With the warm summer days slowly waning, August in Seattle may seem a little quieter than usual. That’s because this year, Valve will be taking their crowd-drawing eSports tournament, The International (TI), north to Vancouver, B.C. For the last five years, thousands of eSports fans from all over the world have gathered at Seattle’s Key Arena to watch their favorite eSports athletes compete live. Teams travel to different countries to accumulate enough points to qualify for the high-paying invitationals. With the amount of travel required, there is some question as to whether these players should qualify as professional athletes and what rights they are entitled to.
eSports is a broad term used for competitive gaming at a professional level. Yes, professional. You may think of football or basketball players hitting the pro-circuit in their mid to late-20s, but age ain’t nothin’ but a number in eSports! Most players range from their late teens to early twenties. While Super Bowl players can earn a $100,000 bonus, eSports professionals can rack up hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of dollars in a single tournament…without subjecting their bodies to the usual contact-induced injuries. In 2015, Sumail Hassan Syed, “Suma1L,” earned $1 million after his team’s victory at TI, bringing his total professional earnings to $1,639,867 at the ripe old age of 16.
TI has been a part of Seattle’s summer events since 2012. During the 2017 competition, 18 teams digitally vied for their take of an ever-growing, record-breaking prize pool. Increasing annually, TI’s prize pool has ballooned from $1.6 million in 2011 to $24,787,916 in 2017.
With such high stakes, should we consider eSports a legitimate sport?
The Rise of a Sport
It’s easiest to compare eSports to American football, which has been played in some form since the late 1800s, but wasn’t established as a professional league until 1920. And so the American Professional Football Association (APFA) was born, the organization that would later become the National Football League (NFL) in 1922.
Since the inception of video games, there has been some form of competition. In 1980, Walter Day founded the video game score-keeping organization Twin Galaxies, seen as the official confirmation source for The Guinness World Records. The battle for gaming superiority only escalated with increase of Internet connectivity. The rise of modern-day eSports was created in a perfect storm: the South Korean Financial Crisis of 1997, cheap internet, hyper-connectivity in a reliable infrastructure and a necessity for escapism. This storm nurtured young Korean men’s game-playing abilities into what would become a marketable skill; a stark deviation from the traditional school-to-career path encouraged by mainstream Korean society.
Suddenly, gaming became a spectator sport that only grew larger as time went on. There are now schools, like GameCoach Academy in South Korea, that offer training programs to students of all ages with a goal of becoming a pro-gamer. Just like any professional sport, most eSports athletes are lured in by the promise of fame and fortune.
“The rise of modern-day eSports was created in a perfect storm: the South Korean Financial Crisis of 1997, cheap internet, hyper-connectivity in a reliable infrastructure and a necessity for escapism.”
eSports athletes train vigorously year-round to maintain their physical and mental prowess. If that sentence made you chuckle because you don’t typically associate the classic “gamer” with “physical and mental prowess,” it might be time for you to reevaluate your idea of what an athlete is.
Most pros find themselves separated from their family members and living in a team house, an area specifically built to train and harness teamwork and skillsets. Each individual competing on the professional circuit maintains an aggressive training schedule, including 12-14 hours of dedicated gaming each day and watching previous games to dissect plays. Players are coached in strategic thinking, focus and nutrition. This is their job. Pro-basketball player Jeremy Lin sees the similarity, saying,“I see it in a lot of ways similar to basketball. Just a 5-on-5 game where you have to work together, utilize each other strengths…the teamwork, the trust and the sacrifice—those are all true for every single team sport.”
So when it comes to eSports athletes being treated as professionals, are they held to the same standards as other athletes? There is a growing consensus that they should be, in order to create and maintain eSport’s legitimacy. There are several leagues and tournaments, however, which makes this feat difficult, including Overwatch League, Electronic Sports League (ESL), and The International, that do not adhere to a universal set of rules. This is particularly evident when it comes to anti-doping rules.
You knew where this was going, right?
Doping in eSports
In 2015, “Counter Strike: Global Offensive” (CS:GO) analyst and shoutcaster (someone who commentates and explains the game) Mohan “Launders” Govindasamy interviewed Kory “SEMPHIS” Friesen, who openly admitted that players on his then-team Cloud9 were using Adderall.
