In a break from my typical design-analysis subject matter, I’d like to use this post as a platform to spark a discussion about the status and role of women in Esports. If you, the reader, feel any animosity toward this subject as a topic of openminded discussion, you might wish to take a moment to ask yourself why that is.
In traditional sports, the need for a gender separation is obvious. The different effects of testosterone vs. estrogen on muscle development are pronounced and undeniable. In competitions of strength and speed, then, it is clear that women should not be expected to be directly competitive with similarly talented and dedicated male opponents. In competitive gaming, this biological disparity falls away. Winning a competitive match in gaming has nothing to do with strength and usually quite little to do with speed of the type enhanced by muscle development. The freedom to employ any control scheme/sensitivity further suggests that testosterone is not a direct biological advantage in the way that it is in traditional sports. All this, of course, only begs the question of why it is that women are so rare in professional play.
Last year, the first and only cisgendered female professional Overwatch player (as far as I know) was signed to South Korean Esports organization UW Artisan. Even if there are more female Overwatch pros of whom I am not aware, they are certainly few and far between. Geguri is a highly talented flex-tank player, and her impressive aiming ability and overall skill secured her a spot on a salaried professional team. This should come as no surprise; strong players are signed to professional teams all the time. And yet, Geguri is of course special for the simple fact that she was and continues to be such a rarity as a woman in Esports. Her story (which I will return to later in the article) mirrors that of a very small number of other trans- and cisgendered women who have advanced to the highest competitive levels in their respective games. This article seeks to embark on an even handed analysis of why it has taken so long for women to breach the highest echelons of competitive gaming. These reasonings are neither complete nor necessarily empirically verifiable, but hopefully they pique readers’ interest in investigating further in their own experiences.
The most plausible candidate to explain the lack of female representation in Esports is demographic differences. While the market for games in general has shifted dramatically in the last decade to near-parity across genders, this does not hold true across all subdivisions. First Person Shooter (FPS) games are one of the most significantly skewed genres; young male target marketing demographics have been the norm for decades and have shaped the expectations of the industry. Overwatch is, in my view, the first FPS game that has truly sought to expand its playerbase beyond the expected demographic of the genre. The vast majority of FPS games are semi-realistic war simulations in which the protagonist is exclusively male. Beyond this simple fact, the marketing for these titles very clearly targets the young and male demographic beginning with advertising placement and continuing all the way through design appeal.
I don’t contend that the marketing for games in the Call of Duty or Battlefield franchises is somehow nefarious, rather I suggest that the industry has artificially reinforced the expectation that FPS games will always draw the attention and interest of male gamers. Since Overwatch is the first FPS title with player-base demographics that represent anything close to gender parity, one might expect to see more women rising to the top of the competitive scene. However, presently the overwhelming majority of professional Overwatch players are male. Another fact about the overwhelming majority of professional Overwatch players is that nearly all of us played a previous FPS title at a professional or at least intensely competitive level. I think, though, that gender parity in professional play is going to take some time given the past-professional experience that seems to be nearly a prerequisite to playing professional Overwatch at this moment in the game’s lifespan. If Overwatch is your first competitive FPS title, you are very unlikely to go pro relative to those with past experience. In other words: almost every pro player was already a pro in another game prior to Overwatch’s release. Even though more women are playing FPS games now with the release of Overwatch, it is the demographics of previous FPS titles that are being represented in the set of current professional players. The lack of female pros in those previous titles can be explained to a significant degree by the radical disparity between male and female player bases.
Cultural Norms & Bias:
It can be challenging to write about sexism in online (particularly gaming) contexts. Virtually everyone in Esports (myself included) would love for the sport to embody a perfect meritocracy wherein the best of the best are rewarded for their talent and dedication in precise measure. The reality, however, is much less rosy. Starting in the experience of every day players and criss-crossing the path to professional stardom lies a significant and undeniably gendered bias. Some friends of mine have reported that they choose not to communicate with teammates in Ranked Matchmaking for fear of being ostracized or harassed. Others choose to employ a voice changer or imply to teammates that they are in fact teenage males. It is the rare woman who defies these norms and fearlessly communicates strategy in voice chat (the only practical method of strategic communication). Sadly, it seems clear from the reactions when they do speak out that many players do not like listening to what their female teammates have to say. This is not universal, but it doesn’t have to be to create an expectation of toxicity.
