“We were all on Adderall,” Kory “SEMPHIS” Friesen said. That was the moment when the latest eSports scandal kicked off in earnest. The Counter-Strike: Global Offensive player, who is still featured on the official CS:GO tips and tricks video page, had lit the fuse: it was time to talk about drugs again.
This post originally appeared on Kotaku Australia.
As the discussion raged about the alleged use of Adderall amongst other teams, Australia — perhaps because of our minor international presence in eSports — was never mentioned. But after talking to multiple players across multiple scenes, I discovered that local gamers have also dabbled with external methods of improving their performance.
The most severe allegations came from two prominent sources on the local eSports circuit, who alleged that players have used performance enhancing drugs — specifically Ritalin, an alternative to Adderall that is designed to treat narcolepsy and attention deficit disorder — with the express intention of improving their tournament performance.
“Now that a lot of attention is being paid, it’s something we’ll look at for the 2016 season,” - Bruce Dugan, Major League Gaming
“I know for a fact that top teams take it,” Nathan* told me, adding he had only become aware of the use of Adderall, or Ritalin as it is more commonly known in Australia and New Zealand, within the last year.
“My close friends have told me they have taken it,” he said. “I myself have never taken it, but with it now becoming more mainstream I’ve thought about it and had it offered to me. Especially now that’s it’s pretty easy to get it as people are selling it if you know the right people.”
Another competitor, speaking under the condition of anonymity, said they didn’t believe it was possible to compete at the highest level without the support of PEDs. “It 100% has effects,” they added. “[Players] overseas come down hard and you’d think they have like some mental problem [because] they’re real slow at night time.”
One CS:GO player went further, telling me about their personal experience. “I’ve done [Ritalin] a few times but not a regular thing, it does work,” they said. “It will make me a lot more focused also it pumps me up and gets me more fired up.”
When pressed, the player said they had taken it before tournaments although they had “never done it at LAN” – meaning an offline event – and that his teammates had not followed his lead. “But if it was used a lot and easy to get for me I’d [probably] use it more when playing,” they admitted.
Some players who had competed internationally told me they only recently became aware of PEDs until recently. But the pairing of gamers and drugs – whether they be performance enhancing or recreational – is far from new.
Kory Friesen providing tips on-camera for Valve and the CS:GO blog a few years ago.
Meet Scott Bednarski. He’s as close as you can get to one of Australia’s most successful gamers, having won national tournaments for Counter-Strike, Counter-Strike: Source, Natural Selection, Team Fortress 2, Day of Defeat, Left 4 Dead and Team Fortress Classic.
Bednarski, otherwise known as “Boomser”, was also one of the few gamers fortunate enough to be a part of Sydney Underground, a salaried professional team that formed part of the Championship Gaming Series multi-gaming competition broadcast on DirecTV several years ago. You can see Bednarski standing next to his brother Brett (introduced as Tegs) in the below footage, one of a number of clips floating around on YouTube.
If anyone was likely to know about something untoward in Australia or New Zealand eSports, it was Bednarski. “Never in my time in Australia did i witness drugs to enhance game play or spoken about,” he told me. “That changed during my first trip internationally with the Americans.”
That first trip was back in the heyday of the Cyberathlete Professional League, the organisation founded by Angel Munoz in 1997 that became the foundation upon which many players, clans, websites and organisations built their names on. The event itself was a World Tour event in Singapore back in 2006, the year after the CPL’s global circus upheld Painkiller as a marquee eSports title despite minimal player or community support.
Australia’s final performance at the event — two teams flew over, one backed by a peripherals importer that made its name by distributing Razer products locally, the other sponsored by Stephen Stenhouse, a fruit and vegetable exporter from Queensland — was middling at best, but the experience would prove formative for Bednarski when he travelled to the United States for the inaugural Championship Gaming Series season a year later.
“I knew a manager who bought weed for his players before match day,” Bednarski told me. “Some players would take speed or [ecstasy] or weed claiming it made them play a lot calmer in front of a crowd. Some took Ritalin or Adderall.”
The Australian contingent would have an opportunity of their own to partake though. “First night in Los Angeles, [redacted] knocked on our door and said, ‘Hi Aussies, I got something for you’,” Bednarski continued.
“He laid his backpack on the table and [opened] it up with like 30 bags of weed. He said, ‘What you guys want, I got this and that,’” he claimed.
It was a sobering experience for the Queenslander. “One of my idols walks into a room and shows thousands of dollars of weed … I lost respect for [redacted] then.”
