Gendered Careers – Where are the women in Pro Esports?

18 comments

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?

The Issues

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.

Childhood Experiences

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.

Diversifying Demographics

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).

Renegades’ Remilia

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).

Overwatch’s Heroine, Geguri

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 video gaming.” (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?

Overwatch Pro Team Logos

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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18 comments on “Gendered Careers – Where are the women in Pro Esports?”

  1. A sobering and well sourced read. Not sure what the solution is, tend to actively avoid these type of competitive games as the purine and passive aggressive tone of discourse is off putting and entirely adverse to a state of relaxation. Only titles I’ve participated in are the co-op online aspects in games such as ME.

    Have given thought at times the notion of digitised killing and death, through ‘competitive shooters’ may be triggering primal pack based tendencies, the ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality to target and overcome your opponents vulnerabilities to ‘win’ that prizes. Whether this sort of behaviour would disappear if the shooter genre was replaced by non lethal competitive titles I’m not sure.

    The societal approach of banning or silencing one entire side though is contentious. Previously and using the notion of Greek reason normative behaviours were established on both sides finding common consensus and establishing behaviour and rule of law. The current trend to polarise the debate and ban one side or another flies in the face of this notion. Of course, hard to reason or find common ground with misogynistic discourse just hard to advocate extreme actions without attempting civil discourse as a first step.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for reading and for your thoughtful comment. It’s a two pronged solution IMO. You gotta work on the generational issue of girls not growing up with games like boys do, so there is a need to fix the messages they are seeing in ads and commercials. Then you need to work on normalizing female presence in the scene currently. Player behavior in general is improving. The more women they see, the more normal it feels. You see this kind of stuff in any competitive game, not just shooters. I just added a section after the part about Remilia about a player named Geguri that I cannot believe I forgot about. Her story was a big deal at the time!

      Like

  2. I completely agree that women deserve more recognition. We make up almost half of the global gaming population now and the harassment has got to stop. This is why I do not play multiplayer games because sometimes I’m not very good at dealing with harassment. I don’t think I have the skin thick enough so I just play alone which is fine with me.

    I’m not an Overwatch fan but I’m glad it contains a diverse cast of characters. Ever heard of Alanah Pearce? She works in the gaming industry and went to contact the mothers of all the douches who were sending her rape threats. I wonder what happened after she told them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The harassment absolutely gets way out of hand, yeah. A lot of girls I know just never join team chat because of the potential for verbal abuse.

      Alanna Pearce! I couldn’t remember her name when I was writing, but she is who I was thinking of when I said some women will contact the mothers of harassers to shame them. I’ll have to look up an article about it and source it specifically.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I don’t even know where to begin…because I’ve never had to deal with hearing/reading, “You suck at games because you’re a woman”. I’ve seen, “You suck at games”, but I’d have to completely miss the point of your entire article to say those two things are comparable.

    I guess I can start with an admission of fault. While I don’t play many competitive online games (anymore) I don’t think I’ve ever told someone to stop harassing a teammate, which is as good as condoning the behaviour. A change like this needs to come from everyone involved otherwise it won’t happen. Stomping out bad actors is a responsibility that every player needs to internalize and act on to foster a better culture for all those involved. That’s easier said than done though.

    Hosting events to get young women interested in eSports will also likely help. I don’t know how comparable it is, but in my city the college that I’m an alumnus from hosts an annual event to get young women interested in careers in STEMs (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math), specifically focused on technology. The whole event is a collective effort from the employers, employees, and the educators for information technology trying to advertise why working in IT is awesome and why these young women should consider it.

    Sidebar: When I attended the college I’d volunteer for the event as I thought it was important to help change technology from being a male dominated field. My participating in the event has lapsed over the past few years, but my current employer is a sponsor for the event so I may once again have an avenue for participation.

    Might be a long ways off, but I think both fostering a cultural of inclusion within the space of video games, and having eSports actively trying to improve female participation are key to seeing an increase in female players. The organizations involved can do all they want to try and attract female players, but until the scrungaloids who lose their minds whenever a woman is playing video games accept that women can play games too we’re a bit stuck.

    Still…that’s no reason to stop trying to do one’s own part. Going forward I should take a more active role in stomping out harassment in online games, or politely ask people to stay frosty.

