The open secret of Adderall abuse in esports

Esports has quickly become much like traditional sports, for better or for worse. As professional gamers have enjoyed the same fame and fortune from competing in front of a computer screen as their counterparts on the court do, it’s no surprise that they’re bound to share similar problems behind the scenes as well.

Traditional sports have long shunned and banned use of a performance-enhancing drug (PED), any athlete caught with steroids in his system would quickly be hit with fines, disqualifications, and a massive- potentially irreparable- damage to his reputation. It’s a very good way to kill your career, yet it still runs rampant wherever cameras aren’t trained on athletes.

PED abuse may be a different animal in esports, but it is the same beast.  

In 2015, former Cloud9 Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) player Kory “Semphis” Friesen claimed that he and his teammates at the time were abusing Adderall, a fairly common drug used to treat attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

In a conversation with CS:GO caster Mohan “Launders” Govindasamy during the Electronic Sports World Cup 2015, Friesen came clean about his and his teammate’s abuse in a prior tournament, ESL Katowice 2015.

“The ESL [Katowice] comms were kinda funny in my opinion, I don’t even care. We were all on Adderall. I don’t even give a [expletive]. It was pretty obvious, like, if you listen to the comms. People can hate it or whatever,” Friesen told Launders.

Launders followed up with another question, “Everyone does Adderall at ESEA LAN, right?” Friesen replied, “Yeah.”

Kory “Semphis” Friesen was later released from the Cloud9 team on April that year for underperforming in tournaments. Image courtesy of ESL.

In the aftermath, the Electronic Sports League (ESL) instituted standards and tests aimed at cracking down on PED use in its tournaments. No player has tested positive since. The incident was widely reported, but many from the esports community expressed surprise that the story blew up in the first place. Back then, the use of stimulants like Adderall was an open secret. But it begged the question of whether stimulant use in esports was the same as with PEDs in traditional sports.

Unlike steroid use, which has lingering effects that can be easily detected even with just a single use, amphetamines like Adderall need to be taken regularly for it to be effective and are not as easy to detect. Studies have found that those who regularly take low dosage of Adderall get a temporary boost in cognitive function, memory, focus, and performance, but at the same time are at risk of an altered brain structure.

It makes sense to think that Adderall use gives players an unfair advantage, but it opens up even more questions about stimulant use. Another substance that ESL locked down on was marijuana, another well-known and widely-used stimulant (depending on who uses it). Considering how divisive marijuana use is (you can buy some legally in the United States and get killed for it in other countries), how will the esports industry hope to regulate it worldwide? It gets trickier.

What about coffee? Practically everyone drinks coffee. What about energy drinks? Lots of players and teams are either advertisers for or users of Monster Energy drinks. Those are stimulants too.

Image courtesy of Monster Energy Studios.

It doesn’t end there. What about those who use Adderall not for recreation or performance enhancement, but because they actually need it? A significant part of the population, especially in the US, are prescribed with Adderall to treat ADHD and other similar illnesses. Most of them range from being 16 to 24 years old, arguably the peak of an esports athlete. Will esports leagues force players to go against medical advice to ensure parity in competitions?

Simply put, regulating the use and abuse of drugs, stimulants, and other substances in esports, especially if only a single organization does it for its own tournaments and not an industry-wide body, is a very, very complicated matter that may not be satisfactorily solved in the near future.

If different states in the US are still divided over the legalization of marijuana, if some countries still do not properly understand the issue of drug abuse and are solving it with misguided brutality then… I can only wish the esports industry good luck.

Case in point, Valve pulled support for a Dota 2 Major tournament in the Philippines back in January because of drug laws in the country presenting issues for many players.   

Image courtesy of Galaxy Battles.

The tournament in question, Galaxy Battles II, was supposed to have a $1 million prize pool and hand out all-important qualifying points for the Dota Pro Circuit (DPC). With support for Galaxy Battles pulled out, so did Valve’s $500,000 contribution and DPC eligibility disappear. Since DPC points are the key to Dota 2’s be-all-end-all tournament, The International, most of the teams competing in Galaxy Battles promptly split.

In the Philippines, esports players were classified as pro athletes, and were thus subject to mandatory drug tests before they can compete in the country.

“[We] allowed the organisers to merely submit the original drug results taken in their country and a copy of the facilities’ license/permit/accreditation from their government,” read a statement from the Games and Amusements Board of the Philippines, the organisation responsible for the tests.

Weirdly enough, the drugs the players were tested for included marijuana and methamphetamines, but not performance enhancers.

The Galaxy Battles incident would most likely deter any major Dota 2 tournaments from happening in the Philippines indefinitely, and other titles might be forced to stay away too. If the esports industry wishes for such incidents to not happen again, then it has a very big can of worms to sink its hands into.