It’s no secret esports are dominated by men. Almost all of the big-money tournaments across the most popular esports see teams of exclusively men competing. There’s barely a woman to speak of at this level of gaming.
But what’s the root of this inequity? Are there not enough women interested in video games early on in their lives to reach the highest level down the road? Are there tangible barriers to women participating in professional esports? Or are the divides more of an intangible and subcultural nature?
Let’s consider a recent event for possible answers. On Feb. 26, IEM Katowice hosted a small all-woman esports tournament alongside its major Dota 2 event. Here, Team Dignitas’ female CS:GO team, just a few days after the team was resigned by its organization, took the tournament win.
The tournament featured eight CS:GO teams of all women competing for a $50,000 prize pool. A prize of $25,000 for a couple of days work is certainly good value for the winners. But only the top four teams in the tournament earned a prize — $12,000 for second, $8,000 for third, and $5,000 for fourth — and the bottom half of the standings left with nothing.
Those figures stand in sharp relief with the prize pool for the men. That offering is nearly 10 times the size (albeit for twice as many teams). In addition, all the teams competing in this event will take home a prize, which could range from $2,000 for the bottom four teams up to a top prize of $250,000 for the victors.
So the only teams who walked away from Katowice with less money than they arrived are four teams of women? Is that really fair?
It does seem slightly odd that a sport in which male and female competitors can physically compete on equal footing operates with such clear divisions and pay gaps. Let’s take a look at some possible reasons as to why women seem to get the short end of the stick in esports.
There are not as many women gamers as men
That statement is just about true but not by as much as you’d think. Research conducted by the bigfishgames blog revealed that from 2010 to 2016 across the United States, 41 percent of people who played esports games were women. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that the actual percentage of female esports gamers fluctuates between 40 and 48 percent.
Furthermore, the research showed that women made 40% of all video game purchases over this time period. However, the research does not explain whether these games were for the women to play, or simply bought for someone else to play.
What is interesting however is that the number of females playing esports has been in decline since the last study (where the numbers were between 45% to 48%). The report then speculates what the reasons for this decline could be without ever mentioning the staggering difference between the financial rewards male and female esports gamers can expect to receive at the higher levels of esports gaming.
The perception that female gamers aren’t as good
There is absolutely no evidence to support this. In fact, there is striking evidence to the contrary. Madeline Ricchiuto from BleedingCool wrote a fabulous piece detailing how short-changed female gamers are in the esports industry.
She compared the talents of two top StarCraft II players: Sacha Hostyn “Scarlett” and Min Chul Jang “MC” and concluded that “if you’ve watched either of them play, there really isn’t that much of a difference between MC’s skills and Scarlett’s.”
Despite similar ability, MC’s earnings were 2.6 times Scarlett’s. The latter is the highest-earning female esports player in the world but ranks 346th overall. Based on that, Madeline reckoned the pay gap between male and female esports players worked out to around a 718 percent wage gap.
The debate over ability between genders is essentially rendered moot at this point by the lack of opportunity for women. Indeed, only this past week did the Overwatch League announce its first woman player. Kim “Geguri” Se-Yeon signed up with the Shanghai Dragons to become one of the handful of female esports athletes competing regularly at the highest level.
Cyberbullying and misogyny
This could well be one of the biggest hurdles to female competitors attaining the same status as men in esports. British Esports Association academic adviser Carleigh Morgan, speaking to The Guardian, made an excellent point when stating “It can be wearying to be confronted with a volley of verbal abuse and questions about one’s gender as a handicap every time one logs on to a server to play.”
In that same article, Stephanie Harvey, an LA-based CS:GO professional, added her support to this argument.
“I’d say the worst [part of the job] is cyberbullying,” Harvey said. This often takes the form of misogynist jokes in the comments section.
What’s the larger solution?
While all-women tournaments are one way to approach the issues, this will only address the lack of parity between the sexes in esports if both male and female tournaments have the same billing, exposure, and financial backing.
But again, in a culture where the physicality of the players makes little difference, why should there be separate esports for men and women? If the Overwatch League has one thing right, it’s including a female player in among its male players. At the moment, it smacks only of tokenism, but it is at least one small step in the right direction.
The biggest obstacle may be cultural — to rid esports at all levels of misogyny, sexism, and gender bias. While such behavior is unfortunately endemic in some ways to internet message boards and certain segments of gamer culture, the industry should do all it can to level and professionalize the playing field for women who want to compete.