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How Smart Drugs Are Re-shaping The Esports Industry

  • November 18, 2021
13 minute read

Imagine that you are trying to become a professional esports athlete, but there is only one problem: you need to improve your mental capabilities before you can compete for money. You go online and find a plethora of options for "smart drugs," more commonly known as nootropics. You decide to give one a shot, but there is just one problem: you aren't sure what exactly it will do for you, or if it is even safe.

Cognitive enhancers are becoming popular with competitive gamers and professional esports players alike in order to gain an edge in their chosen profession. So, what are smart drugs and how do they work?

What Are Nootropics?

The term "smart drugs" is a bit of an exaggeration, as they do not actually make you any smarter. Instead, these cognitive enhancers are thought to enhance focus and concentration in those who take them. Typically, nootropics work by increasing levels of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin (check out our primer on nootropics here to learn more). 

Moreover, cognition is a broad term for the mental abilities that involve sensory perception, memory, attention, and language. It can also refer to skills such as decision-making and problem solving. Cognition enhancers are thought to improve these functions by altering receptors in the brain or increasing blood flow.

Top Nootropic Drugs in Esports

As technology has advanced, so too have the tools available to esports athletes to enhance their mental capabilities. Many of these drugs were developed for legitimate medical conditions such as Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease. Some others were initially intended to treat psychiatric disorders such as depression and anxiety but are currently used by players looking for cognitive enhancement.

Modafinil (Provigil) is typically used to treat Attention Deficit Disorder, but it has been proven useful for those who struggle with fatigue as well. This drug helps to increase wakefulness and alertness in those who take it.

Note: This drug is often thought to be a favorite of collegiate esports players due to its ability to improve reaction time and reduce the sensation of fatigue. However, it is also on sale on various black markets as a "smart drug" for gamers  or anyone else looking to improve their cognitive function.

Adderall (mixed amphetamine salts) is a prescription-only drug used to treat Attention Deficit Disorder, but it is also commonly used by individuals who want the ability to stay awake and alert for long periods of time. The most common form of this drug taken as a nootropic is slow-release capsules, but some have turned to crushing up the drug and snorting it for an immediate effect.

In October 2014, professional League of Legends player Kory "Solo" Friesen openly admitted that he took Adderall during a competitive match at least once, and that it helped him greatly. While he did not have a prescription, he had gotten the drug from other players on his team who were prescribed the drug for ADHD and narcolepsy.

Aniracetam is one of the most popular nootropics used by gamers, as it helps to improve memory, focus, and concentration. This nootropic is often compared to Adderall due to its effectiveness in increasing memory recall and maximizing cognitive function.

Piracetam is the first nootropic ever developed. It works by improving cognitive function and increasing memory retention in those who take it. As such, piracetam is a favorite of those who want to maximize their brain power before competing in esports tournaments.

This list is by no means exhaustive. There exist a huge number of nootropics with varying effects and abilities. Some work better than others depending on the individual, but there are many that gamers utilize to stay competitive in the esports industry. With that being said, what regulations do players face when using these substances?

How Esports Organizations Deal With Regulating Nootropics

Every major esports event that provides substantial cash prizes has strict rules about what drugs gamers are allowed to take. Almost all major esports organizations have banned Modafinil, for example. This has led to many players turning to Adrafinil, a prodrug for Modafinil that metabolizes into the latter in the body. While Adrafinil is legal without a prescription, it is also one of the most popular smart drugs used by esports athletes.

What ramifications exist for gamers who choose to use nootropics? Some are slightly more lenient than others. The Electronic Sports League (ESL), for example, has a list of banned substances that all players must agree to when they join the organization. The ESL categorizes Modafinil as a banned substance and prohibits it from use in all competitions. Examples of banned substances include:

  • 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.

However, the ESL is also very clear about what it considers doping versus what it considers as enhancing one's abilities via nootropics. It states that if a drug enhances a player's abilities above and beyond normal human limitations, it is considered doping. However, if the drug only enhances the mind in order for the player to be able to put more effort into their gameplay, then it is not considered doping.

In this way, many gamers consider nootropics like Adrafinil and Aniracetam as "innocent" substances. The League of Legends Championship Series (LCS), for example, has not banned Aniracetam or its analogs from use by LCS players. This is because there are no drugs on the market that have a significant effect on how the brain works in comparison to these substances.

Of course, nootropics are not without their side effects. Some of these substances have been known to cause headaches, nausea, and stomach aches when taken in large doses. Even while taking nootropics according to the label, smart drugs can also cause problems for many gamers. Many of these goods are not third party tested or certified, so players should search for substances that aren't on any prohibited substances lists, as well as those that have been verified for purity, authenticity, and more.

