Disclaimer: this piece is strictly an opinion piece, representative of the opinions expressed by those who offered to partake. Fast Web Media has no bias towards mixed gendered or female-only leagues, tournaments and teams, and only seeks to uncover industry opinions about this topical issue.
The history of women’s oppression is long and vast, and although headway has been made in closing the margin between men and women, there is still a significant stretch to go until minorities (women, LGBTQ+, POC) are level. Whilst there is a choice on whether to exercise privilege or not, men are fortunate enough to be born into an inherently more benefited existence. You only have to look at the gender pay gap and lack of women in industries such as tech to see that, even in the mainstream, things are a little trickier for women.
If multi-national businesses and corporations are struggling to provide equal rights for all, what chance does a seemingly free-for-all market like esports stand against stamping out these social issues? Esports is an industry that’s thriving and increasing tenfold, and while the popularity of the sport grows, the industry itself is still mostly unregulated. Although there are companies who facilitate esports events and offer admins who oversee the online events and tournaments, such as Gfinity, a lot of gamers take it upon themselves to curate teams, events and tournaments, meaning the industry is largely opaque and self-certified.
Controversies such as Gamergate may seem a thing of the past, but there is still an undeniable bitter taste towards female gamers (both CIS and transgender). Although these opinions are only representative of the minority, they are still enough to understandably make a woman think twice about entering what Steph Harvey described as a ‘boys club.’
A lot has been done to combat this divide in genders, with Steph, alongside Genevièv Forget, Anna Prosser Robinson and Stephanie Powell, founding Misscliks, an online community and safe space to address issues faced by women in the industry. Nevertheless, women still only represent around 5% of professional esports players and still earn considerably less than males in terms of tournaments and sponsorships payments, mirroring the problematic state of the mainstream job market.
With this in mind, it’s hardly surprising that there has been a need to facilitate women-only esports teams, tournaments and leagues. Whilst this may provide a solution to welcoming women into the industry, there have been many expressing that this only further segregates women from the mainstream, and further fuels that disconnect between male and female gamers. There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to this problem, nor is there a right or wrong answer to whether women’s only esports events and teams are a positive or a negative. What may provide a foothold for one female gamer, might irritate and isolate another. The topic of gendered esports came up multiple times at The Future of Esports symposium that Fast Web Media attended, and it’s a subject that we haven’t shied away from before in our past esports interviews and pieces.
We posed the question “Do women’s only esports leagues, tournaments and games give women a foothold in the esports industry, or just further segregate them?” to a variety of industry professionals and gaming enthusiasts, to explore a mixture of angles on the topic. Here’s what they had to say:
Steve Ecott - Media & Digital Culture Student, University of Amsterdam
Studying Media & Digital Culture has offered Steve a pathway into understanding the typical genderisation of esports linguistics and acceptance. A former StarCraft II player, Steve witnessed the relentless bullying and ignorant attitudes toward pro player Sasha “Scarlett” Hostyn, a transgender woman who was ranked as North America’s top player in 2013. Hyperaware of the online bigotry professional competition can entail, Steve was keen to chip in his opinion:
The demographic that fills the auditoriums and arenas to watch the action unfold in these virtual spaces is largely male and under 30, a carbon copy of the teams they have come to watch. In a male-dominated sport, it is not surprising that few, if any, women would feel comfortable enough to express an interest in participating or observing. The creation of a women’s only ‘league’ or ‘competition’ would allow for safe, welcoming spaces for the vastly underrepresented female gaming community to gather and enjoy what is a fast-growing sector of sports entertainment.
A supporter of women’s only professional football, in equal measures to the mainstream men’s team, Steve continues to say:
With ample encouragement and financial backing, there is no reason women in esports cannot enjoy the growing success in a similar vein to women’s football in England, where Manchester City Women’s Toni Duggan has recently become the first English player since Gary Lineker to join FC Barcelona. No mean feat considering women were once outright banned from playing football, at a risk of it rivalling the men’s game.
Lien “exQlusiv” Servranckx - Professional Counter-Strike Player
As a young female esports player, Lien said she’s happy with the status quo.
There are people who think it’s good that the female scene and the male scene are separated, and there are others who think that boys and girls should be able to play with and against each other in leagues and tournaments. But I actually like it the way it is now. I don’t think the two scenes should merge and become one big esports scene where mixed teams play against each other or where female teams play against male teams.
