The International eSports Federation's (IeSF) gender division policy was never intended to be sexist, and was instead an effort to bring eSports in line with traditional sports, according to a statement the organization issued to Polygon.
The South Korea-based organization that hosts world championships for games like League of Legends, StarCraft 2 and Hearthstone recently came under fire after a Finnish tournament for Hearthstone, which was held as part of ongoing qualifiers leading to the IeSF World Championship, only allowed male players to participate. Organizers The Finnish Assembly justified the rule "in accordance with the IeSF tournament regulations, since the main tournament event is open to male players only," it said in a statement.
The IeSF changed its tune shortly after The Finnish Assembly confirmed that women could not compete in the tournament, announcing that the main tournament will now be "Open-For-All" and all-women divisions will be retained.
"...there are others who believe that dynamic visual acuity and precise control may differ by the gender, which may affect the performance."
When asked why there were gender divisions to begin with, a spokesperson for the IeSF told Polygon the decision was part of an effort to gain SportAccord membership, which is the umbrella organization for all international sports federations.
"IeSF did not mean any sexism or gender discrimination, but originally tried to make the scene good for females," the IeSF's general manager of international affairs, Alex Lim said.
"From the very beginning of its establishment, IeSF had noticed that the life cycle of the preferred games and the gamers who are playing competitively is quite short. With this in mind, the structure of a sports society, which is able to support the athletes to live their life related to the sports or even out of the sport, is vital for the long term success of the players. By providing opportunities to continue school through scholarship, IeSF can [ensure] the athlete's life, even after their retirement from the competition scene, will continue to be successful. For those reasons IeSF has been putting so much efforts to join the international sports society, or to convince international sports authorities to add e-sports in their multi sports events..."
"To achieve this goal, IeSF has been preparing to apply for SportAccord membership."
Lim told Polygon that one of the requirements of attaining SportAccord membership is actively encouraging women to participate. With this in mind, Lim said the organization decided to approach its tournaments in a similar way to traditional sports: by having all-women divisions.
"Of course, in traditional sports there has been the physiological difference between genders that make it necessary to separate the genders in sports. However, it was hard to apply to e-Sports since there has not been any evidence that can be applied to e-Sports. Though some says there is no physiological factor which may affect the performance of men and women, there are others who believe that dynamic visual acuity and precise control may differ by the gender, which may affect the performance."
Polygon has asked Lim for whether physiological differences between the sexes was an influencing factor in the organization's original policy. We have also asked what role Hearthstone publisher Blizzard played in the IeSF's policy change. We will update this story when we receive more information.
Lim said the IeSF apologized for any offense the initial policy caused.
"As we strive to do the best we can to promote eSports as a true sport beyond any barriers, mistakes might happen along the way, but it is our duty as a community of eSports fans and enthusiasts to learn from those mistakes and to make sure they remain in the past," he said.
Update: Lim told Polygon that the IeSF did explore whether physiological differences between the sexes was an influencing factor in the organization's original policy.
"However, the only academic research that we could found was a research on the dynamic visual acuity having only several male gamers at the professional level as the subject, which proves difference of the visual acuity from normal people," Lim wrote. "So, we could only think of the sociological factor that we may bring more women into the scene of international eSports tournaments, which we did not expect that it could be the subject of gender segregation issue, and which we admit that it was mistaken although it actually showed some growth of number of women participating in our activities. Therefore, the answer is no, but we will try to set up a circumstance to kick off some academic and scientific research which may provide answer for this in the future."
The Board convened to discuss solutions, such as whether to have only "Open for All" events or to have both "Open for All" and "Women" events. There was another proposal to disclose its initial rationale to the public for it to decide whether or not to have 'Open for All' events. It was when Blizzard got into contact with the body while discussions were underway that the organization decided to involve it to provide its perspective.
"Then, with the consultation from the Blizzard, we decided that the new policy that we just announced may not be the most logical decision but could be the one which answers to the voice of the public...," Lim wrote.
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