Here the story of Geguri’s rise to professional signing is a powerful example. Although very talented players are regularly accused of cheating prior to (and sometimes even after) offline validation, few receive the level of attention that Geguri experienced. Multiple South Korean professional players spoke out about the ‘fact’ that Geguri employed artificial assistance to play as well as she does. One even suggested that he would quit his professional career were she exonerated. It was only when Geguri played on a live stream with cameras showing her hand movement on mouse and keyboard that the accusations abated. I imagine the latter accuser felt quite sheepish at this moment. Compared alongside the experience of a player like Dafran, any illusion of parity fades away. Despite popping up into the scene without any warning as perhaps the most mechanically talented competitor to ever play the game, no one publicly accused Dafran of cheating. There were some rumors as is to be expected from such a formidable talent, yet I couldn’t find a single professional player making anything close to the kind of accusations that Geguri was receiving. This comparison is imperfect because it exists across regions (Dafran is a North American player and Geguri plays from South Korea), yet it should nonetheless push an openminded reader to ask themselves if Esports really is such a perfect meritocracy. Many South Korean (male) pros display impressive talents in online play without attracting such confident accusers.
While I would refrain from defending the idea that its impossible for women to play games like Overwatch at a high competitive level under these conditions, it is clear to all who see with eyes unclouded that a gendered disparity exists. While I don’t think that communication or teamwork are in fact necessary to reach something like the 95th or 99th percentile, I can’t help but think this norm of invalidating female players discourages many from trying to go pro. If the vast majority of your experience of online play included teammates nakedly disrespecting your abilities and understanding, a professional competitive career would hardly seem like the next logical step. Going pro is virtually never a happenstance moment of luck, rather it is most often the result of a consciously set goal and a tireless dedication to improvement and growth. If some percentage of women are disincentivized from setting such a goal by these cultural norms, then the norms are at least partially to blame for the gender gap.
Personally, my experience has suggested that these biases exist (and perhaps even become more intense) all the way up through the highest echelons of professional play. In a crucial way, though, these biases are connected to demographics as well as external society. As the player base for FPS titles becomes more and more evenly spread across genders and as society continues to make progress on accepting women as full equals, I hope that these biases will melt away into history.
I believe that it’s important here to bring into the light the underpinnings of these biases. Many people still believe that, for all the societal progress of the last century, men are fundamentally more capable or more intelligent than women. For these people, the lack of female representation at the highest levels of competition is only a warrant for their position. Rather than examining the wider picture, they find it much easier to reject the potential for progress. I sense that some of these people are threatened by equality and the emasculation that it potentially represents.
I can’t help but also believe that positive change in this area will benefit not only women but all participants in and fans of competitive gaming. If it is the case that some of these structural elements have discouraged talented women from pursuing professional careers, then it is also the case that the level of competition is not where it could potentially be. When Bill Gates spoke at a summit in Saudia Arabia on modernizing the Middle East for economic growth and business development, he was asked what would hold Saudi Arabia back from its goal of being a top 10 technology leader by 2010. “Well, if you’re not fully utilizing half the talent in the country,” Gates said, “you’re not going to get too close to the Top 10.”
Let us not be the Saudi Arabia of professional competition. It is the responsibility of everyone who loves Esports to create the meritocracy that is so patently within reach. Banishing the basement-dweller, women-hater stereotypes associated with competitive gaming is also a powerful rebuke to those who reject the core potential of Esports. This can be as simple as not harassing or mocking female teammates in online play. Being a ‘white knight’, however, can be just as repressive and quite cringe-y too. The solution is quite simple: treat female players the same way you would treat anyone else. Dear reader, I’m confident that you can do it.
P.S. Discussion here on the blog site itself is moderated by me; please be respectful with whatever opinions you wish to express.