one.

Don’t write this ubiquitous drug off just yet. Caffeine is one of the oldest and most popular stimulants in the history of mankind, dating as far back as the Stone Age (where people chewed the leaves, seeds and bark of plants for beneficial effects) and consumed by people all over the world (90% of Americans consume caffeine in some way every day). Chances are that you’ve already slammed down a cup or two of coffee today. It’s also an understated fact that caffeine is extremely addictive – just try and go cold turkey to experience those splitting headaches and irritable mood swings.

Caffeine is popular because its effects are fast; it can reach all tissues of the body within five minutes, with peak blood levels taking around 30 minutes. It’s this rapid feedback loop that makes caffeine such an easy drug to reach for when looking for that extra bit of concentration and focus. A cup of coffee or tea can instantly give the brain a boost, postponing fatigue and enhancing your performance at intellectual and physical tasks.

It’s no surprise, then, that there are a heap of caffeine products available to the pro gamer. They’re legal, quick to work and their addictive nature ensures that you’ll be coming back for more. In Australia, we have products such as, a pill form of caffeine which negates the need to drink anything. There are also several energy drinks available that promote their caffeine content as a selling point. It’s interesting that this legal drug may not actually be a help for the pro gamer. Sure, it increases your perception and reaction time, but prolonged use of caffeine can have a couple of side effects that might not be welcome in the high-stress situation of, say, a Grand Final Counter-strike match – like needing to go to the dunny for a whiz every fifteen minutes. Caffeine also reduces your fine motor coordination, particularly if you suffer from caffeine-caused hand tremors. Another side effect of caffeine is that it makes getting a good night’s sleep hard, which would definitely hinder the cyber athlete on the eve of an important event.

Should testing be mandatory at big comps?
The simple answer to this question for something like caffeine is that you wouldn’t even bother to test for it. It’s legal and up to the individual competitor to decide whether it’s beneficial to their game. For the other drugs we’ve discussed, the issue is less clear. Drug testing is not cheap. Getting a urine sample and testing it for all kinds of illegal substances costs the sporting industry millions of dollars each year, not to mention it impinges upon the privacy or its participants and creates an atmosphere of distrust.

While the big gaming events such as the WCG are running into the millions as far as prize money is concerned, it’s not likely that their budgets can account for the costs of drug testing every single contestant. Even a random sample would be costly, and increases the likelihood of cheaters getting away with it, thus making such a move symbolic at best.

You’ve also got to think about whether taking amphetamines or other stimulants is even going to give a competitor an edge. Sure, they might get a short term boost in reflexes and alertness, but unless they have actual talent under the hood they’re pretty much buggered. We’d like to think that anyone who is elite enough to make a living from professional gaming would treat their bodies with respect and keep healthy so that they can perform at their peak level. Those who cheat or hit up on drugs before they play are likely to be dropped from the competition early on – either through obviously being under the influence or from the ‘coming down’ effects of their drug of choice. It wouldn’t be easy to maintain a drug-induced level of performance over several days of qualifying rounds.

That said, there are heaps of casual gamers out there who would swear that sucking down on a bong before playing a driving game or, say, Guitar Hero III, actually makes them better players – allowing them to relax and enter a Zen-like state of concentration. We can imagine it now, “Hey! Pause the song, dude. I need a kebab with the lot!” With the rather relaxed rules at these competitions there’s nothing to stop these cheats making it all the way to the top if they’re good enough. There only needs to be one incident to put the sport’s image into hot water.

And wherever cash is up for grabs there will be people willing to risk anything for a chance to win it. With the gaming industry blazing ahead we can only see these types of competitions becoming more and more numerous, increasing their gravitational pull when it comes to contestants and increasing the chance of a cheater entering the ranks.

Perhaps what is needed is some kind of regulatory body for cybersports. The esports industry is already likening itself to the Olympics, which has the IOC, a committee that is well-known for being very harsh on drug cheats. Similarly, big sports like soccer have FIFA to watch over all the minutiae of the competition, particularly rules regarding drugs. If the world of professional gaming wants to be taken seriously, this kind of governing structure is something that will be needed in the near future. At the very least, there should be an investigation into what drugs, if they give the player an advantage, should be banned.

In the end, these competitions are about being recognised for your skill and prowess at gaming. It’s about being the best in the world at what you do, with the prize money a nice bonus. Cheaters will always be looked down upon, even more so in cyber sports. We don’t think that you’ll be seeing men in white suits holding out urine sample cups at the WCG this year – just as we doubt that taking amphetamines or Ritalin will give you any real advantage at esports if you don’t have the talent to back it up. However, drug testing – and the creation of a governing esports body – is an issue that will need to be examined closely by the organisers of these events. You might be surprised at what the future holds.


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No differnt to when we drink and drive. Forza seems So much better

Doc Orange
Doc Orange

Has anyone ever actually sat down and tried to play games straight? gently caress me it’s boring…