August 04, 2014
I love eSports.
We try to market it as a sport for the masses, where everyone is on equal ground, and hard training, persistence and a pinch of god given talent decides if you get the opportunity to earn a living from it and a following of hundreds of thousands of fans and sponsorship deals for yourself or your team.
But the Illusion of a perfect showcase of the spirit of sports and equality of cross-gender competition is just that, the reality is quite a bit different.
In the professional gaming scene, where the ability of extreme focus over an extended amount of time, nuances of muscular reaction times and quick/complex thinking capabilities decide between a championship and going home as the team they will never talk about again, cyber athletes have found ways to get an unfair advantage over their competition outside of the computer peripheral war of modern mice and keyboards that is going on for the past ten years.
While in 2003 players were cutting sheets of adhesive Teflon and using silicone spray on their mouse pads to get even the slightest advantage over their competition in the first-person shooter Counter-Strike, in 2014 it’s a natural thing for some League of Legends players to pop three different kinds of smart drugs before a tournament game or to extend their training sessions for a few extra hours with full focus.
Neuroenhancement for cyber athletes and in electronic sports, in general, is one of the Industries best-kept secrets.
Today I`ll give you an inside view of what’s going on in the Tournament backstage areas, hotel lobbies and team houses of modern electronic sports teams and a general overview of the topic of neuroenhancement in modern electronic sports.
The fans and people interested in our sport need to be aware that this is a current and future problem.
And so far companies like Riot Games or the big tournament hosts like Major League Gaming or the Electronic Sports League are avoiding the issue, by tolerating the usage of pharmaceutical neuroenhancers and all kinds of “self-medication” instead of establishing fair play standards and equality of competition by making the usage of certain substances and medication punishable and enforcing anti-doping guidelines by regular drug tests during tournament events.
What exactly is “Neuroenhancement”?
The term “neuroenhancement” refers to improvement in the cognitive, emotional and motivational functions of healthy individuals through, the use of drugs, which are called pharmaceutical neuroenhancers. Pharmaceutical neuroenhancers used outside medical indication (“illicit” use) have also been called, “smart drugs.”
The usage of smart drugs in electronic sports to achieve better results and higher rankings has for long been a matter of private concern for insiders, but with eSports getting the attention of mainstream media and pulling audiences that fill whole stadiums the need to win or get even the slightest advantage over the competition is bigger than never before.
The prize pools were expanded to 5 Million Dollars for a first place at The International, a competition in Valve’s free to play title DOTA2.
Nowadays there is money to be made everywhere in this industry.
There are in-game items to support your favorite teams for money, educational game-related services, and services like Twitch, who offer exposure and money to the best players of their genres in return for streaming their gaming skills into the offices and living rooms for everyone who is willing to watch.
Given this reality, it is not surprising that cyber athletes and team owners are willing to risk and sacrifice a great deal to obtain a competitive edge and win tournaments at all costs.
While the traditional cheating is almost impossible nowadays, as most of the recent tournaments do have their finals off-line on tournament issued PCs with referees and administrators watching over the players shoulders during all games and preparation, the use of smart drugs by cyber athletes is completely unregulated to date.
If we want eSports to be respected as a “real sport” by the public, we also have to keep it a clean sport and value the spirit of the sport.
WADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency defines the spirit of the sport as following.
The spirit of sport is the celebration of the human spirit, body, and mind, and is characterized by the following values:
• Ethics, fair play, and honesty
• Excellence in performance
• Character and education
• Fun and joy
• Dedication and commitment
• Respect for rules and laws
• Respect for self and other Participants
• Community and solidarity
Doping is fundamentally contrary to the spirit of sport.
It distorts and overrides natural gifts.
The WADA’s World Anti-Doping Code defines that substances and methods may be banned for use by athletes if they meet at least two of the following three criteria:
(1) They are performance enhancing;
(2) They are dangerous to the health of the athlete;
(3) They violate ‘the spirit of sport.
Smart Drugs used by Cyber athletes
The reality is, with the current status of pharmaceutical neuroenhancers no magic pill makes you the next Einstein or enhances your reflexes to the point where you can catch a bullet with your bare hands. So if you think Limitless with Bradley Cooper I have to disappoint you, we are not at that point yet.
While from a scientific point of view the effects of the current generation of smart drugs might be in no way comparable to the scenario above, the improvements the usage of several smart drugs provide, especially in relation to the skillset a successful cyber athlete needs are noticeable, and knowing teams and players that frequently “self-medicate” I can say without a doubt that you can also see it in their tournament performance if you know they do it.
And with the next generation of smart drugs on the horizon in the foreseeable future this gap will just widen.
Before I continue a serious warning, this article, or I am not encouraging cyber athletes or any people in general to use anything that has the capability to f*ck royally with your brain chemistry.
And the illicit use of prescription medication might be one of the worst ideas you could ever have, especially without medical supervision by a certified experienced doctor.
But for many professional cyber athletes out there their regular diet looks something like this.
Need to memorize the last 100 strategies from your next LCS Opponent or movement patterns of your direct lane opponent’s top 5 champions?
No problem, your buddy Piracetam makes it possible and rather pleasant to scan through 300+ games of your latest opponent like a madman and memorize the information you need to get an advantage.
Your team needs an extra 8 hours of training each day for a few days before a World Championship Event? Everyone pops a psychostimulant like methylphenidate or modafinil.
You are exhausted after a super week and need some motivation to continue practice and preparation? Perhaps Selegiline is something for you.
You are a nervous sweating wreck in front of a camera or need that extra bit of steadiness while playing Counter-Strike? Propranolol helped make some of that most ridiculous shots you have seen in Tournaments possible.
