There has been a notable lack of a female presence at the professional level of video game competition since the dawn of esports as a profitable industry. Despite well researched demographics indicating that around 10% of players are female in most leading esports titles like League of Legends, Dota 2, Overwatch, and Counter Strike: Global Offensive and nearly 30% of esports viewership is female, less than 1% of professional players in these games are women (Yee, 2017).
Where is this gender disparity coming from and what is preventing women from successfully breaking into the esports scene as professional gamers?
There are two major obstacles undermining the progress women attempt to make as professional gamers; 1.) Gendered video game marketing over the past two decades led to present lack of interest from women in the industry and 2.) Hostile work environments for women online due to inherent misogyny in gamer culture. Girls were not encouraged to participate in gaming in the past as boys were, so combined with consistent online harassment, women currently feel unwelcome in the gaming community. Professional Esports has therefore become a gendered career.
In sociology, the term “gendered career” refers to any career that is disproportionately represented by one gender, such as construction for men and childcare for women.
Beginning early in life, gendered ads for video games (Sweet, p.159) impact young people in a similar manner to ads for toys, books, and any other product that could influence the tastes of children. An easy example of this would be “GI Joe is for boys, Barbie is for girls.”
For many years, video games were only marketed towards boys due to having been initially placed in the boys toy aisles in retail stores. Happily this trend has lessened in recent years. Counteracting gender schemas in video games matters for professional esports because they prevent women from growing up with a background in video games starting at a young age, which is when most people tend to discover their love of a hobby that follows them through their adult life.
A good example of a game breaking away from gender schemas in ads and art design is Blizzard’s Overwatch, a team-based competitive multiplayer shooter featuring a wonderfully diverse cast of characters where the women warriors in the game come in all body shapes and colors and and wear tasteful, battle appropriate attire. Playable options range from a sassy Hispanic hacker to a gray haired, middle aged Egyptian sniper who is mother of another playable female character, Pharah. There is even a female South African A.I. robot centaur designed and built by a female child prodigy.
If more video games designed their character rosters and advertisements with female representation in mind, the gaming world might be more appealing to girls and young women. Blizzard’s focus on creating a welcoming environment for women has resulted in a female player population of around 15 percent or greater, in a game genre that usually averages only a 7 percent female demographic (Yee, 2017). I can imagine this percentage has increased over the past two years.
The Boy’s Club
Due to video games not being marketed towards girls, an insular “boys club” environment has developed in competitive multiplayer game communities where women experience verbal abuse and sexual harassment from male players hidden behind the safety of anonymity. No, absolutely not all men, but enough for it to be noticeable and harmful. These players, a vocal minority, feel threatened by women integrating into their community which was previously void of female presence.
Their bad attitude is subtly (often not too subtly) pervasive, throughout the gamer culture. Hostile, sexist sentiments like “uninstall this game and get back into the kitchen,” “girls are bad at games”, unhinged sexual comments and even rape threats are flung at women attempting to climb the skill ladder in competitive multiplayer games. This is intensely distracting and discourages them from success.
A Hostile Workplace
Why is the state of misogyny in gamer culture relevant to the labor side of professional gaming? Since professional gamers have their matches displayed globally on streaming sites like Twitch.tv, this would subject female pro gamers to the vitriol of abusers all over the world through Twitch.tv chat rooms, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and any number of other social media outlets. Most of these outlets will moderate and remove negative comments from the space, which is great, but the damage is still done.
Working in such a way that requires displaying one’s face to the world can be extremely intimidating for women, as female gamers can garner much harsher criticism regarding both skill and physical appearance than their male peers experience. Obviously, dealing with daily harassment at work means the woman is employed in a hostile work environment (Sweet, p. 164), though thankfully the hostility would be coming from strangers on the internet and not their own co-worker teammates.
Pro gamers spend many of their regular practice time in matches of their chosen game, which is the environment where a lot of harassment occurs. In order to do her job, a female pro gamer would essentially have no escape from potentially daily hostile sexism (Sweet, p. 160).
For ages, the most popular video game and esport world was widely considered to be League of Legends, a free-to-play, team-based, competitive, video game in the “multiplayer online battle arena” (MOBA) genre. Despite having over 100 million monthly players (Forbes, 2016) and dozens of 5-man professional teams in their professional championship series, only one woman has ever made it onto a pro League of Legends esports team.
Maria “Remilia” played for Team Renegades during season 5 of the League Championship Series, but quit shortly after. Working in a gendered career, Remilia stood out and got a lot of attention, both negative and positive. Unfortunately it was the negative attention that made her give up on her dream of being on a winning championship team.
