Video Games

Why E-Sports Leagues Shouldn't Drug Test Players

It's a lost opportunity to embrace gaming as a truly virtual competition.


credit: w?odi / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

If you've ever spent more than a few minutes playing a competitive online video game—anything from a fast-twitch shooter like Call of Duty to one of those battle arena games like League of Legends that I can just never seem to get into—you've probably gotten the sense that not all of the players you encounter are strictly sober. Pickup games typically let players remain anonymous, so it's impossible to say with certainty, but my entirely unscientific observations suggest that a non-trivial portion of players in online game competitions at any given time are, well, enjoying more than just the game.

The link between video gaming and drugs, especially pot, goes back long before competitive online games arrived, to the early days of arcade and home console gaming. Indeed, I think it's fair to say that a reasonably large number of regular players view gaming primarily as something to do while high. This makes a lot of sense given that games provide a highly engaging but entirely safe virtual playspace to mess around in while chemically enhanced. It's fitting, really: Even the simplest video games are virtual worlds, and these substances can help people enter and inhabit those worlds more fully. 

That won't be a possibility much longer, however, for the small but growing number of people who count themselves professional gamers.

The Electronic Sports League (ESL), which hosts competitions for a variety of different competitive games,  announced yesterday that it would begin drug testing players starting next month, according to The New York Times. The Times says that the testing regime, operated in conjunction with international agencies that help test athletes in several high profile physical sports, is a reaction to a statement by one player that he was using Adderall. As a result, the league will focus on "performance enhancing drugs." (Technically players were already prohibited from using performance enhancers, but there was no list of banned substances or drug testing in place.)

What the new policy means, exactly, isn't entirely clear yet, but the basic idea,  ESL official James Lampkin tells the Times, is "to create a level playing field for all competitors and maintain the integrity of the sport."

One relatively easy way to create a level playing field for competitors is to avoid these sorts of rules entirely, and to take no position on what sorts of substances players consume prior to entering competitions. As for the "integrity" of the "sport," which strikes me as at least a slightly funny thing to say about relatively recent and constantly evolving games like Call of Duty or Counter-Strike (for the record, I've played both, but I much prefer the Battlefield franchise), it seems to me that the most integral thing is how and how well the players play the game, not the chemical composition of what they consumed beforehand.

It's not entirely clear how the league will enforce these rules. As the Times points out, lots of "preliminary e-sports competitions are held online, with players scattered around the country and abroad," meaning that there's no one around to police behavior. In addition, some of the players are going to have medical prescriptions for drugs like Adderall; a league could make exceptions for them, but that might just end up with large numbers of gamers reporting symptoms that lead their doctors to issue prescriptions.  

There's also some question about whether so-called "performance enhancing" drugs actually enhance performance. The player whose admission of Adderall use during a losing streak sparked the testing announcement didn't start winning, told the Times that the drug does not provide an instant boost, and while it helps with some parts of the shooter he plays—the target spotting and shooting bits—it also makes it harder to take directions, and thus to coordinate with fellow team members.

Gaming leagues are obviously totally within their rights to institute whatever rules and conditions they want for participants, and to enforce them however they choose. ESL likely views this move as an opportunity to enhance its credibility and seriousness as e-sports continue to grow, and it may be that policies like this are inevitable as competitive video game playing becomes a massively lucrative global industry.

I don't think this will have much impact on how people play games at home; you'll continue to find chemically enhanced players on your favorite servers, just as you find local sports leagues that resemble beer-drinking clubs as much as actual athletic teams.

But one of the greatest things about e-sports is that they are virtual, not physical; they are not primarily designed to test an individual body's strength or endurance or speed. They exist and occur in the digital realm, apart from the one that our bodies inhabit. They are not bound by place, or by the player's physical characteristics. That's a big part of their appeal, and an important part of what sets them apart from traditional sports. 

Drug testing has the potential to change that, in part because it places an emphasis on the physical player, and in part because it may force pro-gaming to become far more bound by place. Lampkin, the ESL official, indicated to the Times that "the whole industry may have to switch from online competitions to predominately live, in-person games." 

That's why this feels to me like a bit of a lost opportunity to step beyond the pieties that have long dominated traditional athletics, to set e-sports culturally apart from their physical sport counterparts, and to define the world of competitive gaming as one that accepts and embraces the idea that, unlike traditional athletics, competitive video game playing is about performance in a virtual space rather than about someone's physical attributes. 

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  1. Nerds.

    1. With the drugs, SUPERNERDS!!!

      1. Is your child a SUPERNERD? Watch our Channel 4-exclusive investigative report to find out.

      2. hackers on steroids

  2. It is hard for me to express how much of a FIRST WORLD PROBLEM this appears to be. Because it’s hard for me to express the degree to which this is a subject about which I DO NOT CARE!

    Good DAY sir!

