Does eSports Have a Drug Problem?

This article is part of a collaboration with iQ by Intel.

In the aftermath of one professional player’s admission to using Adderall, the Electronic Sports League (ESL) is cracking down on performance-enhancing drugs by instituting a new set of standards and tests, positioning the league as a role model for professional sports leagues of all stripes.

When Oakland Athletics homerun slugger Jose Canseco released his tell-all biography Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant ‘Roids, Smash Hits and How Baseball Got Big in 2005, it landed like a bombshell. The book sparked one of the largest drug scandals in the history of professional sports. Eleven players were questioned by Congress about illegal steroid use. Canseco seemed surprised by the response to his book’s premise that responsible use of steroids was ultimately good for baseball.

Similar naivety hit eSports last year when Kory Friesen, a professional Counter-Strike player better known by his handle “Semphis,” talked about the rampant use of a stimulant that is commonly used to treat Attention Deficit Disorder. In an interview with Mohan “Launders” Govindasamy last July, Friesen offhandedly mentioned that every member of his Counter-Strike team used performance-enhancing drugs during a match in Poland. He wasn’t asked directly or even prompted; Friesen brought it up of his own volition.

“We were all on Adderall,” he said, referring to the amphetamine-based drug. “It was pretty obvious if you listened to the comms [communication between team players]. People can hate it or whatever.” Interviewer Govindasamy nodded in agreement as if Adderall use among players was as common as slurping Rock Star or coffee to get a jolt.

The Electronic Sports League’s (ESL) drug and alcohol policy is clear: Players are strictly prohibited from being under the influence of drugs, alcohol, or other performance enhancers during a match. Violation of that policy is punishable by exclusion from ESL One. Friesen’s teammates and owner of Cloud9 publically denied and denounced the use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs, but the damage was done.

In later interviews, Friesen said the team used the drug as a means of overcoming a losing streak in recent matches. Adderall, Friesen said in later interviews, was a way back to success, as it can heighten response time and improve reflexes—skills that are vital to an eSports player. Counter-Strike, Friesen’s sport of choice, is a shooter game based on pinpoint accuracy and reflexes. The player who can line up a shot first has an enormous edge.

“we live in a win-at-all-costs era today”

“There is no doubt that we live in a win-at-all-costs era today, and athletes feel a huge amount of pressure to compete at the highest level,” said Ben Nichols, spokesperson for the World Anti-Doping Agency, which recently partnered with the International eSports Federation to curb the use of performance enhancing drugs. Nichols partially attributes the intensity of player’s must-win mentality to the serious cash winners take home. The International, a tournament for the popular game DOTA 2, had a prize pool of more than $18 million in 2015, up $8 million from the previous year.

Shortly after Friesen’s statements, the ESL announced its plans to instate tests and regulations around performance-enhancing drugs on July 22, 2015. Partnering with the National Anti-Doping Agency (NADA) in Germany, the ESL intends to create an enforceable, comprehensive drug policy that sets a standard for eSports everywhere.

As ESL grows around the world, it’s increasingly critical for the league to protect the league’s integrity, according to George Woo, marketing manager of the Intel Extreme Masters World Championship (IEM), the longest running global sponsorship agreement in the history of eSports. “ESL is pioneering anti-cheating and anti-doping across eSports,” he said. “The league is building a process from the ground up rather than rely on existing rules and procedures used by other sports.”


Educating athletes on the risks of drugs is critical, said Eva Bunthoff, Director of Communications for NADA. “Athletes need to know what happens when they use banned substances,” she said. High doses of Adderall can lead to abnormal heart rate, elevated body temperature and changes in blood pressure. In the worst case scenario, a player ends up in a coma. Then there’s the risk of addiction. According to the FDA, chronic Adderall use can lead to dependence. When the drug is overused, it has the potential for causing vomiting, hallucinations, and circulatory collapse.

Like many of its star players, eSports is young. The industry’s growing pains are not only inevitable, but also necessary in order to remain a legitimate sport around the world. “As eSports evolve and get closer to being viewed as a traditional sport, we’ll have to put the same integrity measures in place,” said George Woo. “We’ll have to grow up.”

Though scandals like these shake up the community, bringing them to light can jumpstart initiatives that prevent eSports from becoming the corrupt world that Canseco painted in his book, Juiced.

Lead photograph courtesy Helena Kristiansson and Intel