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Guest Post: Performance enhancers and smart drugs in e-sports

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Written by Toni Gibea

Research Center in Applied Ethics, University of Bucharest

My aim is to show that the decision made by ESL (Electronic Sports League) to ban Adderall in e-sport competitions is not the outcome of a well-reasoned ethical debate. There are some important ethical arguments that could be raised against the ESL decision to ban Adderall, arguments that should be of great interest if we are concerned about the moral features of this sport and its future development.

In the first part of this post I will explain why and when doping became a primary concern for e-sports and I will also sum up some of the officials’ reactions. After that I’ll present the main arguments that could be raised against the idea that the use of Adderall is an obviously impermissible moral practice. My conclusion is that we should treat this subject matter with more care so that in the future decisions in this area will have a stronger moral grounding.

In the middle of July an interview with Cory `Semphis` Friesen (a Counter-Strike[1] professional player)[2] was uploaded on Youtube. In the interview Cory admits that he and his teammates used Adderall during the Counter-Strike Championship organized by ESL. Two days after the interview was uploaded, Motherboard published an article on doping in e-sports (electronic sports) that fueled many strong negative reactions[3] against this kind of practice. Although the subject of doping in e-sports was discussed months ago in many other articles,[4] this time the impact on the public was more profound. Mainly, this was because Cory and his teammates won the championship. This huge wave of negative reactions caused ESL to take measures against Adderall and other doping drugs.

In less than a month after ESL started its collaboration with the National Anti-Doping Agency from Germany and the World Anti-Doping Agency in Canada, the participants from an August tournament were random-tested for doping drugs. All the tests were negative and everyone was relieved because they considered that ESL was now on the right track and they made the right decision by choosing to fight against the use of Adderall and other „smart drugs.”

Though many agreed with the measures ESL took against doping nobody analyzed or examined if doping is an impermissible practice in e-sports competitions to begin with. It’s true that before these events that I’ve summarized, in the ESL Rulebook[5] section: Drugs and Alcohol, it is specified that the use of drugs, alcohol and other performance enhancers is punishable by exclusion from ESL. From this section we could interpret almost anything as long as it is not clear which drugs are allowed or not; and it gives no definition on what they mean by performance enhancer. If I drink a cup of coffee it would enhance my performances, therefore, should we ban coffee because it is enhancing my performances? The first step would be to have a debate about whether doping is permissible or not in e-sports (and why); and then, if we arrive at the conclusion that it’s impermissible we should make a specific list of banned substances.

For almost everyone it was quite obvious that Adderall is either a performance enhancer or a drug, or both, banned by the Rulebook. They even asked ESL to exclude NaVi[6] from their competitions and to withdraw their prize and title. That didn’t happened because there were question marks as to whether Adderall is permissible or not, and NaVi denied everything that Cory had declared in the interview and excluded him from the team. At this point there was no other evidence except Cory’s declaration that could prove what had happened, so there were no measures against NaVi.

In my opinion, the whole debate—if we consider it as a genuine debate—didn’t concentrate on the essential question: Why is Adderall impermissible? Some might say that it gives an unfair advantage to those who use it compared to those who don’t. At this point it’s important to go back to Cory’s declaration: he said that everybody takes Adderall and that it’s a rather common behavior[7], something that other players take. Hence it cannot be said that NaVi did not deserve the prize because it was an unfair competition, as long as all of them were on Adderall or had access to it. I will dare to say that „unfair” would be to ban Adderall and take random tests: that way those who are not willing to take risks will have a big disadvantage compared to those that do take risks but are not caught.

If this is not helping us too much then we should try to argue that by allowing the player to use Adderall he will be exposing himself to a greater risk than normal. He could become addicted, have health problems in future, suffer from adverse reactions and so forth. It sounds like a valid argument but there is no evidence to prove that this is true. I searched in the literature for relevant studies that measure the risk that professional e-sport players are taking when they use Adderall, other drugs, or performance enhancers, and I found nothing on this issue. This aspect is of great importance and it’s important to have high-quality studies to rely on—not just our impressions or beliefs.

Some could argue that, in Adderall’s case we need no further studies because it was designed as a treatment against a certain disease and it should be used only in that case. This is actually an interesting statement because it opens the discussion as to whether Adderall is a drug that treats a certain disease or is rather more like a mood or cognitive enhancer. Maartje Schermer and Ineke Bolt (2011)[8] argued that ADHD is a condition that requires substances that are not easy to label as a treatment or an enhancement; therefore they are more in a grey area, between treatment and enhancement[9]. Hence, we could have reasons to believe that Adderall is not necessarily a treatment and should be used only by patients.

