Doping rules in competitive Super Smash Bros? The pros and cons

Doping is considered cheating and bad sportsmanship in traditional sports. It would only make sense that, if esports want the same recognition and sponsorship as traditional sports, similar rules be put into place. But in a discipline that lacks an international federation and the obvious muscular effort that traditional sports entail, how do we identify and ban doping? Stay with me while I bounce from one hot take to the next and identify what doping in Smash is and how to ban it.

Note: Most doping products for esports are also legitimate medication for medical issues such as AD(H)D, anxiety or depression. These motives are fully valid, and I will never criticize taking medication as part of a treatment.

Why does anyone use performance-enhancing products?

The first answer I get when I mention doping in esports is a disbelieving “that’s stupid, esports doesn’t require more muscle”.

This really brings two questions: why does anyone use performance-enhancing products, and why would you use them in a video game competition?

There are several answers to this. I’ve seen at least four different reasons that people were taking certain doping drugs:

  1. Because they wanted to win, for the cash prize or for the fame (for example, using Adderall or Ritalin)
  2. Because they genuinely thought they couldn’t play without them (this mostly applies to anti-anxiety drugs)
  3. Because they wanted to “have fun”, took drugs, and didn’t realize that these drugs happened to also help focus (looking at you, amphetamines)

There are good reasons to take these drugs – for example, someone with ADHD or anxiety shouldn’t be taken off their meds for Smash tournaments! That’s the big thing with doping, be it in traditional or electronic sports: there’s a whole grey area about the intent behind the drug-taking.

That’s why classic sports ask for a doctor’s prescription. It’s not a perfect filter, but it’s a good start that doesn’t require a large budget for the TOs.

And one extra stat: in November 2018, 27% of LCS players could cite other players who used performance-enhancing drugs (Ritalin or amphetamines) to stay sharp in competition. (Source)

Does doping exist in Smash? Is doping actually bad?

Doping exists in every discipline and at every level – especially when instead of thinking “steroids”, we think “Adderall”.

Here’s a video on doping in esports (one of many!):

Doping in esports is a matter of public health when more and more players get into competitive mindsets, whatever the game. An anti-doping rule isn’t just to ensure fair competition – it’s also to make sure people don’t get addicted to amphetamines for lack of education on the topic.

The pros: What would happen if we did ban doping in Smash?

That’s the one easy answer I have for you! The ESIC, or Esports Integrity Coalition, has already put up a detailed anti-doping code and a list of prohibited substances – I’ll heavily base this part of the blog post on their resources. Interestingly, they’re also the people who wrote the Esports Code of Conduct that the Melee Code of Conduct used as a basis.

Education: the key to effective anti-doping policies 

To make a doping code work, the first thing is education: people need to understand why doping is dangerous for them and for the competitive scene, and what doping really is. While it is the player’s responsibility to comply to an anti-doping policy and to submit to testing, Tournament Organisers and public figures should always make sure that people are aware of these policies and of why they exist.

What are the rules?

The cornerstone of doping tests is this:

Every player is responsible for making sure that no prohibited substance enters their body.

If you’re a high-level player, then you should behave like a high-level player in your general life. Sportspeople get suspended for taking the wrong painkillers after surgery or for smoking weed several days before a tournament. If you take your Smash career seriously, then you can live like someone who takes their Smash career seriously. In all sports and in esports, anti-doping rules state that intent does not matter: you could take a product intentionally, or without knowing it’s a doping product, or for fun several days before, nobody cares – if the product is in your blood sample, you’re out.

If you’re seen taking, carrying or selling a prohibited substance, you’re also at fault, whether you’re selected for a blood test or not.

What if I need doping medication?

Doping medication is subject to TUEs, Therapeutic Use Exemptions. If you have a severe condition and your health would suffer significantly if you couldn’t take your medicine, and if your doctor can assure the TO that taking the medication won’t give you more ability than someone who doesn’t need it nor take it, you can ask for a TUE.

Larger esports event should get the TUE checked by special anti-doping agencies or people. I believe that with the budget that most Smash tournaments have, it’s more reasonable to trust a doctor stating that for a specific tournament or time, you can’t go without your medication. You’ll then need to bring that letter and show it in case you’re seen taking the medication or get tested.

How would doping be controlled?

Usually, top 3 at a tournament + 3-4 people selected at random at the beginning of the tournament will be required to submit blood samples. In some cases, it’s logical to also test people who have significantly overperformed.

These samples are collected by independent laboratories and the price of the testing should be included in the venue fee (this way, the cost for the tests is spread over all attendees).

If someone is controlled positive, they’re immediately suspended. If they are in top 8 of the tournament, they are stripped of their ranking and must give back any cash prize they earned.

ESIC suggests separate punishments for different offences, which I’ll copy here without changing anything. Suspension Points are equivalent to suspension from large tournaments.

First Offence
A fine of up to 100% of Match and/or Event Prize money (or equivalent) and/or between 4 and 8 Suspension Points and/or a fixed term of suspension from the Game and/or Event/s of up to 24 months
Second Offence
The imposition of a suspension from the Game and/or Event/s and/or any Game/s and/or and Event/s and/or all Esports of between one (1) year and a lifetime
Third Offence
Up to a lifetime suspension from all Esports

(Source)

The Anti-doping panel can also require people to get addiction help before they come back from their suspension, in the case of addictive substances.