You see, modern pharmacology has a pill for any occasion.
The problem is if you want to compete on the same level the people using some or all of the above agents do, sooner or later you will probably see the need for an equalizer.
If you break this down in the simplest way, there are four groups majorly profiting from this.
Individual players or whole teams that make use of smart drugs are the ones that profit the most, they close the gap to Teams that without the help of smart drugs would be out of their reach and in the best case it helps them win tournaments, the admiration of fans and a better life. The personal motivation though differs from player to player.
After talking to players around the globe about this for the past five years I found that players from Asia and Eastern Europe told me they have the biggest motivational drive to use smart drugs because many of them suffer from a circumstantial low quality of life, while most western European and North American players told me they do it for their ego and to make some extra money on the sideline. Some of them even being direct suppliers to other teams or players.
The Teams can`t survive without successful players.
The winner takes it all mentality also took care that only the most successful teams get sponsorships and advertisement contracts that help them to sustain a healthy business model and build a lasting community. So teams do have an essential motivation to pressure players to win at almost any cost.
While working at SK Gaming I have seen heavy pressure on players a few times, mostly created by themselves but also by the organization who needs the players to win to market them to sponsors and create revenue in return.
But the one thing I can say for sure about SK because I have been involved for such a long time is its strict anti-drug policy (besides the occasional use of socially acknowledged drugs like Alcohol and Caffeine) and the encouragement of a healthy lifestyle by its CEO Alexander Müller.
When we had players over in the office for training sessions and boot camps, there were always possibilities to work out, go with the players to a nearby gym and eat lots of vegetables and fresh fruits besides encouraging them to go shopping in the nearby supermarket instead of ordering from Pizza.de.
Alex also took people for a run or went with the team to play soccer when they had free time between training sessions or just to motivate them and give them a fresh boost of energy. I doubt this has changed in the past two years since I went to look for a new challenge, but you never know.
An entirely different example was a stay in Asia when a StarCraft II player presented me with a bottle of pills he got from his coach with a self-made sticker on it saying something along the lines of “Supplements” in Mandarin that he told me helped him focus and stay awake.
After asking him if he’d mind giving me one and a free drug analysis two weeks later back home in Germany, which on a side note is an excellent service offered for partygoers by the public health department to see if they possibly had been sold bad pills from a random drug dealer people should make more use of, I found out that the coach had given him Ritalin, a psychostimulant used for the treatment of ADHD.
Even after telling the player that what he was taking were no supplements and making sure he’s not suffering from ADHD all I got were a shrug and an “I no care as long as win games.” Neither the team nor the player cared about the health risks that made me think about how far our industry has come and what people are willing to do for money and attention in electronic sports, for quite some time after the incident.
The Tournament Organisers like Valve, MLG, ESL, Riot Games, Dreamhack or Blizzard don’t want games; they want spectacles.
Nerve wrecking hour-long Best of Five games that make the audience go berserk are the best that can happen for them. Even better when live streamed to an audience on the Internet or Television. You need excited players and audiences and great stories to produce new trailers for the next event or PR materials and to encourage people to come to their next event and put money into their pockets.
But the reality is, Tournaments are exhausting, especially when held internationally in an entirely different time zone than you are used to. Still they expect from players to be excited, smile, write autographs for hours and on top of that play 40+ minutes of highest focus games back to back if possible.
If you look at the health status of some players and how even high-performance sportsmen would have a problem with that kind of stress, it seems only logical that some players take the easy way and pop a few pills to work around several stress related problems.
Lack of sleep, lack of motivation, nervousness, jetlag, the ability to be focused on point for hours, just to mention a few of them.
So Tournament Organisers are tolerating the use of smart drugs to cater a perfect event to the fans and make money from it. If they would care about the health of the players and a fair competition they would establish anti-doping guidelines and regular tests by professional medicinal personal.
But this would
a) Show how many cyber athletes abuse drugs and prescription meds to get an advantage in an electronic sports competition
b) Take the illusion away from fans that they celebrate a clean sport with a fair competition
c) Cost a lot of extra money and preparation and most of them balance already on a tight budget
To back these facts up, I’ll show you below two rule sets from Riot Games League Championship Series and the ESL Premium Tournament series Intel Extreme Masters.
(PDF Viewer currently not available because of Reddit traffic) you can find a copy here.
While Riot Games put zero thoughts in the abuse of drugs and performance / neuroenhancers by their players and, therefore, has not a single rule in their official documentation the Electronic Sports League clearly states under 3.6.4 Drugs and Alcohol:
To play a match, be it online or offline, under the influence of any drugs, alcohol. Or other performance enhancers is strictly prohibited, and may be punished with exclusion from the Intel Extreme Masters.
While most of the supplying in the past five years has been done by college students self-experimenting with smart drugs and creative drug dealers who found a new niche in electronic sports, today organized crime has built a structure around this market.
In Cologne, for example, the German Mecca of eSports and home of the Electronic Sports League and Riot Games European League Championship Series the majority of smart drugs is sold under the table with the involvement of a small group of people that control the whole market for amphetamines, prescription meds and cannabis in the town. And apparently some players and hosts seem to make use of the full assortment at times.
Also, some knowledgeable individuals are trying to jump the neuroenhancement train with “natural” supplements.
With companies like Mind-FX and AlternaScript attempting to push into a potential multi-billion dollar market promising elevated memory and enhanced focus while being a legal and “safe” option to pharmaceutical neuroenhancers.
I’m not very fond of the Supplement market in general and here is a good example why.
Personal blog of Bjoern Franzen
Marketer, eSport consultant and Developer