    Sorry my response is a long rambling. Had several thoughts after stewing on what you’ve written here.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This isn’t rambling at all. It’s actually on right on track with another post draft I have saved about what other men can do about online men harassment of women. And the conclusion you come to is exactly the right answer.

      Speak up and call out harassers. Shame the pants off them. Now, the important part is that you don’t want to stand up FOR the female player— you want to stand WITH her in solidarity. Give her a chance to respond and then chime in. Don’t say “leave her alone” though, say, “you are being inappropriate and toxic” or something to that effect. If she is silent then feel free to jump in, and ALWAYS report these people.

      I can’t tell you the amount of times some guy has said something completely vile to me in a game of Overwatch for no reason and the 4 other dudes on the team are just dead silent. It feels awful to face verbal abuse alone.

      If you saw someone on the street following a woman around telling her she’s garbage and asking about her bra size, bystanders of either gender would probably step in and go “DUDE WTF BACK OFF”, but this happens less frequently online because guys don’t like to be accused of “white knighting”.

      Ive noticed that times when other team mates DO speak up with me, it usually shuts the harasser down pretty quickly after he’s been shamed by his peers.

      Sometimes team mates will says dismissively “Just mute him” and while a good suggestion, it always feels bad because the tone is usually annoyance, as if my getting harassed is such an inconvenience to the team, and it’s my responsibility to make it stop so they won’t be bothered by it anymore.

      I wouldn’t say being silent is condoning the behavior, but it certainly doesn’t help, and it does make the harasser feel like they can do whatever they want. So yes your conclusion is right. It will take a community effort to help correct negative behavior.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think that’s what I’ve struggled with the most: identifying what is standing with, and what is standing up for. And it’s tough to make that distinction as sometimes people need someone to stand up for them and extend a virtual hand to help pick them back up.

        It’s kind of like when I helped out with that local event I spoke about. I was initially fairly tepid toward the whole thing because I wanted to help out, but I didn’t want it to viewed as “the big strong man is helping the women” type scenario. Luckily the event was (and probably still is) chill, but each new case of harassment online presents this same mental blockade for me.

        That said, I look forward to your post on what men can do to help. Learning what I can do (or not do) to help do my part is…well helpful.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. wow great post, enjoyed learning about the background of what these female players have had to go through. I’m a guy and I hope to see more girls and women playing multiplayer games like Overwatch or any other one. Women are needed in the gaming space, they bring another perspective that men don’t have. They tend to be more fun and encouraging than when guys play, since we are quick to insult and discourage losing players. I don’t do that, but I know that a lot of gamers do.

    God bless, keep writing, and thanks for sharing this 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes that is true! I like that about women, they rally to each other easily regardless of race, color, disability, age, etc. which is great. Men are more hesitatnt to help, we always size each other up and see whose the “big dog” in the room. I’m not like that, but it is like that unfortunately.

        Liked by 2 people

  5. This was a very interesting way to look at the possible reasons why women are less represented in e-sports. I agree people definitely need to speak up more when you hear a teammate being harassed, especially female teammates. It feels like certain uglier aspects of gaming have become more widespread over the last few years. I’ve actually had guy friends admit sometimes they’re too afraid to say anything because they don’t want the harassment turned onto them.
    My first time playing any multiplayer was Left 4 Dead when I was kid. I remember being harassed by one guy who joined my lobby & it was actually 2 female players who stood up for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you found it intriguing! I have quite a few pieces posted that are related to this one in various ways. You might be interested in the one I did a few days ago about how bystanders can can help combat harassment. It addresses exactly those types of feelings about now wanting to become a target and such, among other things. Thanks for reading! 🙂

      Like

  6. Thank you for this fantastic read. A friend of mine recently asked me what I thought about an all women’s DotA 2 league, and while I was able to lay out several potential concerns, this takes it to a whole new level. So I’m curious what your thoughts would be about an all women’s esports league? Though I personally think it’s sad that the industry and society can’t just treat everyone equally.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much for your comment and for reading. All women’s leagues are the only place where women can fully expect a civilized tournament experience without harassment, sadly. At the moment the Esports community just isn’t mature enough to handle other options like adults, so women are forced to play together or play rarely in the scene. Happily things are getting a bit better and more large game companies are taking strides to set good examples and encourage proper behavior. I’d keep an eye on community focused initiatives like EAs recent inclusion initiative, oddly enough (that it’s EA).

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Pingback: Things on the XIIIth: June & July 2019 – Livid Lightning

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