Continuing, Lien added that she believes that women's online leagues help form stronger bonds between women and girls:
There’s just something about the female scene. It brings all the girls together and it’s incredible to see that there are so many talented female players with so much passion for the game. Not to forget that the female scene is getting bigger and bigger everyday, so yes I do think that keeping the scenes separated gives us a foothold in the esports industry.
Emma Fraser - PhD Candidate & Research Assistant, University of Manchester (Sociology)
Emma Fraser is a final year PhD candidate at the University of Manchester, researching video games, virtual architecture and urban decay. The close bond between the depictions and navigation of ruined cities and video games, where these depictions are often presented (The Last of Us, for example), has immersed Emma in the world of online gaming.
Having conducted extensive research into female esports teams in the UK, Emma, who presented at The Future of Esports symposium, was kind enough to contribute her opinion:
[From research] I've noticed that the overwhelming experience for women in both mixed and female-only teams is a sense of solidarity. Personal jibes are something that can really get to some players, it's something that other teams latch onto to throw the other team off their game, and gendered attacks are the foremost way of insulting female players through personal attacks.
Emma points out just how unfair it is for women to be put down, purely because of their gender. “There’s just no biological reason for women to be inherently lesser in esports,” Emma affirms, citing that success is purely a question of opportunity and experience. Opportunity and experience aren't the easiest things for female players to gain, though, as Emma reminds us that even when women succeed, they are penalised (for example, plenty of players rage quit or log-off once they start being 'beaten by a girl').
In conjunction with Steve’s opinion, Emma follows a similar belief: “all-female leagues and competitions are important and necessary to provide positive experiences for - especially young women.” This opinion is based on the fact that female players are seen to be “easy targets” in mainstream competitions - although this is changing with better moderation, Emma points out.
Something I've noticed in other competitive contexts as well [as esports], or even politics or public-facing jobs - when women are taking on perceived male roles or activities, they do better when they team up and resist attempts to undermine them or push them out. Their shared experience of judgement and exclusion is also easier to build skills through and move on from when working with other people who know what it's like to be in that environment. Those persisting alone tend to become demoralised and give up.
There are some drawbacks on female-only teams, leagues and tournaments, though. Despite providing a much-needed platform to get on with training and playing without distraction, Emma points out that “the emphasis on female-only leagues as a solution to the lack of women in esports means that these events are often seen as something women would be happy to do instead of ever competing in the most elite leagues.” This segregates women into their own competitions, which are then seen to be lesser compared to mainstream, almost entirely male, competitions that attract the prestige.
While not necessarily intentional, not only does this mean the best women can go unrecognised, and have no clear path to the top tiers or rankings, it also means that they aren't given the chance to train or play against those who have the best funding and thus highest skills - almost all men. This then reinforces the idea that women (and girls) just can't play well, when in reality it's not a question of skill.
After considering both possible outcomes from women’s only teams, tournaments and leagues, Emma concludes her opinion by affirming her belief that “esports is the ideal context in which women can prove that they are just as capable of competing, training, persisting, and winning as men, and disprove assumptions about women being meek or non-aggressive (or that women only use aggression for domestic or feminine things like tiger parenting).” To do this, Emma maintains that women need to be well-represented in mainstream tournaments, though at the same time, aggressive play can put many people off, and the kind of environment of mainstream tournaments tend to mean that “only certain kinds of people last very long - selfish aggressors or dedicated team players.”
Emma settles her take by stating:
The teams that tend to win big tournaments aren't the ones that put down other teams, or get all salty, or yell at each other. They are the teams that work together, and stay calm - I think mainstream esports could actually learn a lot from female-only leagues in this way, because it seems to me that those leagues are often welcoming spaces of competition, where people work to better themselves without attacking everyone else, and build skills through shared play, rather than oppositional and self-involved contests.
Joanne Watson - Division Manager, Maestro Esports
Joanne has been an advocate for competitive gaming since 2000. Currently the Division Manager at Maestro Esports, Joanne co-owns and manages various divisions within the organisation. Joanne’s job is, predominantly, educating, caring and handling any conflicts that inevitably occur between different players and teams. With a role that creates strong bonds and friendships with women players, Joanne wished to have her say on the matter:
I believe [women’s only esports] plays a big part in giving women a foothold into the esports industry. It is important for the future as it gives inspiration to young girls that would like to enter the space. In terms of equality, there is still a long way to go, as men get a lot more support from sponsors and investors. The women that will benefit the most from the women's only tournaments and leagues will be the ones that truly dedicate themselves to their craft. At that point, they will be too good for segregation. However, not every female player strives to be the best, some simply enjoy the company of other female players that share the same passion as they do.
