‘Nobody talks about it because everyone is on it’: Adderall presents esports with an enigma
“Aspiring to become a full-time streamer and make a career out of his love for gaming, former semipro Halo player Matthew “MellowMajik” Murphy follows a weekly ritual. Every Friday and Saturday night, he comes home and gets on his new favorite game, Fortnite. But before he logs on, Murphy swallows a pill he thoroughly believes will aid him in becoming the best player he can be.
“Typically I would be exhausted, tired and lose motivation after only a couple hours,” Murphy said. “With Adderall, I am able to play better than I ever have for up to 12 hours.”
The use of Adderall, a drug often prescribed by doctors to treat patients with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or other substances that help people focus like Vyvanse and Ritalin, has long been associated with students pulling all-nighters and cramming for a test or finishing a research paper. More recently, though, they’ve been used by competitive gamers as a kind of performance enhancer to sharpen their response times and reflexes during gameplay. While at least one esports league regularly tests for these as banned substances, others have left them unchecked. As the appeal of competitive gaming continues to rise — with robust prize purses and lucrative sponsorship deals hanging in the balance — gamers across multiple esports properties have recounted stories of Adderall use by themselves or others.
The use of such drugs has introduced significant questions into esports. What exactly constitutes a performance-enhancing drug? Could their use potentially disturb a league’s competitive balance? Should prescribed substances be regulated by a league at all? These questions are not so easily answered.
‘Nobody talks about it because everyone is on it’
Professional Counter-Strike player, Kory “Semphis” Friesen, admitted in a YouTube interview that he and his entire team had taken Adderall while playing in a tournament with a $250,000 purse. Timo “Taimou” Kettunen claimed during a live stream session that “like 20 players or so” in the Overwatch League use Adderall. In response to that claim, Jimmy “HighDistortion” Moreno, former Gears of War (GoW) pro turned Fortnite streamer, tweeted that “the GoW community has easily over half the players using it.”
According to a number of professional gamers who spoke with The Washington Post, Adderall has been an open secret in the esports community for years. “Nobody talks about it because everyone is on it,” former Call of Duty World Champion, Adam “KiLLa” Sloss said. When asked if Adderall abuse at events was something he had ever witnessed personally, Sloss replied, “Witnessed? Yeah, very frequently and a lot to be honest. It’s a major problem.”
After an eight-year career, Sloss stepped away from professional play in early 2019. Sloss said a big reason he has stopped competing was due to the rampant drug abuse. “The Adderall abuse was too much to keep up with,” Sloss said.
The drug’s use presents a complicated problem for leagues and tournament organizers. Shortly after Friesen publicly admitted that his Counter-Strike team used Adderall during an Electronic Sports League (ESL) sanctioned tournament, the ESL employed the help of the Esports Integrity Coalition (ESIC) and began conducting drug tests. As of February 2016, all ESL tournaments are subject to the ESIC’s Anti-Doping Code. Included in the Anti-Doping Code is the ESIC’s prohibited substances list. The list is made up entirely of stimulants commonly used to treat ADHD such as Adderall.
In comments to The Post, the ESL and the ESIC said they believe testing is crucial because it acts as a deterrent and discourages competitors from using PEDs. Ian Smith, Commissioner of the ESIC, said there have been zero anti-doping rule violations since testing began. Those with prescriptions for ADHD medications can be granted a waiver for a positive test. Smith acknowledged that this only applies to Counter-Strike and that “no other game gets tested by any other tournament organizer.”
Most leagues do not fully prohibit or test for, Adderall or similar substances. For example, the policy of Epic Games, which administers competitions for Fortnite, states, “Prescription drugs may be used only by the person they are prescribed to, and in the manner, combination, and quantity as prescribed.” It does outlaw the unauthorized use or possession of prescription drugs, as well as alcohol or illegal narcotics.
The Overwatch League follows a similar policy, stating in its code of conduct that “prescription drugs may only be used to treat the condition for which they are prescribed and may not be used to enhance performance in a game, match or tournament.”
Asked for comment on the use of Adderall by players, Epic Games and Activision Blizzard, the parent company of the Overwatch League and Call of Duty League, both provided their league policies and declined further comment.
Riot Games, which operates the League of Legends esports leagues, stated that its rules prohibit the use of illicit substances by players. “We regularly review these rules for compliance with local laws around substance classifications and player privacy rights. We will continue to consult with medical experts, regulators, and player representatives to properly safeguard the well-being of our players and the long-term health of the sport.”
A common argument against banning Adderall and similar substances is that there is no proof the medication makes the user better at video games. When asked if the Overwatch League would consider drug testing in a 2018 interview, former commissioner Nate Nanzer responded that “Adderall is a legal prescription in the United States of America and … there’s no data that suggests that it makes you better at playing Overwatch.”
The costs, and disputed benefits, of performance enhancement
Gamers themselves have mixed opinions on whether Adderall is a performance enhancer or not. Professional Counter-Strike player, Emma “Emy” Choe, doesn’t think drugs like Adderall play much of a role in a player’s potential for success.
“Countless players below pro take Adderall but will still fail to beat the best of the best,” Choe said. “If there was a huge difference between players on Adderall and not, I think people would make a bigger deal about banning it at all gaming events.”