That didn’t stop others from hopping on the bandwagon though, with Bednarski claiming that two Australians took recreational drugs before a televised match in the hope it would improve their chances.
I asked if any of the Australians had continued experimenting with substances when they returned home, but he said he had never heard of it being a factor in Australia and it was not something anybody paid any attention to locally. However, he admitted that “there was an instance or two where they needed to be on some sort of high as they believed it made them play better on the grand final”.
Bednarski did not identify those players or the grand final in question. I also reached out to other former Sydney Underground members to corroborate Bednarski’s comments, but they either declined or were not in a position to confirm his story.
ESL is the first tournament to begin drug-testing their players. Image courtesy of ESL.
Bednarski’s assertion that he has not heard of gamers today taking drugs, recreational or medicinal, does have a degree of plausibility. When I asked players from Counter-Strike (former and current players from the game’s multiple iterations), League of Legends, Starcraft 2 and DOTA 2 about their experiences, all of them said they were unfamiliar with any local instances of PED usage.
The few that were aware pointed the finger directly at the first-person shooter scene and those fortunate enough to have international tournament experience claimed that the use of substances was understood to be the heaviest in North America.
“But to have this tiny little pill that makes you even better than that? You really weigh up the pros and cons; and the ability to step up onto another plane of superiority just by taking a tiny little tablet they give to regular little kids”
One player privately claimed that a large number of Call of Duty and Halo teams in North America are using Adderall and that it was an open secret. They added that it was common knowledge but not spoken about openly for fear of scaring sponsors and the potential financial damage it might cause individuals, teams, organisations and tournaments.
Another suggested it was less common for Australians to use PEDs because doctors and medical professionals are less likely to hand out prescriptions without a thorough diagnosis. I’m not able to verify this for myself, but it was a shared belief amongst all of the players I spoke to.
Kyle “Vilesyder” Colyer, a veteran Australian Call of Duty player who qualified for the Call of Duty Championship this year, echoed a very similar sentiment when I asked him for his thoughts. “My main frustration is that it’s becoming a ‘well my rivals are on it, so I need to be on it to be level with them” sort of deal,” Colyer said.
“That’s probably my least favourite aspect of the trend, because this is everyone’s mindset and the choice is being taken away from you.”
Colyer insisted that he didn’t believe the use of PEDs was new or particularly prevalent, and he pointed out that while he wasn’t condoning or validating their use “players aren’t rolling in cash either”. “It’s still tough to make a living doing this and players can’t be flying around with tablets on them after events and they aren’t scoffing into fat bags of pills on their toilet breaks,” he explained.
“It’s not going to get stamped out any time soon, the cost is far too high to the majority of eSports leagues. Players are going to get it if they want it, exactly the same as every other drug anywhere in the world. I’d rather players be educated and know the limits, effects and interactions so they stay safe.”
Colyer’s views are hard to disagree with: if players want to subvert the rules they will, much like the three players who used Steam Workshop to download hacks for an offline CS:GO tournament, find a way.
Image courtesy of ACLPro.
But perhaps the most prevailing factor for Australian gamers that choose to enhance their capabilities through external means is the lack of tournaments. Because there are so few of them every year, compared to the suite of ongoing leagues and major tournaments in Asia, Europe and the United States, players feel the reward far outweighs the potential risk, if any.
That was the case with one player who provided a statement to me anonymously about their personal experience with Ritalin. I have not been able to independently verify their comments, although much of the description echoes the information players told me privately about their experiences and it also matches the general experience other players have anonymously described in stories that have already been published over the last few months.
“My close friends have told me they have taken it … I myself have never taken it, but with it now becoming more mainstream I’ve thought about it and had it offered to me. Especially now that’s it’s pretty easy to get it as people are selling it if you know the right people.”
“It took around 10 minutes to kick in and lasted an hour and a half and when it did, the focus was incredible,” the player said. “I’d heard of it affecting players communication (as in they would be so focused that they didn’t communicate properly, that whole CS thing or whatever) but I found it had the opposite effect on me; it just amplified every skill I had. I was so totally in tune with the game and my team-mates that for the duration of each match.
“There’s definitely a point you reach when you know the comedown is happening, and you think, if I take another will it double the effect? Will I be twice as accurate, will I be twice as fast? I can definitely see those with less self control just saying ‘yep’ and doubling down and pushing the limits near the addictive levels.”
Dealing with the physical effects of Ritalin was a concern, although some study online helped assuage any concerns. “I’d done complete research and knew the effects/side effects and made a conscious effort to not show the more telling physical ones,” they said. “The worst of it was an elevated heart rate, but it wasn’t anything more significant than when I play sports or am in the heat of the moment.
