‘Soon, sophisticated algorithm enhancements in (eSport) competitions will make Lance Armstrong’s dalliances with blood transfusions and hormones look blunt, rudimentary, naïve.’
Doping is a widely recognized sporting regulation violation. It is the administration of drugs to inhibit or enhance sporting performance. The World Anti-Doping Code, 2021 defines doping as the occurrence of one or more anti-doping rule violations outlined in Article 2.1 through Article 2.11 of the Code. These include the presence, use or attempted use, possession, trafficking or administration of prohibited substances or methods, the refusal to submit samples for collection, the failure to notify athlete whereabouts upon missing a test and tampering with the doping control process.
Ever since the establishment of the World Anti-Doping Agency in 1999, the sports industry has made immense progress in ensuring fair play and just competition in all physical sporting events. The World Anti-Doping Code, 2004 was a turning stone in preventing, monitoring, and punishing doping violations. However, with technological advancements being integrated into most sporting activities and competitions and with esports gaining immense popularity, doping has manifested beyond the physical and has now invaded the virtual world. This new brand of doping is called digital doping.
A new twist to an old problem, ‘digital doping’ or ‘Robo-doping’ as it is sometimes referred to, is the use of algorithms and software such as bots, mods and reverse engineering to enhance athlete performance and gain a competitive advantage in virtual sports. While it has been prevalent for a few years now, the first reported instance of digital doping  is from the United Kingdom’s first national cycling esports competition- The British Cycling Zwift e - racing Championships, wherein the elite cyclist and YouTube Star Cameron Jeffers achieved a staggering win over his competitors earning double points for his team. It was later found that in the weeks leading up to the competition, Jeffers used a simulation programme bot to ride the game for him at inconceivable speeds of 2000 watts for a distance of more than 125 miles at the time to complete side missions and security upgrades for Jeffers’ virtual Tron bike that enabled his win. Since this incident and the discovery of other such violations in gaming competitions, the issue surrounding digital doping has gained immense traction. E-sporting entities are finally perceiving the threat posed by it.
Consequences of Digital Doping
Doping has severe consequences for any sport. Esports are no exception to the same. A rise in digital doping would severely compromise the integrity of sports. Competitions would be unfair and undeserving persons with the right, or rather, the wrong resources would win unjustly and walk away with the large amounts of cash prizes that these competitions usually offer. Besides being unfair to the participants, it would also result in a loss of trust of the spectators, who are believed to be in millions, and hence severely impact viewership and consequently the popularity of esports. This could essentially lead to the downfall of esports entirely, which is neither favourable to the interests of individual sporting entities nor the industry and its economy as a whole. For this reason, many e - sporting entities are taking proactive steps to safeguard against digital doping attempts in tournaments and championships.
Analysis and Conclusion
Esports has grown immensely and unexpectedly in the past few years. The Covid-19 pandemic has only accelerated this growth. However, the software used in virtual competitions is often under-developed and not up to the mark. It appears that they are being rolled out by companies in a bid to remain current and competitive in a market that is quickly becoming virtual. However, such harried action makes the competition vulnerable to hacking and manipulation.
Another perceived cause of the rise in digital doping seems to be the lack of accountability mechanisms to make violators liable. There is no recognized international federation of esports, as in physical sports, that can govern the sector. There is no comprehensive domestic or international regulation such as the World Anti-Doping Code, which governs digital doping violations universally. In the absence of the same, it is highly difficult to make parties accountable. While private entities and organizers formulate rules for individual competitions, the same are insufficient as they are not binding on parties, and violators can still compete in other tournaments.
With its fragmented landscape and digital platform, the esports sector holds promise for a multitude of monetization opportunities. It is therefore critical that measures be taken to halt digital doping. In light of esports being included in the 2022 Asian Games, and the plans of the International Olympic Council to allow demonstrative e-sport competitions at the 2024 Paris Olympics, it becomes even more of the essence first to establish a suitable governance mechanism for the sector. With hopes that esports will become a permanent occurrence at Olympic events, the Olympic Council's potential measures to protect the interests of the sports industry are looked forward to.
*The author is a law scholar from St. Joseph's College of Law, Bengaluru.
(The image used here is for representational purposes only)
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