The State of Women in Esports

The women in the competitive esports scene — or the lack thereof.

By Arielle Lok, Director of External Relations (McGill)

“Duo?”

I was 12 when I first started playing League of Legends. I spent the summer of 2014 grinding to level 30, the minimum requirement (and the level cap at the time) to play ranked. My friends had hyped up the competitive system and I was eager to see what my true skill level was — the simple act of just queuing up made my adrenaline spike.

On my first day of ranked play, I went 3–2 and proceeded to tumble 0–5 for the rest of my placements, landing in Silver V. I remember feeding an Elise-Zilean off-meta comp as ADC and crying because my teammates were so toxic. At the time, I was at peace with it — the BM, the trolls, the once-in-a-life teammates that actually stayed positive… it’s what made League, League.

Silver was the highest rank of my ‘real life’ friend group; not that big of a feat. I thought it was awesome to have a border for the next season. I kept playing ranked for fun and I never expected anything to come out of it.

In the next year, I finished in Diamond V on my main, and Platinum IV on my solo-queue smurf (an alt-account). I played in local tournaments with a group of high schoolers I met through league, sweeping other teams and even playing in university tournaments. Outplays were rare, but golden. There was no greater feeling than hearing shoutcasters scream into their empty streams because of a play I made.

Unlike remarkable plays, one thing was consistent throughout my short-lived esports career: the overwhelming majority of male players in the competitive scene, or rather, the inordinate underrepresentation of female voices in esport culture. It didn’t matter where you played. At the high school level, at the university level, and even on the professional level… it was, and still is, extremely rare to see a female competitive player.

I quit the scene when I was 15 after I was kicked out of a 1v1 tournament (where I was the only female) for ‘scripting’ (using automatic aiming software). Spoiler: I wasn’t scripting.

This isn’t an abnormal story, though. Kim Se-Yeon, better known as Geguri, was sixteen years old when she received international attention for her ultra-precise aim and impeccable shooting in an amateur Overwatch tournament. Her crisp and almost robotic-like movements secured the win for her team UW Artisan, but several players on Dizziness (the team they had played against) took to the gaming forums accusing her of using an aimbot (an assist software used to hack games) to appear better than she was.

These accusations exploded online and provoked debate regarding the void of women in esports. Kim Young-il, a caster (announcer for video games) invited Geguri to demonstrate her skills on stage to clear her name. After an hour of intensive gameplay with extraordinary moves, Blizzard Games, the studio that produced Overwatch, confirmed her innocence, and fans flooded forums to compliment her skills.

The Geguri story was one of the defining moments that exhibited how female players who achieved success in the gaming industry, whether behind the scenes or as a debuting professional player, were actively marginalized and rendered invisible. Why was the gaming community so quick to discredit a female in the esports scene?

A lot can be said here. It is suggested that gaming, by virtue, is seen as a space where boys and men interact; it’s a highly masculine environment. Video game portrayals of women often involve rendering them as subordinates to the strong, male lead. Women are a small minority working in the video game industry and are often reported to be discouraged from opening conversations about gender dynamics within the community to avoid reprisal or unwanted attention.

“The ‘bros before hoes’ thing is so ingrained even though they claim to be a meritocracy.”

(See: Inside The Culture Of Sexism At Riot Games).

Women in the esports scene are at a disadvantage even before they take the first step into the industry: they don’t fit the image of the ideal player. They aren’t encouraged to play video games (let alone go competitive), nor are they assessed to the same standards as their male counterparts. All together, this fosters a backwards way of thinking in which the “ideal” player — the ad nauseam model talent for e-sport leagues and fans — has to be a man.

So, what now?

Well-known teams, like CLG and Cloud9 are creating teams consisting of all-women players. There are no rules that restrict women from playing in the current esports leagues, but it’s an isolating field that lacks representation and support. The simple answer is to bring more women in, but it is easier said than done. As seen before with Geguri, even the best talents face higher judgement and are held to a higher standard. Female players are viewed to be inherently bad until proven “good”. It’s alienating.

Creating a team of all women players is the transition into the ultimate goal of co-gender play at the highest levels of gameplay. Esports is interesting because there are no inherent physical, nor biological advantages that one population has over another. It doesn’t matter what you look like behind the screen; the only criteria is how good your character is in-game. All-women teams are designed for women, by women to support and elevate one another to become the faces of the future of esports.

“It’s dangerous to go alone! Take this.”

— The Legend of Zelda, 1986

Competitive gaming isn’t just a fad, it’s an industry here to stay. The scene is exponentially growing (and doesn’t show any signs of stopping), and esports is still in an early stage of development with much more room to expand. Professional gamers are role models to the new generations, wearing an esport jersey is a flex, and more than ever, people want to see themselves represented in mainstream media.

“You’re not a startup industry. And actually, if you really want to grow and be more profitable, you need to start diversifying every part of what you’re doing. And that definitely includes bringing voices that are different than the ones that are already there.”

— Kristen Salvatore, Cloud9

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