Sarah Shannon - Freelance Sports Journalist
A self-proclaimed esports enthusiast, Sarah Shannon is a freelance sports journalist and a casual League of Legends player. Sarah cites that with the increase of players registering to play games like League of Legends there will naturally be an increase of women looking to play.
The world of esports is evolving rapidly with more players registering to play League of Legends and Counterstrike on a daily basis. As the player base increases, the more women who play the game will also increase, and this is where the introduction of women based tournaments and leagues will help to show these new players that getting involved in esports is the norm.
With Sarah’s experience in mainstream sports, she makes the conclusion:
As a sports journalist I have experienced first hand the growing popularity of women only teams in sport, and with esports now becoming so popular it is a logical step to see a progression towards women only teams.
Alessio Florio - Chief Executive Officer, Maestro Esports
Established in early 2014 amongst a group of friends, Maestro Esports has developed to become a professional esports organisation (circa. 2015). Based in the Netherlands, Alessio has professional teams competing worldwide. With a number of high-quality teams in the organisation, Maestro also has dedicated, female-only squads. Speaking on the pros and cons for female-only teams, tournaments and leagues, CEO Alessio says:
I think having separated leagues, tournaments and games for female esports grows the scene. It gives them the opportunity to one day get more involved in the male esports scene. As of now, I personally do not consider the female scene to be on the same level as the mainstream, male scene.
Alessio continues to say that, even if the women’s scene is lacking in comparison to the mainstream scene at the moment, that isn’t the be-all and end-all:
The women’s scene could grow significantly with more investment and sponsors to enable players to reach a higher skill ceiling. Once in place, they can commit to practicing full-time and compete with the top male teams. I strongly consider the female esports scene a continuously growing scene and look forward to seeing more female teams compete.
Still relatively in its infancy (certainly compared to mainstream sports such as football), the esports industry is an opaque business that lacks overarching regulation. There simply isn’t a correct way to gain a foothold in the industry, and this lack of infrastructure in esports begs the question; does esports need to be mainstream to continue to grow and give women more opportunities?
Unquestionably, more needs to be done to tackle misogyny in esports. The attitudes towards women in gaming are deeply rooted, and bud from the typically gendered language in esports (for example, the popular catchphrase ‘Let’s go boys!’ is gendered male, helping perpetuate the idea that it’s primarily suited for men) right through to the unfamiliarity of female-leads in games, resulting in rejection (such as the reception of Mirror’s Edge, a video game series that was originally given the cold-shoulder due to its female lead that wasn’t overly sexualised).
In popular culture, the idea of segregating women from men has been met with backlash. Only this year, shadow minister Chris Williamson was criticised for suggesting there was a “merit” in introducing women-only train carriages to help cut the number of sexual assaults on public transport. Laura Bates, the founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, said in an article for The Independent that "the idea of women-only train carriages is gravely insulting to both women and men.”
The recoil toward this notion comes from the idea that introducing segregation of the genders in response to sexual assault and prejudice suggests that these attitudes are inevitable. The suggestion itself is seen as being counter-productive, and begs the question, why not work on educating the minority of perpetrators, rather than segregating those on the receiving end? This response to the train-carriages idea may have been met with such criticism because it is in the mainstream, and for areas such as public transport, we are more than equipped to deal with tackling gender issues - whereas, in esports, we may not be.
The Guardian recently published an article encouraging women to ‘ignore the stereotypes and do what you want’, featuring the opinion of Natacha Jones, president of the University of Manchester Esports Society, whom we interviewed here. Easier said than done, perhaps. As previously stated in the foreword of this article, there is no right or wrong answer. What works for some, may not work for others. The key thing is that all who wish to explore esports and enjoy its offerings have the equal opportunity to.
What is YOUR opinion on the question posed in this article? Do women-only esports teams, tournaments and leagues provide a foothold into the industry, or just result in segregation? Has your opinion changed since reading this article? Tweet your thoughts to @FastWebMedia.