Anti-Doping Rules – should eSports be concerned about performance enhancing drugs?
Recently some of the big names in American sports have been under fire for using performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). From A-rod to Armstrong, PEDs are starting to look so common that many argue that to compete without them sets one at a disadvantage. Yet in eSports, the issue is almost never mentioned. And while the idea of taking steroids to enhance your video game playing performance seems pretty pointless (do you even lift?), I want to make the argument in this article that there are PEDs that ought to be discussed, if not regulated, in eSports.
I’ve divided this article into three parts: First, I want to look at PED policies and regulations in the Physical Pro Sports to provide some context. Second, I will argue that there are some PEDs that may impact the performance of Professional Gamers. Finally, I’ll tie it all up by applying the analysis of the physical Pro Sports PED policies to the context of eSports, and exploring what solutions might work better than others.
Before beginning I want to quickly point out that I’ve limited the scope of this article to performance enhancing drugs as opposed to recreational drugs. While there’s obviously a lot of overlap, the analysis tends to be pretty different and would warrant its own article.
PED’s in Physical Sports – Regulating ‘Roids.
Historically, of the four major American physical Pro Sports, Major League Baseball has had the most issues dealing with performance enhancing drugs. Just after the mid-90s MLB player strikes, there was a significant boost in anabolic steroid use (that strangely correlated with a number of record-breaking streaks).
But despite baseball having the most association with steroids historically, all of these sports have dealt and continue to deal with PEDs. In fact, the issue was gaining so much attention that Congress threatened to start regulating PED testing themselves, as well as reevaluate the antitrust exceptions sports franchises have so liberally enjoyed. Why are PEDs such a big deal, one might ask. Amongst many safety and image concerns, the driving motivation behind PED bans is: to preserve the spirit and integrity of the game.
In response to the threats from Congress, different leagues instated different policies. In the NFL (arguably the least-restricted league), all players are tested at least once a year, never during a game, and almost always in the off-season. In the NBA (arguably the most-restricted league), players are often tested frequently during the season, and sometimes even in the locker room right after a game. The MLB and the NHL are somewhere in between.
Penalties for PEDs are very league-dependent, ranging from a slap on the wrist “name and shame” to years of unpaid suspension. The type of PED and the number of prior offenses all weigh into the penalties given. Unfortunately, these policies may not be as effective as the leagues would hope. MLB’s “Mitchell Report” indicated that most PED use is going undetected. Most recently, sports leagues have been going after the producers and suppliers of PEDs for tortious interference with the player-contracts.
Steroids in particular are extremely difficult to combat. Teams and coaches have every incentive to “look the other way” because of the benefits the drugs bring. Anabolic steroid chemists are staying ahead of regulations, with a huge demand to change the drug enough to avoid detection, but not enough to lose its effects. Finally, the leniencies of league policies allow many drug tests to be duped or avoided completely.
From Physical Sports to Virtual Sports – Are PED’s an issue?
While steroids aren’t exactly an issue for eSports, they are not the only performance enhancing drug on the market. For example, in 2012, almost half of the NFL’s PED-related suspensions were due not to steroids, but to Adderall (that’s right, PED-related, not recreational related). Many prescription drugs such as Adderall and Ritalin are banned by most sports leagues (the notable exception being the NHL), although leagues do hand out exemptions on a case-by-case basis.
Adderall is considered a performance enhancing drug for many reasons – the effects combat fatigue, allowing players to train longer and harder. The mental stimulant allows for heightened awareness both during competition and during practice. The enhanced focus enables play-learning and other strategic aspects to be more easily retained. In fact, the amphetamine class was specifically tailored by the US military during World War II for these very reasons – fighter pilots in particular showed great benefits from amphetamines during combat. And ask 1 out of any 3 college students, and you’re sure to get a similar response.
But Adderall is not the only issue. Several over-the-counter energy drinks (albeit requiring an over-18 or over-21 ID, depending on the state) are prohibited by many major sports leagues. Dozens upon dozens of prescription medicine, from stimulants to painkillers, are heavily regulated in sports. Anything that gives a player an unfair advantage is an issue – and many of these drugs have serious potential for eSports, where mental acuity and stamina are some of the most important skills a Pro Gamer can have.
Here’s my point: as eSports progresses and professionalizes, as it has been doing in great leaps and bounds over the last decade alone, should league officials start to be concerned with performance enhancing drugs? I think they should. When players are able to gain significant advantageous over each other for non-medically related substances (or abuse of those substances), we start facing threats to the spirit and integrity not only of the game, but of the industry.
Crossing Over – What can eSports learn from its physical companions?
The first lesson is clear: don’t wait until it’s too late. By the late 90s, players associations had such control over drug testing and had so many privacy policies in place, it has been an uphill battle for leagues to get control over PED usage. While having enhanced performance certainly attracts more viewers, it does so at a very high cost – the integrity of the game.
Of course, how regulation should occur is difficult to say. What should or should not be regulated? Illegal drugs? Prescription drugs? Over-the-counter PEDs? And Should teams agree to urine tests periodically during worlds? Or is once a season enough? These are all questions that will need to be dealt with, and there are no easy answers.
The penalties are easy enough to cross over from the physical sporting world – suspensions are already the prime form of punishment in eSports, and would likely be the preferred sanction for PEDs as well.
Fortunately, the amount of control eSports leagues in general have over the players and teams is high enough that any problems with PEDs can be easily squashed – important, no doubt, to maintain a certain image for eSports. But as eSports grows, and as the money involved starts piling higher and higher, how much more incentive will players have to use PEDs to gain that competitive edge? In physical sports, regulation is very difficult. It does not have to be that way with eSports – if eSports leagues can get policies in place and cooperate with sponsors, team owners and venues from the get-go, detection, punishment and prevention should never be an issue.
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