If you think video games are just for fun, think again.
Today’s gamers are serious competitors.
Thanks to the rise of “eSports”—the term that describes the world of competitive, organized video gaming—many gamers now have widespread fan bases and compete in tournaments frequently watched live by millions of spectators.
These video game experts have become so popular, in fact, that they’re similar to NFL and NBA athletes, focused and intent on their championship goals. In 2018, the NBA held a draft for the launch of its new eSports league centered on the basketball-themed enterprise. They selected over 100 professional players with all the celebration normally given traditional court athletes.
Both professional and aspiring gamers look for every advantage when competing because today’s championship prizes are in the millions of dollars. Estimates are that eSports revenue will surpass $1 billion in 2019.
To get their best scores, competitors sometimes turn to potentially dangerous and illegal substances to give their brains the edge. Fortunately, there are safer, legal brain boosters available called “nootropics” that can help improve brain function without any dangerous side effects.
The Rise of Serious and Competitive Gaming
Back in October 1972, the first official video game competition took place at Stanford University. Gamers competed in a game called “Spacewar,” with the top prize being a year’s subscription to the Rolling Stone magazine.
A few years later, in 1980, the Space Invaders Championship took place. Over 10,000 gamers participated, and the event received widespread media attention. Nintendo contributed to the growth of competitive gaming when they held their world championship in 1990. They repeated the contest again in 1994, with their world finals taking place in San Diego, California.
The idea of competitive gaming really caught fire when the Internet made it possible for gamers to compete with other gamers around the world, paving the way for the first “eSports” leagues, which were founded in the late 1990s. These included the Cyberathlete Professional League (CPL), the Professional Gamers League, and Quakecon.
Soon more video game companies began sponsoring championships, and in 1997, the first Red Annihilation tournament, which attracted about 2,000 participants, took place. Spectators viewed the event in person and online, and it garnered widespread news coverage by the newspapers and television networks. The winner received a Ferrari, and the event was considered the world’s first “eSports” event.
In the 2000s, Internet cafes gave gamers a way to play multi-player video games on high-powered computers. The first World Cyber Games (WCG) were held in Seoul, South Korea that year, and the Electronics Sports World Cup (ESWG) followed in 2003 in Poitiers, France.
In 2006, FUN Technologies held a world championship in which they offered a $1 million grand prize. By 2010, the number of gaming tournaments had increased by 20-fold over the number in 2000.
In 2011, online platform “Twitch” gave eSports a wider audience, as they broadcast the competitions online, allowing anyone with an interest to get involved. Games like League of Legends and Defense of the Ancients 2 gained increased popularity as spectator sports, attracting millions of viewers.
In 2016, the League of Legends World Championships final enjoyed 43 million viewers, increasing to 60 million at the same event in 2017. In 2017, there were over 3,700 tournaments held, with the biggest prize being the $24.6 million first-place prize awarded at The International competition. And eSports show no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
Even high schools across the country are beginning to recognize gaming as an “electronic sport,” and are creating official, after-school leagues and organizing statewide tournaments.
In 2017, the International Olympic Committee acknowledged the increasing popularity of eSports, implying they may one day be allowed as an Olympic sport. Los Angeles, should they win the bid to host the summer Olympics in 2024, has promised to include eSports in the games.
eSports Leagues Ban So-Called “Smart Drugs”
Professional athletes are often caught using performance-enhancing drugs before a big game, and now the eSports industry is experiencing the same problem with “doping.”
While professional athletes have to keep their bodies in top shape to manage the stress of a big game, gamers have to sit and focus over an extended amount of time while maintaining fast reaction times and complex thinking capabilities. The games require intense levels of concentration and stamina, particularly during long, drawn-out matches.
Players need to quickly read their competitors’ moves and react with lightening-fast reflexes if they want to claim victory. Even a little fatigue or a moment’s lapse in attention can ruin a players’ ambitions in a second.
During high-stakes competitions when the slightest distraction or mistake can mean the difference between winning and losing, gamers can be tempted to reach for drugs to help them maintain that winning edge.
Rather than using steroids, though, or other muscle-pumping drugs, gamers turn to “neuroenhancement” options that give them a mental boost.
In 2015, a top Counter-Strike Global Offensive player admitted that he and his teammates had been taking the psychostimulant Adderall during professional tournaments, with other players anonymously suggesting that he was far from alone.
Adderall is one of several prescription medications given to individuals struggling with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to help improve their ability to pay attention and focus. It contains a combination of amphetamine and dextroamphetamine and is classified as a central nervous system stimulant.
When taken by individuals who truly need it, Adderall and other similar medications can increase levels of neurotransmitters in the brain like dopamine and serotonin, helping students concentrate in the classroom and allowing adults to focus while at work.
When taken by otherwise healthy individuals, though, it’s unclear what the benefits may or may not be. Studies have been mixed, with some suggesting that the best these drugs can do is offer a placebo effect. That hasn’t stopped them from gaining popularity in the eSports world, however—as they have on college campuses—as helping users reduce fatigue and enhance reaction times.