In fact, Choe believes Adderall even has the ability to make a player worse. “They get too focused on one aspect of the game and forget other important/crucial game-winning factors such as communication,” she said.Murphy, the Halo pro turned Fortnite streamer, admits the drug has its limits. “The drug can only have such an effect on your game … it’s not some magical pill that instantly makes you amazing at a game. You still need the skills to compete.”
But some pros believe they have a clear benefit. Aspiring Fortnite pro, Jack Watson, told The Post he often takes either Adderall or Vyvanse when he competes in the various online Fortnite competitions such as the Cash Cups and the Winter Royale. Watson, who has prescriptions for both Adderall and Vyvanse, has over 41,000 eliminations on Fortnite — a number that at one point ranked him third in the entire state of Maryland, according to Fortnitetracker.com. Watson attributes much of his success to these ADHD medications. “I notice very significant differences in my gameplay,” Watson said. “My reaction and processing time is exponentially greater than playing without [Adderall]. It feels like steroids for video games.”
“It just kinda makes people do better jobs,” said Yeonjoon “ArK” Hong, a professional Overwatch player for the Washington Justice. “While others don’t use it and [stay] underrated.” The motivation for players to take Adderall, in Hong’s opinion, is derived from personal gain. “[It’s] not like peer pressure or, ‘I should do it for the team!’” the Overwatch All-Star claims. “It’s more like ‘f— it, I just wanna [destroy] that guy.’”
Sloss agreed with Hong. “A lot of these kids are hearing [that] some of the best players in the world are taking Adderall. They wanna either experiment and see if it helps or just do what it takes to be the best.”
Maria St. Pierre, a Clinical Project Manager in the Neurological Clinical Research Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital, worked as a Laboratory Manager and Lead Research Assistant for the Teaching and Gaming Lab during her graduate and undergraduate studies at Towson University. She, too, believes there are clear advantages to those using the medication.
“It is like PEDs in sports. They use it as an enhancer to gain an advantage over their opponents,” St. Pierre said. “This is why steroids and PEDs are banned from traditional sports. … Those taking Adderall have an unfair advantage over someone who is not taking Adderall or any other stimulants.”
St. Pierre believes that Adderall and drugs like it should be banned from competitive gaming events, as they have been by the governing bodies overseeing traditional sports. Both the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) consider Adderall to be a performance enhancer. The NFL, NBA and MLB all have Adderall on their banned substance list.
As with any drug, abusing Adderall can have long-term consequences. “Taking any medication that is not prescribed to you can have long-lasting, detrimental effects,” St. Pierre said. “Physically, Adderall is like taking speed or meth. … Psychologically, not only is it a highly addictive drug, but it can also cause psychosis and paranoia.”
The problem of where to draw the line
On the surface, it might seem like the obvious solution for leagues and tournament organizers is to just copy the ESL; mandatory drug testing at tournaments and if you are prescribed, you get a pass. But some, like Murphy, said that obtaining a prescription for Adderall under false pretenses is relatively simple.
“It’s everywhere and it’s easy to get,” said Murphy. As an owner of both an Adderall and Vyvanse prescription, Watson agreed he didn’t think it would be hard for gamers to get a prescription for these drugs.
Another concern is the cost and difficulty to implement drug testing. In a behind the scenes video on the ESIC YouTube channel, Smith claimed that the ESL spends an excess of $40,000 per year on drug testing. While that sum would be more than manageable for a publisher-backed league like League of Legends’ League Championship Series or Overwatch League, smaller tournament operators would find it much more of a burden.
Thomas Schofield, CEO of Smash.gg, a platform used by tournament organizers to operate events for a broad mix of game communities, explained that while there are large organizations and leagues that use Smash.gg, most of the events on the platform are amateur tournaments with fewer than 32 participants. Very few tournament organizers have the means necessary to implement drug testing at their events.
There’s also the problem, if not the impossibility, of administering testing for online tournaments and events not held in one physical location. In late December of 2019, Epic Games hosted the annual Fortnite Winter Royale. The total prize pool for the tournament was a whopping $23 million. Participants in that tournament’s qualifying rounds all played from remote locations, where there is no feasible method for Epic or another governing body to know if the participants are using PEDs.
Banning Adderall and similar drugs outright could lead to a slippery slope when it comes to other legal substances like caffeine. Professional Call of Duty player Zach “Zed” Denyer said in a direct message exchange with The Washington Post that he used caffeine pills. WADA has caffeine on its prohibited substances watch list and the NCAA currently limits caffeine consumption for college athletes. But caffeine products and energy drinks are often frequent sponsors of esports competitions. Banning those could carry a financial cost for leagues and tournament runners.
Esports leagues and tournament organizers must grapple with these questions and arguments, and clear-cut solutions are in short supply. An outright ban on ADHD medications risks hurting players with legitimate prescriptions. But if organizers begin testing for Adderall but allow those with a prescription to use it, they risk encouraging players to seek a prescription illegitimately. Ignoring the issue completely may lead to competitors, fans and spectators questioning the integrity of esports as a whole — not to mention any consequences surrounding the overlooked dangers posed to players through abuse of these drugs.
“People are destroying their lives and futures,” Sloss said. “There’s no limit … one of these days you’re gonna see somebody have a heart attack or something serious happen.”
A correction is unlikely to come from the players themselves. As Murphy said, competitors will do whatever it takes to make it big in esports, myself included.”