It was reported that users on Reddit and Twitter went to great lengths to reveal parts of Remilia’s personal and private life. In order to avoid additional harassment, Remilia requested that during live sporting events, the camera be kept off of her face, but this did not stop sexist epithets from appearing in livestream chat rooms and on public forums during Renegades championship matches. Remilia was forced to delete all of her social media accounts and change her gamer handle to escape the ongoing harassment (Kotaku, 2015).
In the following year there came Geguri. This 17 year old rising star from Korea in the Overwatch competitive scene was known for her 80% win rate on Zarya, with a KDA of 6.31. After an amazing performance at the Nexus Cop in 2016, Geguri was accused of hacking by two members of another pro team. Cheating accusations are rare in the professional scene, as the matches are usually live and monitored. High win rates like Geguri’s are not uncommon in the highest skilled tiers of Overwatch either. The accusers declared that they would quit esports if they were wrong about her cheating.
Challenge accepted! On stage in front of an audience and on live stream, Geguri showcased her talents for over an hour and “she wore a mask during her appearance on the stream to hide her identity, which all by itself is a tremendously sad comment on the state of videogaming.” (PC Gamer, 2016) Blizzard cleared her of any wrongdoing and, true to their word, the two pro players left the professional scene, but not without one of the two issuing Geguri a death threat as his parting shot. Since then Geguri has actually shown her face and become a positive symbol of feminism in gaming for female players around the world!
What can be done to rid the gaming world of sexism affecting female gamer’s labor opportunities in the long term? Some women like to hunt down the mothers of those who send them threats and deliver to the mother a screenshot of her son’s embarrassing messages over social media. Others resort to hiding their identity behind gender neutral usernames and never use voice chat so teammates cannot hear their feminine tone. Happily, honor or endorsement award systems that reward good behavior may help train the player population to be improve their bad habits.
Advertising and Advocacy
If more advertisers and game designers adjust their methods by appealing to women and encouraging good behavior, then it may be safe to say, based on current trends, that female demographics will slowly begin increasing, eventually (hopefully) drowning out sexism in the competitive gaming world.
We must also ask what can be done to fix the issue of female representation in esports in the here and now. Advocacy and support groups have appeared in the past few years, such as AnyKey and Misscliks. AnyKey is an advocacy organization partnered with Intel and ESL (Electronic Sports League) aiming to “create support networks and provide opportunities for women in esports” (New York Times, 2016). Meanwhile, Misscliks is an online support community geared toward encouraging women to stay interested in esports and helping them through instances of heckling and harassment (NYT 2016).
What else can we do?
Other potential short term solutions could include all-female tournaments, female gamer mentorship programs (women teaching women), and coed “Bonnie and Clyde” fighting game tournaments where teams of two are one man and one women (NYT 2016). Encouraging inclusiveness will be an immense help in the long term and should eventually see success if methods such as these are unrelenting in their prevalence and frequency. Decreasing inequality and improving working conditions (combating harassment) are common interests of unions in for most career fields (Stephan-Norris, p. 48). The subject of an esports players union has actually been discussed for years in the professional gaming community and the first players association was finally created in 2016.
The World Esports Association (WESA) was formed to “fight for player representation, tournament standardization, and revenue-sharing among teams” (The Guardian, 2016). WESA focuses on battling mismanagement of professional teams and payment issues for certain players and teams. If organizations like this could turn their attention to women’s issues in esports, perhaps making public statements advocating for female pro gamers and promising to fight for them as well, more women might be encouraged to take a stab at trying out for professional esports teams.
Gender schemas and hostility toward female gamers in esports are prevalent across all video game related fields, from art and game design, to voice acting or video game esports commentating. Solving these issues is incredibly important because it would result in fewer future roadblocks for women trying to follow their aspirations into any video game related employment. Women should be visible in video games, equally and honestly represented, and treated respectfully.
The fact that I must make this statement is extremely troubling and I vehemently hope I won’t have to keep saying it for much longer.
The Ellie Scandal
At the beginning of 2019 a pro player prospect named Ellie was doxxed and outed as a highly ranked male player named Punisher, who claimed his stunt was simply a social experiment. Knowing that esports fans would feel the need to dox a player who is simply trying out for teams, not even playing on one yet, while they don’t bat an eye at male players doing the same, is frightening.
In this case Punisher’s social experiment worked as planned, demonstrating that the global video game community, four years after the doxxing of Remilia, and three years after Geguri cleared her name, is not yet mature enough to handle female presence in the pro esports scene. Unfortunately this incident may have done more harm than good as “many will believe future attempts to “expose” female players in the future will now be considered justified because of the Ellie situation.” (Tassi 2019)
What will it take for the Esports Industry to finally be ready for female professionals?
Thank you for reading!
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