Almost every professional sport has a drug testing policy, and players are suspended for violating that policy. The main sport that drug testing is associated with is baseball. Currently, Major League Baseball (MLB) has a “three-strikes” rule in place for use of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). After several prominent players were named in the 2007 Mitchell Report, a fact-finding investigation focused on players who were taking PEDs, which are banned by the league, drug testing became a hot topic in professional sports. Electronic sports (e-sports) will also introduce drug testing, which raises two questions: will it finally get the respect that traditional sports already have, and further boost the already surging popularity of e-sports?
“Our main goal is and always will be to maintain the fair play spirit and the integrity of our competitions and we’re confident that the anti-doping policy is important improvements that will help us advance as a sport,” said Anna Rozwandowicz, head of communications and boss of public relations at the Electronic Sports League (ESL) in a Reddit post, one of the largest e-sports leagues in the world. The ESL plans to institute random drug testing similar to their athletic counterparts.
The ESL’s partnership with the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) covers many substances also banned in traditional sports. One significant substance that the ESL will not outright ban, however, is marijuana. The ESL stated that while competitors could not use marijuana during their events, they could still use them while not competing in ESL events. There will also be exceptions to those who are prescribed certain medications with a physician’s approval.
While video game competitions have been around since the infancy of video games, it did not have the appeal nor backing that it does today. In the 1980s, Twin Galaxies was founded to keep records of video game scores, and in the 1990s, e-sports went online with games such as Half-Life and Counter-Strike (which remains one of the most popular online games today). E-sports have also made token appearances on ESPN throughout the last decade.
Today, e-sports has surged into a multi-million dollar industry with no end in sight. Conservative estimates show that the industry could be worth almost half a billion dollars by 2017. Twitch itself was bought by Amazon for the price tag of $1 billion in 2014, showing that people are willing to invest money into the industry. E-sports enthusiasts are currently estimated to have similar numbers to those who watch the National Hockey League (NHL). By 2017, it is estimated to be comparable to that of the National Football League (NFL), which has the highest average attendance among all sports leagues in the world.
New media platforms such as streaming service Twitch and video hosting website YouTube have given e-sports a unique power—that anyone can turn themselves into an Internet celebrity with the power of video games. Games such as League of Legends (LoL) and Defense of the Ancients 2 (DOTA 2), the two most popular multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) games, are amongst the most streamed games; DOTA 2 competitions have awarded almost $50 million in prize money as of July 2015.
While drug testing may bring legitimacy to an e-sports scene that has been rocked by scandal (other issues include paying for boosted ratings, harassment, and outright sexism), advertisers should take notice of the rapid surge of interest in e-sports. While advertising only composes a third of e-sports revenue (sponsors generate closer to 60 percent), this could grow drastically if major corporations throw their hats in the ring. Although game developers, publishers and hardware manufacturers are expected to participate, non-gaming companies such as Coca-Cola have thrown their hat in the ring with League of Legends.
“Recent growth in esports has largely been driven by the West—which means that the growth could be extremely rapid if it hits critical cultural mass in Europe and North America. Potentially, that could see even faster acceleration as it attracts brands and sponsorship looking to reach the extremely valuable marketing demographic which e-sports seems to attract,” said Dan Pearson, European Editor at GamesIndustry.biz. While some people may see this as a hobby, it is starting to reach the competitiveness of traditional sports that have been played for decades.