Last week, the esports giant Electronic Sports League (ESL) announced its plan to add anti-doping regulations, making it the first international esports league to do so. Rumors about performance-enhancing drugs in competitive gaming have surfaced over the years, but the blatant admission of PED abuse by a former professional gamer earlier this month raises questions about how widespread PED abuse is in competitive gaming.
ESL hosts competitive gaming leagues and tournaments all over the world and has a vested interest in preserving esports’ reputation and sportsmanship as digital professional gaming rises in popularity. Michal Blicharz, the VP of Pro Gaming at ESL, answered Fast Company‘s questions about how ESL plans to combat PED abuse:
Fast Company: Why did ESL choose to release its anti-doping policy now? Is its timing in response to the widely publicized admission of drug abuse by the ex-Cloud9 CounterStrike: Global Offensive player?
Michael Blicharz: Taking this step was inevitable for ESL and something we expected we would have to do sooner or later. In the last 1.5 years player salaries in the world’s top teams rose from below $1,000 by almost tenfold in some cases. Prize-money purses rose four times. The temptation to cheat has become greater than ever and we knew that before the fateful interview. There’s no denying that the interview forced us to act more swiftly than we had originally planned.
How effective does ESL believe these PEDs are? Can they noticeably improve player performance on a level comparable to PEDs in nondigital sports? Do PEDs imbalance games and affect game outcomes?
We don’t think that PEDs can give you an insurmountable advantage, but we don’t want to see a situation where players are putting their health at risk and take PEDs just to make sure they don’t lose a competitive edge. “We’re taking it because everyone else is taking it.” It’s our obligation to provide a fair playing field to our competitors.
What performance-enhancing drugs will the ESL be testing for? The PED mentioned most is Adderall, a drug typically used to treat attention-deficit disorders. How will the ESL account for prescribed users of this and other prescribed drugs?
We will first and foremost focus on amphetamines and metamphetamines. With time we may extend it to other substances. As regards prescribed users, we will be relying on the experiences and best practices of the specialists from NADA and WADA. We certainly don’t want to prohibit players with legitimate health issues from participating in our competitions.
In the ESL’s press release announcing the anti-doping policy, you talk about working with the WADA to expand this policy to the U.S., Asia, and Australia. Any timeline for when this could happen? Is ESL talking with other esports leagues, like MLG and IeSF, to introduce their own anti-doping policies?
We are currently focusing on installing all the processes on time for ESL One Cologne and we’re only a few weeks away. We will evaluate anything beyond that after our first run in Cologne. What other leagues do with their tournaments is up to them, but we will happily share our experiences with them if they reach out to us.
In the ESL’s opinion, how widespread is PED abuse across competitive gaming? Is abuse more prevalent in the highest professional tiers?
All evidence that we have is purely anecdotal, but it stands to reason that the use of PEDs might be more common at the higher tier where the temptation is on another level. As far as we are aware, it’s not a rampant issue and we’re dead set on not allowing it to become one.
Is PED abuse more widespread in some regions over others—Europe vs. America vs. Korea? Do certain games have higher rates of PED abuse?
We will be much wiser after we’ve tested players at several events. There is no data out there to work with. However, just because obtaining certain drugs in Europe is more difficult than in the U.S., that would suggest that PED abuse wouldn’t have higher rates in Europe.
Is the ESL concerned about PED abuse’s effect on esports’ reputation?
As strange as it sounds, the recent incident served as a reminder how big and how lucrative competitive gaming has become. If we allow PED abuse to be as common as in some traditional sports, then we will end up where they have. Esports has been a place where one could compete without the requirement of being enough inches tall or having larger muscles than others. Taking PEDs should not be a requirement either and we will work to keep it this way.