Competitive video game players the latest to be embroiled in doping scandal

Aaron Broverman
Competitors practice ahead of qualifying matches at the 2015 Call of Duty European Championships. (Getty)
Competitors practice ahead of qualifying matches at the 2015 Call of Duty European Championships. (Getty)

Marion Jones, Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Jose Canseco, Ben Johnson and Kory Friesen.

Wait...who was that last guy?

That was Kory “Semphis” Friesen, the Abottsford, B.C. native is the latest in a long line of professional athletes who've admitted to taking performance enhancing drugs. But Friesen's sport isn't baseball, football, basketball or even hockey – it's video games. Specifically, the first-person shooter “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.”

In a YouTube interview with fellow Canadian pro gamer Mohan “Launders” Govindasamy, Friesen admitted that he and the rest of the Cloud 9 (his team at the time) were on Adderall at an Electronic Sports League [ESL] event in Poland in March (Editor’s Note: video contains strong language).

The ESL comms were kinda funny in my opinion, I don't even care, we were all on Adderall,” says Friesen about 7:30 into the interview, referencing the clearly hectic communication between him and his teammates during the match, which you can see here.

“I don't even give a f--, like its pretty obvious if you listen to the comms, I don't know people can hate it or whatever,” he continues.

Big Money and High Stakes

According to a report from market research firm NewZoo, competitive gaming (more commonly referred to as eSports) is worth $194 million per year and revenues are expected to more than double by 2017 to $465 million, The same report reveals that there are 205 million people watching eSports across the globe and 40 per cent of those people don't even play the top eSports games, solidifying its status as a spectator sport.

To reinforce the point, just this past weekend the team 'Evil Geniuses' won the International 5 Dota 2 Championships, netting the group $6.6 million USD. And while there aren't final viewership numbers yet, livestreams showed several million viewers watching the finals at the same time, according to Forbes.

With so much money being made, so many people watching live and online, so many prizes in the millions of dollars breaking amount records every year and so many major brands like Samsung, Red Bull and Intel sponsoring tournaments, players are feeling the pressure to up their game, even if it is artificially.

“In the early years of eSports there was simply no need for risking your health for a shiny cup and a few thousand dollars of prize money,” says Bjoern Franzen, an eSports brand and marketing consultant who first revealed the rampant doping in eSports on his blog a year ago.

“Today if you are good in eSports you can be close to a millionaire and build a brand around yourself that can support you, your friends and family for the rest of their lives.”

As a result, many players stock up on a cornucopia of prescription drugs for that extra edge during matches: Amphetamines for higher levels of concentration, energy and alertness; beta blockers for steadier hands and to combat performance anxiety; and cognitive enhancers, like Selegiline and Piracetam, for enhancing memory, intelligence and concentration.

Truth and Consequences

But with reward comes risk, particularly to one's health.

The real danger here is the temptation to escalate,” Brendan Boot, a Harvard neurologist, told The New Scientist, highlighting the danger of a mixed drug cocktail. “For example, taking Selegiline with an antidepressant can lead to something called serotonin syndrome: headache, confusion, hyperthermia, muscle spasms, tremors and sometimes death.”

...the way the ESL plans to test for their August event right now is almost ridiculous and a pure PR stunt.

—Bjoern Franzen, eSports brand and marketing consultant

Still, when Friesen came clean he probably didn't anticipate the chain reaction he set off. ESL announced that they will begin drug testing at their biggest competitions – starting with their Cologne One event this month. Nihilum (Friesen's team following his departure from Cloud 9) posted they'd dropped all “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive” players from their roster and decided not to compete in that game.

“I think [Friesen's] brave and stupid at the same time. He probably didn't think this through properly,” says Franzen.

Now what do you expect will happen if someone in HR at any future job he might apply for does a background check and finds his photo and name all over admitting to a doping scandal? That is also the reason you won't see anyone else stepping forward.

ESL is not the first eSports league to institute random drug testing.The International eSports Federation [IeSF] is a signatory of the World Anti-Doping Code, so they test for illegal and banned substances at their annual world championships. Though, according to Franzen, many top competitors didn't show up. The Starcraft 2 tournament winner was only fourth in the world rankings and the Chinese team that won the Dota 2 tournament is only ranked eleventh in the world.

You'd think that a world championship title is a prestigious thing players and organizations are interested in because of the positive effects that come with it,” says Franzen.

“It makes you wonder why many of the top competitors choose not to participate in a tournament that actively tests for illegal substances and has a prestigious title to win.

Searching for Power-Ups

Going forward, ESL is planning a mixture of random and targeted testing at their biggest events, including the Intel Extreme Masters, ESL One and ESL Pro League series.

We are currently targeting the largest events as we see those as the biggest danger areas,” says Michal Blicharz, VP of Pro Gaming at ESL. “We’re aiming to perform the tests before the matches, not after. This is to ensure that we can act on the outcomes immediately. We will not be testing every single player as we don’t think that it’s necessary.”

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World Anti-Doping Agency [WADA] commissioners will be on the hunt for amphetamines like Adderall and methamphetamines like Desoxyn, but they're not above expanding their testing capabilities in the future.

“We haven’t finalized our conversations with NADA [Nationale Anti-Doping Agentur] and WADA about what substances they recommend to test against. It’s not unlikely that we will broaden the range of testing as we go along,” says Blicharz.

“It will not be unlike what we know from sports, and we will take NADA's and WADA's advice in finding the right kind of test and the right process.”

Right now that process will be a skin test, but there's plenty of controversy over a skin test's effectiveness and its ability to produce a false-positive.

Prevention or PR?

Though ESL insists they are doing these skin tests in consultation with internationally recognized anti-doping agencies, one expert says skin tests aren’t ideal to use when trying to determine if someone is currently under the influence of a banned substance.

“It would be an inappropriate application of a test for what the intended goal would be,” says Dan Buffington, medical director and CEO of Clinical Pharmacology Services in Tampa, Fla. He has over 26 years experience as a forensic pharmacology expert in criminal and civil court cases.

“Those types of tests that are either looking at skin, hair or sweat are not going to be indicative of impairment or active pharmacological effect because those tests will detect things that may have been used significant periods of time prior. It would be more appropriate for someone undergoing drug rehabilitation treatment or someone who is in some sort of abstinence program where you’re trying to discern they've had zero exposure to a substance or substance of abuse.”

Instead, Buffington says a positive in a less specific test, such as a qualitative skin test, should immediately be followed by a more sensitive and more specific test like a quantitative blood test.

“At that juncture, it's a more invasive commitment to collect that sample and the cost to run those are more expensive than a qualitative test,” he says.

There is no word from ESL whether or not a positive skin test would be followed by a more accurate blood test and ESL has yet to address what it will do with competitors who have a valid prescription for amphetamines. For example, the Vicks brand of inhaler in the U.S. has trace amounts of amphetamines.

This is why Franzen suspects that these superficial and more qualitative efforts by the ESL have more to do with saving face with investors and sponsors than they do with preventing actual cheating, especially since 74 per cent of ESL was recently purchased by Modern Times Group – a Swedish digital entertainment company – for $78 million USD.

“There are so many questions not answered yet about how and what for the ESL will test that I clearly say the way the ESL plans to test for their August event right now is almost ridiculous and a pure PR stunt,” says Franzen.

“My message to the ESL clearly is, you ignored the problem for years despite several people making you aware of it, now you are panicking because the company that recently acquired 74 per cent of your stock in a multi-million dollar transaction is afraid of a devaluation and bad reputation for their just-acquired company.”