If we chose to ignore this distinction and its implications, however, we cannot also ignore the differences between different e-sport games. Regarding this particular aspect I would like to highlight the fact that in some games, because of their differences, Adderall could have a lesser or greater impact. In shooter games like Counter Strike: Global Offensive Adderall could have a significant impact on the gameplay of a professional player because in these kinds of games it matters if you react faster when you see an opponent. We know that Adderal improves reaction times; therefore it’s reasonable to say Adderall could significantly improve your gameplay in shooter games. But that’s not the same in other games like League of Legends, Dota2 or Heroes of the Storm where Adderall could matter less. The main reason is that you have more possible strategies available for you to pick from than in shooter games. And the way you counter the heroes chosen by your competitor matters more than game reaction times. The balance is even more in favor of experience and strategy when we talk about Starcraft 2 competitions. In this case it’s crucial to pick the right strategy against your competitor. There were lots of situations where players with more apm (actions per minute) and better reaction times actually lost because they choose the wrong strategy or their strategy was countered by their adversary.

By categorizing e-sport games like this, we might realize that in some cases cognitive enhancers could significantly improve a player’s performance in cases it might not. In some games it’s less probable that Adderall has an important impact because experience and the way you prepare the game count for more.

Are e-sport competitions worth all this effort? Some may say that e-sport competitions are meant to stay underdeveloped mainly because they lack a sort of stability like football or other sports have. Quite often when new games appear, the old ones are forgotten; therefore it’s hard to build strong institutions or to invest in something that is in a state of permanent change.

Regarding the stability of an e-sport game competition, we can identify some examples of stability. Starcraft I and Starcraft II make a great example for that matter. The first competitions took place at the beginning of 2000 and continue even now. Fifteen years of stability in such a new industry says a lot in my opinion. Another example is the League of Legends World Championship: its first edition took place in 2011 and now they are preparing for the 2015 edition. At the previous edition from 2014, 11.2 million fans watched online the World Championship of League of Legends Final organized in a stadium with 40000 live spectators. It’s true that it’s hard to compare this peak with the 1 billion peak who watched the FIFA World Cup Final between Germany and Argentina, but if we take into consideration the fact that computer video games appeared quite recently, less than 75 years ago, and that just last year educational institutions started to offer a college scholarship — Illinois College and University of Pikeville in Kentucky — to players who want to follow a career as a professional e-sport player, it’s more than reasonable to think that in time it would become more and more popular.

What happened this year when ESL made a decision based merely on press reactions and fans’ opinions showed us that a serious and professional discussion on the use of Adderall and other smart drugs in e-sport competitions is needed now more than ever. And if we add to this the fact that: all of the arguments raised against the use of Adderall in e-sports are questionable; for some statements (like the risk professional e-sport players take if they use Adderall) we don’t have sufficient empirical evidence; and that in some e-sport competitions, because of the nature of the game, Adderall could have no decisive influence to the outcome of the competition; we might say that ESL decision was made without carefully thinking through the relevant ethics.



I am especially grateful to Brian Earp who revised the text and sent me his suggestions.

[1] Counter-Strike is an online multiplayer video game, more details can be found here;

[2] You can watch it here: ;

[3] Just to name a few news sites that published articles on this topic: PCGAMER, NYTimes, GameRevolution and The Independent, and other;

[4] Articles published in 2014: New Scientist, Bjoern Franzen personal blog, or in 2013: News of Legends;

[5] Last accessed on 23th September, at 12am;

[6] NaVi is a professional e-sport club that founds professional players in order to play in different game competitions, more information about this could be find here. In this industry e-sport clubs are quite common and similar to the clubs from other sports;

[7] Here would be more than useful a survey on the use of pharmacological cognitive enhancement in esport competitions, something similar to: Ilina Singh; Imre Bard and Jonathan Jackson. Robust resilience and substantial interest: A survey of pharmacological cognitive enhancement among university students in the Uk and Ireland. PLOS ONE, october, 2014, vol 9, Issue 10;

[8] Maartje Schermer, Ineke Bolt. What’s in a name? ADHD and the grey area between treatment and enhancement. In: Enhancing human capacities (editors: Julian Savulescu; Ruud ter Meulen and Guy Kahane), Wiley-Blackwell, 2011;

[9] Thou they not specifically discus the case of Adderall I see no reason why their argument it’s not valid in this context;

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1 Comment on this post

  1. All this seems to be really far-fetched. If there is reasonable doubt on whether the use of substance X in competitive context C causes unfairness, substance X should be banned from context C. There is reasonable doubt that Adderall causes unfairness. Therefore…

    Of course, you could question the major premise. But since this is not what you do here, I don’t see how anything you write here shows that the decision to ban Adderall is injustified.

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