NEW YORK — Lance Armstrong. Alex Rodriguez. Kory Friesen.
Flouting rules for performance-enhancing drugs have felled some of the biggest names in sports. Now that list could include competitive video game players such as Friesen, after he boasted that he, his teammates, and other professional gamers took prescription drugs to help them focus in a competition.
In response to those comments, the Electronic Sports League, one of the most successful leagues in competitive video gaming, said on Wednesday it would test players for performance-enhancing drugs starting at a tournament in August. ESL said it would work with two international agencies — the same ones that help oversee anti-doping policies for cycling, the Olympics and other sports — to create anti-doping guidelines and a testing program for players.
The announcement is perhaps the clearest sign yet that e-sports, as professional gaming is widely known, is evolving into a mainstream form of competitive entertainment. This year, overall revenue from the global e-sports business is expected to surpass $250 million from more than 113 million e-sports fans worldwide, according to estimates from Newzoo, a games research firm.
But the growing stakes for players — prize money is expected to reach $71 million — is creating new temptations.
“We want to create a level playing field for all competitors and maintain the integrity of the sport,” said James Lampkin, vice president of professional gaming at ESL.
ESL has long had a general prohibition against doping, but its rules did not specify which drugs were not allowed, and the league did not police players. That changed, though, when Friesen, who plays under the name Semphis, was interviewed earlier this month and said that he had used Adderall during an ESL tournament for the shooter game Counter-Strike while playing with a team called Cloud9.
In the interview, which was posted on YouTube, Friesen said that his teammates also used the drug, which is prescribed to people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder but is commonly abused by some to help with focusing.
“We were all on Adderall,” Friesen said of his team, which he no longer plays for. “Tons of people do it.”
Friesen, 26, said that he used Adderall out of desperation. His team was in the midst of a losing spell, so he turned to chemical help.
“It was kind of when we were doing worse, so it was just one of those things where it’s like, maybe it would help,” he said in a phone call from his home in Abbotsford, British Columbia.
It did not help. Esports competitions look a bit like a trading floor, with players yelling directions to their teammates on where to go and who to ambush while simultaneously focusing on their own controllers and screens. Friesen said concentration drugs could probably help with the shooting bits, while making it harder to absorb directions.
‘You don’t just take Adderall and instantly become better,” he said.
As for the response, Friesen said he wanted and expected a reaction from the leagues. “I didn’t think, it was good, whether that’s hypocritical or not,” he said. “I just think there should be some sort of rules that aren’t supervague.”
Jack Etienne, Cloud9’s owner, said: “We don’t agree with Kory’s statements about Cloud9, and don’t condone the use of Adderall unless it was prescribed for medical reasons.”
As part of its new anti-doping effort, ESL said it would partner with the National Anti-Doping Agency of Germany to help develop a new policy. The league said it would also meet with the World Anti-Doping Agency about enforcing the policy.
Traditional sports and e-sports have a similar motivation for curbing the use of performance-enhancing drugs: legitimacy. Traditional sports leagues, like Major League Baseball, worry that performance-enhancing drugs can raise doubts about a level playing field. What value is there in sacred home-run records, for example, if modern baseball players can get a big boost of strength from a drug?
E-sports leagues and advocates, meanwhile, crave acceptance as a mainstream sport. By turning to some of the top anti-doping agencies, the leagues take a step closer to acting like a traditional league, adding to their sellout crowds and million-dollar paydays.