And of course, outside of some very rare and specific cases, confidentiality is important – the anti-doping authorities shouldn’t be running around telling everyone who got controlled positive!

What would the prohibited substances be?

According to the ESIC prohibited list, these substances are completely prohibited (ie. the smallest dose in your blood will result in a suspension unless you have therapeutic authorisation):

  • Amphetamine sulfate (Evekeo)
  • Dextroamphetamine (Adderall and Adderall XR),
  • Dexedrine, (ProCentra, Zenzedi)
  • Dexmethylphenidate (Focalin and Focalin XR)
  • Lisdexamfetamine (Vyvanse)
  • Methylphenidate (Concerta, Daytrana, Metadate CD and Metadate ER, Methylin and Methylin ER, Ritalin, Ritalin SR, Ritalin LA, Quillivant XR)
  • Modafinil and armodafinil.

These other substances are monitored, which means they’ll result in a suspension if you take them during the tournament, but not if only faint traces of them are found in your blood:

  • Non-stimulant Medications for ADHD:
    • Atomoxetine (Strattera)
    • Clonidine hydrochloride (Kapvay)
    • Guanfacine (Intuniv)
  • Anxiety medications:
    • Amitriptyline (Elavil), desipramine (Norpramin, Pertofrane), imipramine (Tofranil), nortriptyline (Aventyl, Pamelor), or other tricyclic antidepressants
    • Bupropion (Wellbutrin)
    • Escitalopram (Lexapro) and sertraline (Zoloft)
    • Venlafaxine (Effexor)

(Source)

The cons: Why don’t we ban doping in Smash?

I’d like to thank Danubi for her valuable insights on this topic. I’ve chosen to include her notes unedited to stay fully true to her word.

There are several reasons not to ban doping in Smash.

Drugs can be detected for a long time

Drugs can be detected by drug tests for much longer than their effects last, and I would say that TO’s shouldn’t have the authority over players’ lifestyle outside of Smash (especially amateurs, who will attend tournaments just like pros).

For example in the case of cannabis: when someone is a
regular user, they will test positive on THC for around 6 weeks after their last use. And with these immediate drug tests, you have no way to know when the drug was taken. This means that these players would have to stop consuming cannabis at least 6 weeks before any tournament. Of course,
one could say that ‘players just have to have their priorities straight; if they really want to compete, they should sacrifice their recreational drug use’.

However, I think that we have to consider the people that self-medicate with cannabis (which people do to alleviate symptoms or side effects of
treatments, even in diseases as severe as cancer), who cannot obtain their cannabis legally, such as through their health care system. So players can’t always show official documents which will tell TO’s that they actually need the drug for their health.

On the other hand, there is also ways to circumvent the doping check. I think that people could fake doctor’s notes quite easily, because it’s difficult to check with the doctors. Another thing that people could do is to simply take drugs that won’t be detected by the drug tests (because there are plenty).

It is highly, highly debatable whether the drugs players use for doping will actually improve their performance. Drug effects, especially for performance, depend on so many different factors that it is basically impossible to tell if the drug helps them in their play. Not in the least because results are dependent on so many factors. In completely sober play, too, it is super tricky to tell what exactly caused the winner to win. The answer is probably ‘no’, though.

Amphetamines or other stimulants will keep you more awake, sure, but they also cause overfocus which will make you play worse; cannabis could make you feel more emerged in the game but is likely to slow down your reactions a lot; alcohol could help with nerves but will slow down your
reactions and you will have less control over your movements.

Legal and illegal drugs

To the brain, it does not matter whether drugs are legal (hard drugs/ soft drugs) or not. Alcohol, smoking cigarettes and coffee will influence people and their performance just as well as cannabis, LSD, etc. The issue here is, where will you draw the line? No alcohol? No coffee?

Legal drugs are just as much doping as illegal drugs. When you prohibit one type (let’s say cannabis again) but others are allowed (like alcohol), people will probably take an allowed alternative instead. Then, you have attained nothing, really.

Even when you would prohibit all recreational drugs, you can’t rule out doping entirely in the sense that people could go on to take prescription drugs instead. For example, when someone would drink a couple of beers to kill the nerves (doping) but alcohol will be forbidden (which is
difficult in itself since many venues offer alcoholic beverages), they could resort to anti-anxiety sedative drugs on prescription.

This way, they will use doping but it is allowed since their doctor prescribed it for them, even if the drugs were prescribed for another goal (such as sleeping problems). It is also important to note that some prescribed drugs are very addictive (like sleeping pills), so that the anti-doping regulations could result in addiction.

Danubi’s conclusion

In short, I doubt that the implementation of a doping check will result in more fair play, unfortunately. I think that people who really want to use drugs for tournaments will find their way to do it anyway, and that at the same time the people who you would want to exempt from the regulations will suffer by far the most.

A short conclusion to our thought experiment

We think that the right way to go here is to positively stimulate and stress the importance of fair play, and to educate people on how drugs can affect your life and play.

And we hope that players who feel obligated to take drugs, like so many people seem to do, remember that it is better to learn how to play without; drugs probably do not even improve your performance, and you won’t become dependent on anything else other than your own mind to play 😊

We also highly value fair play, and we hope that players will consider it as much as possible.

References & Further Reading

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