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Trying to Think Faster: Doping in Esports


Photo Source: Mattza, Pills, Flickr (Aug. 13, 2005) (CC BY-SA 2.0).

By Justin W. Bogle*                                                       Posted October 6, 2020    

The premise is nothing new. Competitors, when glory and gold are on the line, will sometimes take illicit substances to improve their chances of victory.[1]  While the practice is old, the context has changed as more and more esports (electronic sports) players admit to doping in this up and coming sport.[2]  Unlike traditional sports, doping in esports is less about increasing muscle mass or endurance, and more about increasing a player’s reaction time by fractions of a second.[3]  This trend is important to understand with esports’ recent meteoric rise in popularity, and a proportional growth in tournament prize money.[4]  There have been efforts to correct this behavior, but the decentralized nature of esports has been a major impediment to consistent regulation.[5]

To put it simply, esports is watching people play competitive video games, either in person or online.[6]  The most common types of games are usually first person shooters or arena battle games.[7]  Depending on the game, players can join competitive matches on their own, or enter via third party platforms.[8]  Players than compete to enter different tournaments specific to each game for money and fame.[9]

Doping in esports is all about improving concentration, focus, and reaction speed.[10]  To achieve that goal, some players take drugs like Adderall and Ritalin to enhance their abilities while gaming.[11]  Players who have admitted to using prescription drugs say these medications increase both the quality and duration of their gaming, by helping to maintain focus.[12]  In addition, many players reported that doping is a widespread phenomenon in the e-sport world.[13]  Players, including former Call of Duty Champion Adam Sloss, report that they frequently see this type of drug use at competitions.[14]  However, some players push back on the efficacy of these abused drugs, and do not see this practice as a significant threat.[15]  Regardless, many esport leagues are beginning to take doping very seriously.[16]

Esports has grown from just people playing against one another for fun into a global industry with revenues exceeding one billion dollars as of 2019.[17]  While certain figures in traditional sports have refused to acknowledge esports, there is no denying the new phenomenon’s appeal and value.[18]  Currently, some esports competitions have payouts of several million dollars.[19]  In fact, in these ever-changing and challenging times more people have begun watching esports because traditional sports options have vanished.[20]  This viewership increase has seen a corresponding value increase, as betting groups expand their coverage of esports.[21]  Partially because of the money at stake, leagues are trying to weed out this problem.[22]  As the stakes rise, esports leagues have a vested interest in making sure that victories are legitimate, and therefore have begun working with the few regulatory groups in this space.[23]

To that end, while esports as a whole is largely dispersed and unregulated, a few entities are trying to police the industry.[24]  The two biggest are the International Esports Federation (IESF) and E-sports Integrity Coalition (ESIC); both groups have comprehensive anti-doping rules designed to curb doping and promote fair competition.[25]  Both groups include drugs such as Ritalin and Adderall on their prohibited substances lists.[26]  Both groups have a Therapeutic Use Exemption, which approves a player’s use of otherwise banned substances.[27]  Both groups utilize broad language for details about testing, with ESIC proclaiming that testing can happen “at any time or place.”[28]  Interestingly, IESF has a separate, more detailed section about testing at events.[29]  The IESF rules incorporate by reference many of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) rules and practices, which may, in time, end up making it the more legitimate of the two.[30]

Enforcement of these rules presents several challenges.[31]  Membership in regulatory groups is not mandatory, and some companies, such as Epic Games and Activision Blizzard, the owners of Fortnite and Overwatch respectively, prefer to act alone without greater oversight.[32]  In addition, drug testing is expensive, and while some of the larger leagues can absorb this cost, it can be prohibitive for smaller groups.[33]  These policies often include an exception for prescribed users of Adderall or Ritalin, and some players claim that this exception is easy to abuse as prescriptions are easy to obtain.[34]  Finally, difficulties arise out of the fact that while the finals of a tournament take place in large arenas, many of the preliminary rounds are occur at home, making it almost impossible for regulator to properly determine if anyone has doped their way to the finals.[35]

Still, even with all these difficulties, it is heartening to see that more stakeholders are taking both the sport, and its prevalent problems, more seriously.

* Staff Writer, Jeffrey S. Moorad Sports Law Journal, J.D. Candidate, May 2022, Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law.


[1] See Coleman Hamstead, ‘Nobody Talks About it Because Everyone Is On It’: Adderall Presents Esports with an Enigma, Wash. Post (Feb. 13, 2020), (noting some esport players will resort to drugs to gain competitive edge, similar to athletes of traditional sports,).

[2] See Harsh Malpani, Understanding ‘E-Doping’ and Need for Fair Competition in E-Sports, (July 28, 2019) (acknowledging esport competition is growing quickly and doping problems have already appeared in this newer industry).

