The Future Of Anti-Doping Cases May Be In Esports


Last year, the Electronic Sports League (ESL) announced that it would begin testing competitive video gamers for performance enhancing drugs at its upcoming events in partnership with the World Anti- Doping Agency (WADA).  This is, and remains, Esports’ first and only anti-doping policy in effect.

This means that gamers are subject to testing of WADA’s banned substances, not just the usual suspects to aid in focus and mental stamina (i.e. Adderall and Ritalin).  Why?  Because Esports is the fastest growing sport in the world, garnering as much (and more) viewership than the deciding games of the 2014 NBA Finals and World Series.  And because it offers millions of dollars in prize money and well-known athletes in their respective disciplines were admitting to use of psychostimulants during major tournaments.[1]

In conjunction with the Esport Integrity Coalition (ESIC), the ESL bans a handful of substances which it considers performance enhancing for gamers.[2] A fraction of what you might find on the WADA prohibited list, the ESIC Anti-Code is conversely comprehensive in its coverage of potential sanctions and remedies available to athletes who test positive.[3]

Though adopting a universal and stringent anti-doping program like that of WADA’s may seem harsh for athletes using more brain than brawn, it is far better for a growing sports league to implement such a program early on.  Take, for example, the UFC, which implemented USADA’s testing program following many years of leaving such testing to the various State Athletic Commissions.  With the advent of the UFC Anti-Doping Policy, there was a spike in positive tests, likely due to the much more rigorous testing regimen under the new UFC program.

The ESL testing itself is done by a saliva test, as opposed to the much more common urine sample for other sports.  Tests can be performed at ESL’s discretion at any time during tournament days, in designated collection areas to maintain privacy.[4]

Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUEs) are accepted, which allow athletes to provide verification from their physicians that they actually need an otherwise banned substance for medical purposes.

ESL considers each positive test on a case-by-case basis, and sanctions can vary from loss of prize money or points to bans from competition of up to two years.  The problem is, this only covers the ESL; not the many other leagues that operate under both in the U.S. and abroad.  To date, no gamer has tested positive under the adopted anti-doping policy.

With competitions running up to fifteen hours, the burnout factor is high, according to Bryce Blum of IME Law in Seattle and co-founder of the Esports Player Resources Center (PRC).  This has led to abuse of performance enhancing drugs like the common ADHD prescriptions Adderall and Ritalin, which not only assist in focus, but also can increase stamina for marathon gamers.

As Esports continues to be the fastest growing sport in the world[5], there remains concern over progress with harmonization of leagues and whether or not they will be willing to implement a uniform anti-doping policy.  If possible, it will be distant. Several factors make implementation of a uniform anti-doping code difficult: the sport is fleeting as far as careers go (the average player is 18-19 years old and most retire by age 25), and it is difficult to have a finger on the pulse of who are the elite athletes that should be subject to the testing pool[6]. As evidence, several Esports[7] organizations reiterated their commitment to an “even and fair competitive environment” to The Daily Dot back in July of 2015, and that they hoped to introduce something “sooner than later,” without much to show for it nearly a year-and-a-half later.

Ian Smith of Sports Integrity Matters recently carried out a risk analysis[8] of threats to the integrity of Esports, which included concerns over doping. Considered a moderate-to-high threat against the integrity of Esports after Could 9 superstar Kory Friesen openly admitting use of ADHD drugs and ESPN’s exposure of use amongst Halo e-athletes, Smith notes that the “demographic majority of Esports participants are drugs savvy and most likely to be users against the remainder of the general population.”

Very little education and only a low level of testing has occurred, according to Smith.  He notes that increased pressure from commercial partners and other traditional sports to fall in line so that anti-doping becomes common practice throughout all leagues. He recommends, however, that instead of addressing recreational drug use within the WADA spectrum, an anti-doping policy should focus on treatment for such use of illicit substances as part of a health policy.[9]

In order to better understand the future of anti-doping in Esports, it would (however counterintuitive) be helpful to see the adjudicative process carried out once an athlete actually tests positive under the ESL policy. Much like the UFC’s new ADP, the arbitration panel hearings (or in the case of Esports, hearings before the Disciplinary Panel) will help set forth relevant case law specific to that sport. Until then, it remains to be seen whether or not other leagues will embrace the ESIC policy.

[1] Kory “SEMPHIS” Friesen admitted to using Adderall in a March 2015 tournament where players competed for $250,000 in prize money.  See Matthew Dunn, Esports introduces drug tests for professional gamers 18 Aug. 2015 at

[2] The full list is available at

[3] The ESIC Anti-Doping Code can be found at

[4] Chris Welch, Electronic Sports League reveals list of drugs banned from e-sports 12 Aug. 2015 at

[5] For example, mega-online retailer Amazon acquired Twitch, the largest gameplay-livestreaming site back in August 2014.

[6] For example, a Filipino team that no one knew about made it into The International (a championship in DOTA2 held in Seattle each year worth over $20 million) by playing in open qualifiers, then knocked-out the team favored to win and earned over $500,000.  See

[7] This included Gfinity (host of Counter-Strike events) and Major League Gaming (who claims to have adopted the World Anti-Doping Agency’s policy but admits to never testing its athletes).  See

[8] The full report can be found at

[9] Smith also noted that the Prohibited List is under review to update for 2015 with a pharmacologist and gaming specialist.


About Author

Lindsay Brandon

Lindsay Brandon, special to OSN, is an associate attorney at the Law Offices of Howard L. Jacobs where she mostly works on the defense of athletes accused of doping violations.  An ardent supporter of sports as a vehicle for common ground in this evermore divisive country in, when not focusing on issues in anti-doping, she enjoys exploring the overlap of social activism, community service and government in sports.  A native Seattleite, she enjoys spending her free time traveling, hiking, or curled up around a fireplace watching football (go Hawks and Dawgs!) with friends and her dog. 

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