“What irritated me so much is that it’s a tiny little pill and a tiny chemical change to a lot of what’s already there, the skill is there, I am capable of doing these things, just this little bit of extra stuff makes what’s there so much better.”
The production of eSports has ramped up significantly — and so have the stakes. Image courtesy of Dreamhack and Adela Sznajder.
The strongest element of this player’s experience is that inescapable feeling of being at the peak of competition, something the vast majority of people — or in their words, the “top 1% of the entire fucking planet at a thing” — simply could not comprehend.
“You’re literally better at something than everyone you ever meet on a day to day basis; have you ever felt that? The feeling of that alone is incredible and playing against the best in the heat of the moment is … it’s just insane, you cannot top that, that alone is an addiction which drives you day in day out and I’ve competed for years without even considering anything performance enhancing other than eating healthier.”
“But to have this tiny little pill that makes you even better than that? You really weigh up the pros and cons; and the ability to step up onto another plane of superiority just by taking a tiny little tablet they give to regular little kids so they can go about their lives normally really seems to outweigh the cons that really only come into effect at high doses, especially when you only play major life changing tournaments maybe three to four times a year.
When the high of winning feels so good — and is so lucrative — why wouldn’t you take the plunge?
Professional gaming has grown exponentially in the last few years. Image courtesy of Callofduty.com.
Amidst the conversations and the background for this story, the Electronic Sports League – organisers of the tournament where Friesen claimed he and his teammates were under the influence – announced it would be introducing skin tests to dissuade other competitors from following their lead.
“I knew a manager who bought weed for his players before match day … some players would take speed or [ecstasy] or weed claiming it made them play a lot calmer in front of a crowd.”
ESL then went one step further and announced they would follow the World Anti-Doping Agency’s lead, which prohibits Adderall (and alternatives like Ritalin) but has no restrictions against marijuana. It’s the furthest any organisation has gone to date, even though they aren’t the first organisation to prohibit the use of PEDs.
Major League Gaming, the organisation which helped popularise Halo and Call of Duty on console before branching into other tournaments, has been adopting WADA’s prohibited list for years, despite never testing a single player. “Now that a lot of attention is being paid, it’s something we’ll look at for the 2016 season,” Bruce Dugan, a spokesperson for MLG, told the New York Times.
It’s not exactly the most delicate statement, but in their defence there are some significant practical issues with taking the high ground. How would you go about enforcing drug tests? Do you rely on skin tests only, as the ESL has done? Do you go a step further and ask for a blood or urine sample? How do you collect those samples? Who stores them? Do the samples have be stored in a particular environment? Who do you assign to collect the samples? How do you test them? Do you pay a third party? How exactly does the process work?
eSports has come a long way — the above image, courtesy of ESWC, is from one of the world’s largest tournaments in 2004.
Even before any of those questions can be answered, however, the main problem is money. The majority of Australian events run without the direct support of a developer typically run at a loss. Most organisers, much like the owners of “professional” teams in Australia, end up paying for the event out of their own pocket, funding the venture through their day job.
“That’s probably my least favourite aspect of the trend, because this is everyone’s mindset and the choice is being taken away from you.”
If local tournaments and the people behind them struggle to break even, how on earth are they suddenly going to be able to bring in a third party to oversee, screen and guarantee the authenticity of drug tests? The general consensus among organisers I spoke to was that the eSports scene, regardless of the specific game, lacked the size, scope and frequency of tournaments for players to really bother with PEDs. The risk/reward, in their eyes, simply wasn’t there.
I reached out to major developers and asked for a comment on this story and their procedures in the past and going forward. Wargaming declined to comment, Riot Games said they didn’t currently test for PEDs — which included the recent OPL finals, where Chiefs won the right to compete in an international wildcard tournament — and Blizzard were yet to comment by the time of writing.
So how serious is the issue here in Australia? Perhaps a clue can be found in comments from Team Immunity’s James Quinn, who is in Germany to compete in the largest CS:GO tournament to date, ESL One Cologne.
“eSports is becoming bigger and bigger and starting to be treated like a real sport and just like real sports we need anti-doping measures in place,” Quinn told HLTV.org. “Everyone who competes is playing at the highest level for such a large sum of money and reputation and cheating is not the only thing we need to be watching for.”
In other words, players don’t consider PEDs cheating to begin with. And that’s where the real problem starts.
* Names have been changed to protect the players identity.