[3] See Elliot Bretland, How Doping is Casting a Shadow Over the Rise of eSports, Sportsman, (Nov. 6, 2019), (describing difference in desired effects between doping in traditional sports versus e-sports).

[4] See Stefan Nicola, Illegal Bets, Match-Fixing, Doping: The Dark Side of Esports, Bloomberg (Apr. 24, 2020), (noting rise in interest and reward in e-sports).

[5] See ESIC Bringing Regulation to eSports, iGaming Bus. Ltd. (Feb. 5, 2020), (referring to while more e-sport organizers are joining ESIC, many remain independent from ESIC and it’s rules).

[6] See AJ Willingham, What Is Esports? A Look at an Explosive Billion-Dollar Industry, CNN (Aug. 27, 2018), (explaining basics of what esports are).

[7] See Caroline Knorr, Everything Parents Need to Know About Esports, Wash. Post (Oct. 15, 2018) (explaining popular games).

[8] See Ford James, What is Esports? A Beginner's Guide to Competitive Gaming, GamesRadar (Feb. 13, 2020), (explaining basics of how to join esport competitions).

[9] See id. (noting esport competition structure).

[10] See Zachary Kandell, Esports Has Its Own Doping Problem, CBR (Feb. 28, 2020), (noting reasons why esport players dope).

[11] See Hamstead, supra note 1 (describing types of drugs normally used in doping).  Players can also use mechanical aids such as specific computer programs, or bots, to assist in winning; however, this piece is focused solely doping through drugs. See Malpani, supra note 2 (detailing types and uses of mechanical doping).

[12] See Hamstead, supra note 1 (“Typically I would be exhausted, tired and lose motivation after only a couple hours, . . . [w]ith Adderall, I am able to play better than I ever have for up to 12 hours.”).

[13] See Kandell, supra note 10 (describing various games and leagues where doping is noted as an “open secret”).

[14] See Hamstead, supra note 1 (reporting on pervasive nature of doping he observed).

[15] See id. (indicating some players believe these drugs cannot replace talent or skill, and can sometimes cause players to focus on the wrong things during a match).

[16] See id. (stating several leagues have strengthened their banned substances lists).

[17]  See Nicola, supra note 4 (Presenting various large sponsors now involved in esports as well as reach of industry); see also James Ayles, Global Esports Revenue Reaches More Than $1 Billion As Audience Figures Exceed 433 Million, Forbes (Dec. 3, 2019), (“The numbers suggest that esports is fast on its way to becoming the most financially lucrative market on the planet”).

[18] See Ellen Zavian, The NCAA Whiffed on esports. It’s paying a Price but Can Still Learn a Lesson, Wash. Post (Aug. 6, 2020), (criticizing NCAA’s failure to include esports).

[19] See Hamstead, supra note 1 (describing total prize amount for a single Fortnite tournament).

[20] See Nicola, supra note 4 (noting recent increase in viewership on platforms such as Twitch, Youtube etc. for videogame competitions especially due to lack of traditional sports in pandemic times).

[21] See Ellen Zavian, One Byproduct Of Esports Betting? A Crackdown On Cheating, Wash. Post (June 10, 2020), (describing increase in interest in esports betting, and noting how Nevada and New Jersey are expanding into this market).

[22] See Hamstead, supra note 1 (introducing regulatory groups in esports).

[23] See Nicola, supra note 4 (presenting efforts taken to reduce cheating in esports).

[24] See Malpani, supra note 2 (describing major groups in esports are combating doping).

[25] See Anti-Doping Code §§ 2-5, E-sports Integrity Coalition, (last visited Sep. 28, 2020) (detailing types of substances permitted, exceptions, and testing plans); see also Anti-Doping Rules §§ 2-5, International e-Sports Federation (July 2014), (detailing types of substances permitted, exceptions, and testing plans).

[26] See ESIC ESports Prohibited List 2016, E-sports Integrity Coalition, (last visited Sep. 28, 2020) (listing prohibited substances); see also Anti-Doping Rules § 4.1 (incorporating WADA’s prohibited substance list).

[27] See Anti-Doping Code § 4 (describing therapeutic use exemption requirements); see also Anti-Doping Rules § 4.4 (describing therapeutic use exemption requirements).

[28] See Anti-Doping Code § 5 (outlining scope of testing).

[29] See Anti-Doping Rules § 5.3 (describing event testing requirements).

[30] See generally id. §§ 1-22 (referencing WADA rules and standards repeatedly).

[31] See Hamstead, supra note 1 (noting challenges in regulation).

[32] See iGaming Bus. Ltd, supra note 5 (acknowledging compliance can be difficult as some companies can easily lock out outside regulatory groups).

[33] See Hamstead, supra note 1 (reporting cost of widespread testing can be upwards of $40,000 per year).

[34] See id. (referring to ease of obtaining a prescription for these substances).

[35] See id. (describing impossibility in testing remote players).