Women in Esports- A Futuristic Industry with Regressive Roots

Suditi Jha

23nd November 2020

A women’s League of Legends tournament (Sources: Fortune)

Esports or electronic-sports refers to the competitive, organised side of professional video-game play. Unless you are one of the people who partake in these competitions or are a fan of watching these games, it's quite a hard concept to wrap your head around. A bunch of people sitting in front of their computers, watching other people who are getting paid as much as top-tier athletes just to play video games? It sounds bizarre and something out of a science-fiction novel, but for the fans who've been watching for years and for the players who are competing for the million-dollar prize pools, it's just as exciting as any other sport.

This emerging billion-dollar industry is fuelled by different leagues and dominated by games like Call of Duty, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Fortnite, Overwatch, and League of Legends, which are all available and famous amongst at-home gamers too. Since all one needs is a decent laptop and a good internet connection to play, crores of players every year compete to make it into the professional arena. Thanks to streaming services, live events and platforms like YouTube, casual gamers have been skyrocketed into stardom right from their homes.

While it may be hard to comprehend, esports leagues and players operate similarly to 'normal' sports leagues. Players are signed to different teams that participate in different competitions around the world, then these players put in hours of training every day, whether it be basic aim practice alone or playing with their teammates to better understand their game. These players are also awarded handsomely for all this work, and most of them also have sponsorships, endorsements and earnings through tournament victories. And amongst all these similarities between esports and sports, there is one that is glaringly obvious- an under-representation of women. In fact, this problem is worse when it comes to esports. At least when it comes to other sports, big strides have been made, especially in sports like football and cricket, but when it comes to esports, women are easily overlooked.

There are many reasons for this, but the simplest answer is tradition. Women and men have always been separated when it comes to sports. This separation is made because of the difference between performance levels due to men having higher testosterone levels. But when it comes to esports, this shouldn't really be a factor at all as these biological differences can’t hinder anyone's performance in front of a computer screen. Regardless of how good a female player is, she usually ends up sticking to playing with her female counterparts, making it look like there are no women players when it comes to the bigger tournaments.

The belief that women aren’t ‘into’ gaming is a common misconception. In fact, according to a 2019 research conducted by Christina Gough, women make up 41 per cent of all gamers- a number bound to have increased during the pandemic. Women are also heavily involved in watching esports, with 35 per cent of all spectators being women. In contrast to this, only 5 per cent, or 1 in 20, of professional gamers are women. According to this 5 per cent of women, this lack of representation is because of a couple of factors. Firstly, video games, especially the ones that are competitive, are still seen as a masculine thing. This distinction between what girls play and what guys is made from a very young age. Boys are told to like 'violence and curse words', while girls are asked to be feminine and polite. Girls are discouraged from playing these games, are less likely to get video games as gifts and don't feel pressurised by their peers to play these games. On the other hand, boys are usually gifted consoles for their birthdays and their friends might force them to play games even when they aren't interested in them. These differences in how they're treated is ingrained into their heads. Boys inherently think that the video-game realm is something that belongs to their gender. Girls, on the other hand, are worried about being judged or rejected by these boys. Instead of being judged based on how they play, they're judged based on their gender. If they're not good at a game, it's blamed on the fact that they're female. It is much of a slippery slope.

Another reason for females not wanting to play video games, especially on a professional level, is because of the sheer amount of abuse that they have to face. Many female gamers say that the best-case scenario when it comes to interacting with male gamers is when they don't take you seriously. The worst-case scenario usually involves getting death and rape-threats. When Steph Harvey, aka missharvey in the gaming world, a professional Counter-strike player with many trophies to her name, was interviewed by VICE, she said, "if you want to become pro, you need to work extremely hard, and kind of fight for this by yourself. A lot of the people in the community thinks that you're stealing a spot or that that money should go somewhere else or that you're not good enough to be sponsored." She also added, "It's still a 'boy's club' so as a woman you're automatically judged for being different. The way I get harassed is about what they would do to my body, about why I don't deserve to be there because I use my sexuality – it's all extremely graphic." To survive these threats, one needs to have really thick skin. But to endure all of that to play a sport where the wage gap between male and female champions is around 700% would be foolish. Among 500 highest overall earners in esports championships, only one woman has a ranking spot. To make matters even worse, she doesn't show up until rank 301.

Despite all of this, women are still trying to break into the e-sports arena. Many of them want to be the role model young girls can look up to. Unfortunately, if they fail, they're reduced to being seen as 'marketing gimmicks' orchestrated by big organisations, or women who just want attention. And the women who succeed are told that they're only there to make up the numbers and help with representation.

But, there still are positive strides being taken. Every single time a new game comes out, along with it come a new set of women slowly making their ways into the top ranks. In 2018, Gen. G, a global esports organisation, signed the US's first female-only Fortnite team. One of the players, Madison Mann, aka ‘Maddiesuun’, was the first female to qualify for the grand finals stage of the Fortnite Champion Series. While talking to Shondaland, she said, "I think as long as we're in small numbers, we're going to stand out regardless because we don't fit in. We don't match what everyone looks like gender-wise. We're going to be recognised the most until there's more women balancing it out."

In another historic move, in 2020, Cloud9, one of the biggest esports organisations in the world, signed MAJKL, all-female team for their Valorant roster. Cloud9 already had a pre-existing team, which will now be referred to as Cloud9 Blue, while the all-female team will be called Cloud9 White. MAJKL was picked up after they won the Valorant Ignition series. Cloud9 plans on having both the teams compete at a similar level, with the possibility of them switching players amongst the two teams in place. Kristen Salvatore, the senior Vice President of marketing at Cloud 9 shared the sentiment that most female gamers feel, and said, "what we're all really excited for is actually the day that we don't have to make a big deal because we've just announced a women's team."

It's amazing to see these big organisations taking steps to try and integrate women into esports. Maybe one day in the near future, separate leagues for men and women in esports will be a thing of the past.

(Sources: VICE, NBC News, Venture Beat, Shondaland, BBC)

Edited by: Aditi Anilkumar

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