Gamers believe, whether rightly or wrongly, that the drugs help them play longer, more consistently, and at a higher level, while promoting a state of calm during tournaments and giving them an advantage over their competition. Now that there are millions of dollars and careers at stake in the gaming industry, the pressure is on gamers to perform at their best.
Using these drugs without a prescription is illegal, but gamers can get them under the table from friends with prescriptions, or by faking symptoms with doctors. Using them to improve gaming performance has become much more difficult lately, however, as the industry is cracking down on the use of these drugs.
Gaming Industry Bans the Use of Smart Drugs
As gaming becomes big business, with large audiences drawing interested advertisers with millions of dollars to spend, the gaming leagues are following the path of the traditional sports leagues and banning so-called “doping” among their players.
The Electronic Sports League (ESL) announced their commitment to safeguarding the integrity of their competitions and eSports as a whole in 2015 by releasing a list of drugs banned from gaming. That list included cocaine, steroids, and Adderall, as well as other ADHD medications like Ritalin. (Those taking the drugs for medical reasons need proof from a physician.)
“To play a match, be it online or offline,” the ESL stated, “under the influence of any drugs, alcohol, or other performance enhancers is strictly prohibited, and may be punished with exclusion from the ESL one.”
The ESL also started random testing that year, targeting competitors with skin and saliva tests that could detect banned substances. These tests are performed at the ESL’s discretion at any time during their tournaments.
How well these tests will work to deter players from popping banned pills is uncertain at this point, but as gaming continues to grow into big business, it’s likely that restrictions will continue, with the overall message being that if you’re going to play competitively, you’d better do it cleanly, too.
What Gamers Need to Perform Optimally During a Competition
Follow a professional NFL athlete for a few weeks, and you’re likely to find out that his whole life is built around creating a body and mind fit for the field. These athletes not only train regularly at high levels, but they also tend to eat only the healthiest foods and take nutritional supplements meant to help their bodies recover and rebuild as needed.
Gamers now know that they need to do something similar to achieve optimal brain performance while playing. Whereas a football player may require more protein for muscle-building, fish oil for taking down swelling and inflammation, and probiotics for smooth digestion, a gamer is likely to think more about boosting the following brain functions when looking for helpful supplements:
- Working Memory: Studies show that gamers tend to perform better on tests measuring working memory. In one 2017 study, for example, researchers found that gaming was associated with improved working memory performance, with enhancements seen even at moderate levels of gaming activity. Gamers need working memory to help them retrace recent steps and master pattern recognition—two key elements in mastering a game.
- Mental Energy: Any fatigue can negatively affect cognitive function, quickly taking a gamer out of the game. Players need lasting energy to make it through tournaments while thinking sharply the whole time.
- Focus and Attention: Distraction is death to a gamer, yet paying attention for long periods of time isn’t easy, particularly during high-intensity play. The more the gamer is laser-focused on the game, however, the better he or she will perform.
- Creative Thinking: Today’s video games are more complex than they used to be and to win, gamers often have to find creative solutions that other gamers may not have tried. Solving the puzzle faster than your opponent can give you the winning edge.
- Strategic Thinking: As you play against an opponent, strategic thinking helps you pick up his quirks and gain vital information that can increase your odds of defeating him. This type of thinking involves learning, generating new insights, and strong decision-making.
- Stress Resistance: Any sort of competition is stressful, and gaming is no exception. Stress interferes with clear and logical thinking, so gamers search for ways to keep stress at bay during competitions.
- Good Mood and Motivation: Even the most professional gamer can have an “off” day or one that’s filled with anxiety. These sorts of emotions are detrimental to competition, so gamers look for ways to keep their moods steady and their motivation high.
Fortunately, there are safe alternatives to smart drugs that can help gamers improve all these facets of cognition.
Seven Best Nootropics to Boost Gaming Performance
Most natural nootropics are still allowed by the ESL, and can legally help gamers reach greater heights in their gaming scores. The following nootropics are clear for use under the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) standards, and are also healthier alternatives to illegal drugs and risky energy drinks.
1. N-Acetyl-L-Tyrosine (NALT)
This is a natural amino acid that helps increase levels of critical neurotransmitters in the brain, including dopamine, the “go-getter” brain chemical. Stress depletes dopamine, but NALT can help gamers stay highly motivated and driven even when under stress.
NALT can also help gamers avoid burnout during practice periods while sharpening thinking in busy environments that tend to be distracting. It supports focus and overall mood and enhances working memory and decision-making.
The recommended dosage is between 500 and 2,000 mg.
Many gamers combine this natural amino acid with caffeine for optimal effects, as when taken together, the duo creates heightened energy and focus without the jitteriness that can come from excess caffeine alone. The jitters are the last thing gamers want when they need to keep their hands and fingers steady.