    /Paul Giamatti as John Adams when he was pissed

    1. A great miniseries. Giamatti was good as that short, fat, angry little man.

      1. Robert Reich?

      2. George Costanza?

      3. He was superb. We watched the whole thing on July 4 – I wasn’t feeling very celebratory this year, what with the ass fucking we’re all getting from the gummint and its stooges. But that series is damned-near perfect. The casting IS perfect…except for Ben Franklin. I never liked that Brit guy affecting an Irish-ish accent….WTF?

        Giamatti was perfect, the dude who played T. Jefferson was magnificent, supers, whatshername as Abigail – perfect, Geo. Washington – perfect, Alexander Hamilton – perfect, King George – perfect….

        But Franklin? Bugs me EVERY time we watch it. Just something….off.

  3. Of course they should not drug test players, they should only drug the ones that pass the test!

    I think a better headline would have been, “Why E-Sports Leagues Shouldn’t Perform Drug Tests on Players.”

    Drug testing video game players is like testing snowboarders for pot. You’re basically throwing everyone out of the sport.

    1. I heard a story the other day about when the WWF started steroid testing. The whole company( and the owner specifically) were being investigated for distribution of steroids. They announced that anybody who pissed hot would be suspended, but immediately had to go back on that when only 40% of the company passed. That 40% was mainly managers, women, announcers, referees etc.

      1. “Pissing Hot: Confessions of a Pro-Wrestler”

  4. They might have an unfair disadvantage.

  5. This the pre International 5 thread for reason?

    1. I’m here for the circlejerkathon.

        1. We do meet the minimum number of three…

          1. I don’t do triangle jerks.

            1. Fine. Invite two friends.

    2. I am boycotting the International because Windranger didn’t get epic outfit.

  6. Is amphetamine abuse rampant in Esports?

    1. I do not know, but I know there is rampant beer and wine and whisky abuse when I play Team Fortress 2…

      Say, isn’t there a HyR Steam Group?

        1. No, relli! I thought there was a group … HM, help me out here?

          1. I remember it being discussed and having no idea what you guys were talking about.

          2. Yes there is. About ten of us in it right now.

    2. Since there are people who are ADHD or Asperger’s, I would suspect that many are “medicated”. It slows ADHD people down, decreasing their “advantage” over “normal” people. So, I guess that it is downright discrimination towards people who participate in electronic gamers!

  7. Also you mention “stepping beyond the pieties of traditional sports”. But that’s not ESLs goal at all. If anything they want to be more like traditional sport. And if that means drug tests, well piss into this cup.

    1. “You see, action sports is commercial value. So the Olympics want action sports because it is way more commercial money for them. Everybody knows that. The thing is you have guys directing the sport who don’t actually do the sport ? people who are just in it for the commercial interest. You don’t have the athletes involved who actually know about the sport that can make better progress in the sport, that can experiment with the sport, and make their snowboarding life a lot better. It’s all about sports politics and commercial interest.”

      –Terge Hakkonsen, a top snowboarder who boycotted the Olympics because he didn’t want a unique subculture to become a commercial sport.

  8. Is this serious? Has “e-sports” become so big it’s now going to be treated like actual sports? We’re going to test you for “performance enhancing drugs” before playing a video game tournament? I’d be more worried about someone using a modded controller to get an unfair advantage rather than some stupid drug.

    1. Kids on ADHD medication with a proper prescription: the Oscar Pistorius of e-sports?

    2. It’s the only kind of sports half these kids are fit to play.

    3. Prize pools for E-Sports have gotten very high. Starcraft 2 is in decline, but DOTA2 and League of Legends get millions in prize support for big competitions.

  9. It’s about ethics in oh just go fuck yourselves

    1. Widespread drug use would go a long way toward explaining the endurance of that story.

      1. I’d have to argue if more drugs had been involved, none of it would ever have happened.

        1. “Poor Bender, you’re seeing things. You’ve been drinking too much, or too little, I forget how it works with you. Anyway, you haven’t drunk exactly the right amount.”

          1. +1 Under the Volcano

  10. 1980’s. Asteroids. Weed.

    1. Heh.
      More like benzedrine and BattleZone

    2. Weed an Galaga. And Simon.

      Truly, it was a simpler time….

  11. Esports has been groping for legitimacy for years, and this is just a quick signal to the world that they’re serious about being legitimate like the big boys in the NFL and MLB.

    Even if it were to occur in the big LAN tournaments, somehow I don’t think players are going to stop using Ritalin if they could, say, somehow get access to some clean urine (if only there were some means of acquiring urine easily and inexpensively!) and falsify their results.

  12. Of course, there are enough bootlickers and sycophants that this bullshit idea will be a rousing success.

    I would be shocked – thrilled, but shocked – were the gamers to collectively tell the league to piss up a rope.

    Oh – for the record – VIDEO GAMES ARE NOT SPORTS! Pull your heads out of your collective fucking asses, shitbirds. Repeat until you fucking understand!

    1. absolutely. it would be like drug testing poker players

  13. if you waste too much time to play games ,you’ll be addicted to it and that can influence your daily life

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