A prescription drug commonly prescribed to treat narcolepsy and attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD), Adderall is a stimulant, and its use has been an open secret in the eSports world since the beginning. While most folks commonly think of a performance-enhancing drug (PED) being an anabolic steroid, any substance that has the potential give an unfair advantage in competition can be thought of as a PED. Friesen’s admission placed a spotlight on eSport’s abuse of PEDs to increase concentration and reaction speed. As with any competition offering a fat-money prize, you can expect someone to try and cheat—just ask Lance Armstrong or Marion Jones.
In response to the Friesen interview, the ESL promptly implemented an anti-doping policy, using the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) list of prohibited substances and methods. WADA lists cannabinoids, both natural and synthetic, as prohibited substances.
Does this mean that cannabis is a PED? For the purposes of eSports, it’s unlikely. There have been several studies conducted which show that cannabis may slow or have no effect on reaction time. In a 1998 study conducted by Duke University Medical Center, researchers took MRIs on 46 volunteers after consuming the cannabinoid THC. Scientists found that, after consumption, the altered blood flow to the brain caused a considerable distortion to participants’ sense of time. Additionally, there are many cannabinoids—with and without mind-altering properties—with different purposes, none of which have indicated they will make you a super-human eSports monster. More importantly, it’s difficult to give a straight answer as to how long cannabinoids stay in a person’s system. Each person’s body breaks down cannabinoids differently—some bodies process it faster, some slower.
Note to my Devil’s-Lettuce-lovin’ folks: Take a seat for a moment while we explain how the breakdown and testing of THC works. Even after you’ve consumed, the metabolites, or byproduct of THC, stays inactive in the body’s fatty tissue for different periods of time—it is dependent on the potency of the product, how often a person partakes and the individual’s preferred method of consumption. The tests used to analyze cannabis usage can even vary results! A blood test can come up clean two to four days after consumption, a saliva test can be clean after one to three days, but a urinalysis can show a positive result between eight and 30 days. Some folks have reported testing positive 77 days after their last consumption.
Lack of Consistency is Dangerous
This confusing lack of consistency is potentially dangerous for eSports tournament contestants traveling to countries where cannabis use is strictly prohibited. In the Philippines, as per 1976 Presidential Decree, a professional athlete entering the country to participate in a game or tournament is required to obtain a license from the Games and Amusement Board (GAB). The Filipino government screens for marijuana and methamphetamine hydrochloride through a urine test once a player has already entered the country. This is particularly troubling since the Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is in the middle of a “war on drugs” that has killed more than 12,000 people in 14 months. Duterte has encouraged vigilante violence and extrajudicial killings of anyone suspected of using or selling drugs, stating, “If you know of any addicts, go ahead and kill them yourself as getting their parents to do it would be too painful.” Whether there’s proof of criminal activity or not, the body count has continued to rise, with the innocent, including children, being called “collateral damage.”
This raised concern for The International’s parent company, Valve, which was set to sponsor the Philippine’s pro circuit qualifying major, the Galaxy Battles 2018 tournament. Though the GAB explained they would “slightly loosen” the rules by letting players submit drug testing results taken from their home country, Valve pulled their investment and “major” status from the tournament—meaning participants in the tournament would not earn qualifying points towards The International 2018 or the $500,000 prize. In an official statement, Valve explained, “This is based on what we feel are unreasonable infringements on the privacy of the players, as a condition to enter the country.” After Valve’s withdrawal, eight of the 16 teams followed suit and pulled out of the competition.
There is no doubt eSports should be considered a sport, and it’s players professional athletes. However, with the growth of the estimated $906 million eSports industry, along with consistently sold-out events, worldwide media coverage, and talks of becoming a 2024 Olympic sport comes the responsibility of creating a cohesive, universal anti-doping policy which targets players that use PEDs. Should cannabis be on that list? For now, Seattle will be a little quieter and vendors’ pockets a little lighter this August. If TI returns to Seattle, you can bet that it’ll be bigger and better than ever.
The Top 5 eSports Earners
Although some view video games as a waste of time, for these top eSports athletes it’s a source of major income. Here are the top contenders in eSports, as reported by esportsearnings.com.
Name: Kuro Takhasomi | Age: 25 | Country: Germany
Total Earnings: $3,629,477,75
Name: Amer Al-Barkawi | Age: 20 | Country: Jordan |
Total Earnings: $3,202,886.88
Name: Saahil Arora | Age: 28 | Country: United States
Total Earnings: $2,996,603.47
Name: Ivan Ivanov | Age: 23 | Country: Bulgaria
Total Earnings: $2,969,961.36
Name: Lasse Urpalainen | Age: 23 | Country: Finland
Total Earnings: $2,969,665.64