L-theanine helps also helps slow brain waves, counteracting stress and promoting a state of wakeful calm. It inhibits the release of too much glutamate, which can help reduce overstimulation. (Glutamate is an excitatory neurotransmitter. Too much of it can result in difficulty concentrating and mental exhaustion.)
In a 2008 study, researchers found that a combination of 50 mg caffeine and 100 mg L-theanine improved both speed and accuracy of performance on an attention-switching task, and reduced susceptibility to distraction.
3. Mucuna Pruriens
Also known as the “velvet bean” or “dopa bean,” this is a natural herbal supplement known as an “adaptogen,” or stress-relieving agent. It’s popular in Ayurvedic medicine where it’s been used for centuries to reduce stress and anxiety, improve focus, and elevate mood.
Mucuna pruriens is a legume that grows in the tropics and contains high levels of naturally occurring L-dopa, which is a precursor to dopamine. As noted, dopamine is a brain chemical that plays a large role in motivation, mood, and focus.
People with Parkinson’s disease are short on dopamine and are usually treated with synthetic forms of it, but some studies have indicated that mucuna may work even better because it has fewer side effects.
Mucuna also helps reduce stress, as shown in a 2010 study where 5 grams a day of mucuna puriens powder helped significantly reduce psychological stress. For gamers, the benefits are likely to include improved mood, increased focus and motivation, and reduced stress. Typical doses range from 200-500 mg with food.
This is a combination of choline and cytidine. Choline is needed for the production of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which is linked with memory and learning, and cytidine is a precursor to uridine, which is necessary for communication in the brain. The two together help increase motivation and sustain energy levels.
Acetylcholine also serves as a building block for lipid layers in brain cells, helping to boost overall brain health. With an adequate supply of uridine, the brain can optimize its ability to process, store, and recall strategic information.
In a 2009 study, researchers found that supplementation with uridine enhanced protein synthesis in such a way that it could be useful even for Alzheimer’s patients.
Typical doses range from 600 mg per day to 2000 mg, with higher levels usually reserved for those struggling with declining memory skills.
5. Bacopa Monnieri
This is another herb-based nootropic, also popular in Ayurvedic medicine. It has a number of compounds that can be beneficial for the brain, particularly in helping to boost focus and attention.
Studies on this herb have been so positive that some researchers have suggested it as a possible alternative therapy for those with ADHD. In 2014, scientists found that 225 mg/day over a period of six months helped reduce symptoms in children with ADHD, taming restlessness and improving attention problems.
Other studies show that Bacopa monnieri helps prevent anxiety, reduce stress, and enhance learning, memory, processing speed, and attention. The standard dose is 300 mg.
This is a natural herb cultivated in China for its health benefits. A slow-growing plant with fleshy, fork-shaped roots, it has a long stalk and green, oval-shaped leaves. Extracts from the root have been found in studies to help lower sugar and cholesterol levels, but also to reduce stress and promote relaxation.
In a 2010 study, researchers found that 100 mg of American ginseng significantly improved working memory performance, reaction time, and accuracy on cognitive tests. The herb has compounds called ginsenosides that increase protein synthesis and the activity of neurotransmitters in the brain, improving memory and enhancing quick thinking.
In a 2005 study, researchers also found that 200 mg of Panax ginseng significantly reduced mental fatigue through a battery of mental tests, and improved cognitive performance. The researchers concluded, “Overall, these data suggest that Panax ginseng can improve performance and subjective feelings of mental fatigue during sustained mental activity.”
A typical dose of ginseng ranges from 200-400 mg.
7. B Vitamins
B-complex vitamins—including thiamine (vitamin B1), riboflavin (vitamin B2), niacin (vitamin B3), pantothenic acid (vitamin B5), pyridoxine (vitamin B6), biotin, folic acid, and the cobalamins (vitamin B12)—all contribute to the synthesis of the major neurotransmitters, help fuel the energy engines in brain cells, protect nerve cells, and reduce inflammation.
Any gamer is wise to make sure he or she is getting an adequate supply of B vitamins. They help support the action of the other supplements listed here, with research showing that when levels of these vitamins are low, brain function suffers.
In a 2014 study, researchers found that total B vitamin intake was associated with cognitive function, with lower levels connected with cases of dementia. In 2016, scientists stated that adequate levels of all B vitamins were essential for “optimal physiological and neurological functioning.”
Vitamin B6, in particular, helps to boost levels of serotonin and dopamine, but all of these are required if you want to keep your brain sharp. Look for a combined B complex supplement.
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With over 20 years as a professional writer/editor in the health and wellness industry, Colleen M. Story has authored thousands of articles for publications like “Healthline” and “Women’s Health;” worked with high-profile clients like Gerber Baby Products and Kellogg’s; and ghostwritten books on back pain, nutrition, healthy diet, and cancer recovery. She’s also an award-winning author of both novels and non-fiction books, and a frequent motivational speaker inspiring people from all walks of life to overcome modern-day challenges and find creative fulfillment. Find more at her author website and her LinkedIn profile, or follow her on Twitter.