Last updated April 5, 2018 at 12:09 pm
Professional gamers taking stimulants are heading for a “concussion-like health crisis”
Esports – competitions involving video-gaming – are these days every bit as popular as traditional physical pastimes.
At the elite level, there is very big money to be made and, just as in pro-pursuits such as cycling, swimming and running, the lure of riches and fame are leading competitors to seek advantage through drug use.
In an editorial in the Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health, researchers led by John Holden of the College of Law at Florida State University in the US warn that the widespread use of stimulants among pro-gamers and the legions of amateurs who want to emulate their success is leading to a multi-faceted crisis.
Holden and colleagues note that esports are dominated by young men and women, with many retiring from competition by the age of 19. During their competitive phase, however, they can play for up to 14 hours a day and sleep for as few as four. Unlike physical athletes, esports professionals spend their gaming and training time sitting still, combining high levels of mental concentration with equally high levels of bodily inactivity.
Stimulant use on the rise
Not surprisingly, the use of stimulants to sustain focus is, at least anecdotally, common. There are multiple reports of gamers using prescription drugs of choice – primarily amphetamines and methylphenidate (better known by its most familiar brand name, Ritalin). There is also a well-developed grey market, in which quasi-legal herbal stimulants, often bundled up with caffeine-based supplements, are marketed directly to players and fans.
As early as 2015, one of the largest esports bodies in the US, the Electronic Sports League (ESL), began routinely testing competitors for prescription drugs. The move was made after a popular video-gamer champion, Kory Friesen, boasted on social media that he and his team-mates had all been on amphetamines while playing in a tournament.
Despite the ESL’s move, however, there is still no uniform drugs policy across all esports platforms, let alone any serious education campaign to dissuade amateur gamers from using supplements in an attempt to boost performance or stamina.
The push to succeed
It’s not difficult to understand the attraction of drug-cheating at the upper end of the esports world. One esport statistics website lists 100 championships carrying prize money ranging from $US115,000 to $US1,000,000.
Holden and his colleagues cite sources that estimate “sponsorships for top performers, sold-out stadiums for live-viewing, venture capital-like investments and a tethered wagering market expected to reach US$23.5 billion by the year 2020”. A year before this, they say, the worldwide audience for esports is predicted to top 435 million people.
Holden and his team note that esports and traditional sports share similarities as well as differences. In both there is a sense of contest and uncertainty, but, they add, “esports differ markedly from traditional sports in that the athletes manipulate avatars on computer screens against opponents instead of physically confronting opponents on a field, court or rink”.
Both the similarities and differences, they say, “raise potential health concerns”.
They note that drug use calls the integrity of the sporting contest into question, but are more concerned about the health risks arising from “the recreational use by esports enthusiasts, players and streamers, of both prescription and over-the-counter stimulants to sustain marathon gaming and streaming sessions”.
The number of young people engaging in these habits, they say, is likely increasing, ironically because parents are discouraging children from playing physical sports such as football because of fears of concussion.
They urge parents, educators and doctors to put aside fears of physical sports injuries in order to head off what they term esport’s “own concussion-like health crisis”.
“Considering the potentially destructive cocktail of esports combined with stimulants and inactivity, it is imperative to encourage more exercise and physical activity programs for esports enthusiasts,” they conclude.