Legal, Non-Harmful Substances To Consider Taking For A Gaming Boost

There are a variety of legal, non-harmful substances that gamers often take in order to boost their abilities. Some examples include:

Ashwagandha: According to the latest research, Ashwagandha extract is a safe and effective nootropic that helps with mental stress, anxiety, cognition, memory formation and recall.

Ginseng: Ginseng is derived from a root plant and helps with focus and concentration, memory recall, endurance, stamina, mental drive and mood. A single dose of 200 – 400 mg of ginseng can significantly reduce the mental fatigue associated with gaming.

CDP-Choline: CDP-Choline, or Citicoline is a compound found in the brain that can be used to boost memory and cognition. It also helps with improving neuron function. This translates to quicker thinking and mental processing, as well as improved memory consolidation and retrieval for esports gamers.

L-Theanine: L-Theanine is a non-essential amino acid that occurs naturally in green tea. When combined with caffeine, L-Theanine can improve cognition and concentration while simultaneously reducing stress levels and anxiety.

L-Tyrosine: Clinical studies have shown that L-Tyrosine improves memory and quick thinking under acute stress, such as while gaming.

Turmeric: Turmeric is an antioxidant that aids in the prevention of inflammation in your brain and body. This aids in the mitigation of pain caused by extended gameplay.

Bacopa monnieri:  Bacopa monnieri is an herb that has been shown to improve memory, increase focus, and reduce anxiety. This results in improved holistic thinking capabilities which can augment decision-making skills while gaming.

Caffeine: As the most widely used psychoactive drug in the world, caffeine improves cognitive abilities and reduces mental fatigue. It also increases focus and concentration in gamers in order to increase awareness.

Acetyl-l-carnitine: Acetyl-l-carnitine, or ALCAR is a neuroprotective agent that can reduce mental fatigue and improve alertness in gamers. It also has been known to aid with memory recall and quick thinking skills.

Lion’s mane: Lion’s Mane, a mushroom derivative, has been shown to stimulate Nerve Growth Factor production in the body. This can improve neuron growth and regeneration which can lead to improved mental processing speeds.

Noopept: Noopept is a nootropic that is derived from racetams. It can significantly enhance learning capabilities, improve memory formation and recall, as well as augment focus, concentration, reasoning skills and decision making abilities in gamers.

Rhodiola rosea: Rhodiola rosea is a herb that has been shown to improve memory and information processing speed. It can also help reduce mental stress and anxiety which results in a general reduction of fatigue associated with long periods of gaming.

Now that we have reviewed both legal, non-harmful substances and top smart drugs that are preferred by gamers, what does the future of nootropics look like?

The Future of Smart Drugs in Esports Events

In this debate, many people see no harm in allowing smart drugs like Piracetam and Aniracetam to be used by gamers. After all, they do not give players a significant advantage over their opponents -- just a minor boost that allows gamers to stay focused on the game.

However, there is still risk involved with taking banned substances. They are all unregulated, and it is definitely possible for one or more of these drugs to be mislabeled or tainted with other harmful substances. For example, research has shown that some of the best Aniracetam analogs are cut with choline bitartrate and caffeine -- two compounds also used by gamers to improve their focus.

Moreover, if esports organizations continue to ban smart drugs from esports events, then it is unlikely that we will see a significant increase in the number of gamers who use these substances. They may continue to be used, but only by those gamers who care more about winning than they do about being eligible for competition.

But if esports organizations choose to change their policies and allow smart drugs like Aniracetam to be used at events, then it is likely that we will see a significant increase in their use among the esports community. Gamers will be able to access these substances much more easily, and they will not have to worry about being removed from competition for using them.

This is why third-party certifications like NSF Certified for Sports, which are designed to ensure the purity and efficacy of sports supplements, are so important for gamers to consider. Organizations like this go above and beyond to make sure that the supplements they manufacture are safe, effective, and free from any harmful contaminants or additives. In fact, traditional sports organizations like the MLB require players to take NSF products. Esports leagues will likely go in the same directions, and players who want to get an edge in the game should consider NSF products. 

Third-party certifications give gamers comfort in knowing that the nootropics they use at competitions will not result in a disqualification. These certifications also encourage more gamers to take advantage of these substances, because they are that much more confident that the smart drugs being offered are both legal and safe.

It is likely that we will see a lot of discussion regarding the safety of smart drugs -- especially because there is no definitive information on them at this point in time. There are some people who argue that they should be allowed because they don't provide a significant advantage over other players, but others insist that it is still unethical to use these drugs.

However it plays out, smart drugs will continue to shape the esports industry for years to come. Whether or not we see a shift in how they are used will largely depend on the esports organizations -- and whether or not they care more about winning than they do about being ethical.

Looking for NSF Certified for Sport nootropics?