Performance-enhancing drugs are a staple of the sports world.
Who could forget Lance Armstrong’s very public fall from grace as it was revealed that he’d been using PEDs for years? Armstrong was stripped of his Tour de France medals, lost millions of dollars in sponsorships, and lost the respect of millions. His reputation dropped out from under him.
With sports like cycling and football, which demand athletes at peak physicality, there’s a clear reason why PEDs are effective: they make players stronger and faster, providing an edge over the non-doping competition. But PEDs are bleeding into the world of eSports, where professional video game players need to be at the top of their cognitive game.
In eSports, it’s about how quickly you can read your competition’s moves and react. It’s about being able to focus on the game at hand and, calmly, switfly, manoeuvre to victory.
And that’s why, in eSports, the performance-enhancing drug of choice is Adderall.
“We were all on Adderall,” Kory “SEMPHIS” Friesen said in an interview with YouTube interviewer Mohan “Launders” Govindasamy. Friesen was referring to a $US250,000 prize tournament in Poland that took place in March 2015, where he competed with a prominent eSports group, Cloud9 (Friesen is no longer with Cloud9).
Here’s video from that match:
Following his interview, the Electronic Sports League (ESL) announced measures to drug screen in future tournaments. The regulations go into effect this August, starting with ESL One — a tournament featuring the game “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive,” the same game that Friesen was playing during the March tournament.
It’s easy to understand why a drug like Adderall would appeal to “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive” competitors: it’s a fast-paced first-person shooter that requires strict teamwork and lightning-fast reflexes to win. As Tech Insider science reporter Kevin Loria explains Adderall, “It’s basically speed.”
So, what does Adderall do?
It’s used to “help people with ADHD [Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder] feel more focused,” according to a study published in Brain and Behaviour. If you have ADHD, Adderall aims to help calm you down and focus on the world in front of you.
don’t have ADHD, Adderall can help you stay up all night cramming for an exam or jamming on a thesis paper, with its speed-like effects keeping you awake and energised.
And it’s this that draws eSports players into the world of PEDs: Adderall could enable eSports players to play for longer, more consistently, and with greater ability. Or so they believe.
In reality, any perceived performance benefits may be due, at least in part, to the placebo effect.
As the Brain and Behaviour paper points out, Adderall is “more effective at correcting deficits than ‘enhancing performance,'” making it relatively redundant for high performers like professional eSports players.
And while there’s limited evidence suggesting Adderall might help people with “cognitive control,” there’s no proven effect from Adderall on “working memory,” as multiple studies show. What’s “working memory?” As Loria puts it: It’s “the ability to hold and manipulate different pieces of information simultaneously.” That’s what might impact eSports players most — but that’s not where they would see any real changes.
In fact, Adderall’s clearest benefits for people without ADHD are with rote memorization, an effect that would have no impact on pro-level eSports players, who have long since memorized the ins and outs of their particular game of choice. Worse? Adderall is an amphetamine — a stimulant that releases dopamine in the brain — making it rather addictive, and sometimes dangerous. As repeated use builds up a tolerance in users, more is required to achieve the same effect.
So, what are eSports players getting from Adderall use? For players without actual ADHD, any significant performance-enhancing effect would be negligible in terms of the drug’s active ingredients — but the placebo effect may be strong enough to make it meaningful. All that to say: Even if it isn’t chemically impacting users, the strong placebo effects may be enough to keep it in vogue.
Professional gaming is a lot bigger than you think. Check out Part One of Tech Insider’s series of the professional “League of Legends” team, Team Liquid:
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