Monday, March 31, 2014

Performance Enhancing Legends. by Seth Oakley

Note: I don't know who this is. He probably doesn't take drugs. -Ed
I told Mike that he needed an eSports writer for his blog, someone to cover analog and digital gaming. He sticks his hand out for me to shake it. We were sitting in a bar, and I’d had a couple, so I shook it. He says, “Welcome aboard!” and it hits me.


Too late.

Now he’s bugging me to write an article about Performance Enhancing Drugs in eSports, (This was your idea, buddy. - Ed) so here goes.

Wikipedia tells me that League of Legends is a MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena) published by Riot games. It was inspired by the Defense of the Ancients mod of the popular video game Warcraft III, but this is an esports article, not a history report, so you can google it yourself. Forbes said it was the most played game in North America and Europe in 2012, and the Wall Street Journal says that 7.5 million people play it at one time during peak hours. Heavyweight news organizations like Forbes and the Wall Street Journal are writing about it, so there’s that.

The game is played with two teams of 5 players, each controlling a champion that they select and move around a map, attacking other players’ champions and computer controlled monsters. They destroy structures, collect gold and purchase upgrades. The first team to destroy the other team’s base wins. It has a similarity to timeless games like Chess or Poker, in that it is simple to learn, but extremely difficult to master. The game has a notoriously toxic player base, and the developers are constantly struggling with keeping members of the community from verbally abusing each other.

League of Legends has gotten fairly large in the eSports community. Their most recent Season 3 World Championship ended with the Korean team, SKTelecom, beating the Chinese team, Royal Club, in the Staples Center in Los Angeles, and taking home 1 million dollars in prize money. (See our previous articles about it. -Ed) They were able to come here and compete because United States Citizenship and Immigration Services now recognizes League of Legends professional players as athletes worthy of special visas. These visas to allow foreign players to come to the US to live and compete for up to 5 years. Now, this hasn’t been without a little nationalistic backlash, with US fans chanting “USA! USA!” right after presumed American team Skyline took the lead over Chinese team LMQ. They quieted down after they found out that their beloved Skyline top laner is actually Canadian. Then Skyline lost, handedly.

So with all this prize money being given away, with regular tournaments happening, with sponsors and immigration status on the line, what is your run of the mill, late teens to early 20’s professional gamer to do? How can you keep that edge?

I have no idea how it starts, and though I kind of want to know, I don’t really think I will try to hard to find out. Maybe it’s something handed down from older players to younger. Maybe it’s instructions from team captains, or even managers or owners (yes, these teams have owners). Maybe it started like this article, two guys in a bar, and one says, “Hey, I could write about Performance Enhancing Drug use in eSports.” I don't know how, but it starts.

Performance Enhancing Drugs in sports are not news to anyone, but apparently when you combine it with video gaming, then people are surprised. I know that I was shocked when I found out about it, but I guess I shouldn’t have been. I mean, we are talking about one million dollars in prize money to whoever can beat Koreans at a videogame, so you better bet people are going to try and find any edge they can. There is debate everywhere else about PED in sports, so I’ll leave out the usual rhetoric. Here's what I know about PED in LoL:

It’s all about focus.

The drug of choice right now is Adderall. Adderall is a member of the phenethylamine class, and it’s cousin it doesn’t like to talk about but would probably show up to Thanksgiving dinner is methamphetamine. It keeps you awake, ramps up your heartbeat, and allows you to focus intently on one thing and one thing only. Or so I’ve heard. It is prescribed to people suffering from narcolepsy or attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Side effects generally include fast or irregular heartbeat and anxiety. The withdrawal symptoms include changes in sleep, changes in movement, and changes in energy level: pretty much what you would expect from a drug that affects all of these things.
Extreme Focus - Ed
Why Adderall? Adderall is a drug abused by students when they decide they want to go to the library and study for 8 hours. This level of increased focus helps students to keep going when others would have left to do something else. Most of the time, students will acquire the pills from a friend that has a legitimate prescription, or buy them from someone in a similar situation. Occasionally, students have reported “faking” ADHD like symptoms to get access to these medications, either to use or to distribute.

Adderall is also on the List of Prohibited Substance for the National Football League. Yes, football teams are having trouble with players popping Adderall and training for hours straight. But this is kinda where the ethical question of Adderall comes in: if it is only used to enhance your training, but not your performance, is it really a performance enhancing drug? Teachers report similar effect of Adderall on students in the classroom. Students that have trouble focusing, sitting still, refraining from being disruptive, etc. are calmer when on Adderall during class. They pay more attention. Then the test comes around, and they don’t perform any better than their un-medicated, well-behaved peers, but much better than their un-medicated, disruptive peers. The implication here is that Adderall does not enhance your academic performance, but instead allows you to focus and study more.

So where does that bring us in League of Legends? Is it OK for a player to take Adderall so they can focus more and train harder? If they don’t do it before a match, does it not count? (Of course, the withdrawal symptoms would probably scare anyone away from this tactic, but you get my point). Adderall helps you focus, sharpens your attention, allows you to concentrate on one task. That’s the essence of what is required for League. Commentators have often made the comparison between League and tennis: You don’t have to be good, you just have to be less bad than the other guy. Many times a game is determined by the mistakes made by the losing side, not by the daring or skill of the winners. Could Adderall actually enhance the performance of player if you only need to avoid distractions and wait for the opponent to screw up?

Looking in to this subject, I read reports about other sports that ban Adderall or other drugs that are used to improve focus on something that doesn’t inherently require a ton of focus. Every major sports league (except the National Hockey League, apparently) bans these sorts of focus enhancing substances. But these leagues have player associations, unions, privacy restrictions, lawyers, all to protect the players from having to take drug tests. There is a lot of power on both sides, the league needs the players to play, so they can’t kick too many of them out or their business falls apart. After the Alex Rodriguez case, it doesn’t look like it matters how big a name you are, they will still kick you out if they catch you using. And the players need the league, there isn’t much ball to play outside of the major organization, not if you want to make big money at it.

E-Sports is different. How much does Riot need the players? Certainly they need players like you and me to buy our microtransactions and send them piles of money to built their castle of $100 bills. But the pro players? How much does Riot need them? How many of us would jump at the chance to play in a League of Legends tournament, and then get paid for it? How many people do you know that actually could compete? There will always be more players to enter, there are plenty that are constantly trying to get there. And in the other direction, how much do the player need Riot? A whole lot. Riot gave out $1 million dollars, split up among independent organizers who wanted prize support. There are no player organizations, no unions that are going to try and stop an organizer who asks for anti-doping measures. Who would stand up to the people who are throwing money out to the players and say, “No, we aren’t going to play by your rules.”

In the mean time, the Intel Extreme Masters Tournament in Katowice, Poland, was swept by the Korean Rolster Bullets, who beat the European team Fnatic in the Finals for League of Legends. The StarCraft II tournament was won by sOs, a Korean national who took home $100,000. And Adderall is banned in Korea. Go figure.

Seth Oakley is a writer and teacher living in Pacifica, CA. He loves Orks, League of Legends, and mocking the editor, who is taking care to write a really nice bio for him and not mock him at all. Stupid face.

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