Last week, an eSports organization came under fire after introducing a male-only qualifier tournament for Blizzard's digital card game Hearthstone — a decision that, at the time, organizers maintained was based on standards of real-world sporting events which similarly segregate by sex. For many members of the eSports community, institutionalized gender discrimination is one of the primary reasons that female pro-gamers are so few and far between.
But there are compelling arguments some make as to why these rules could actually help grow a much more active culture of female pro-gamers. Take for instance similarly non-physical competitions like chess.
Chess historically has featured gender-segregated tournaments; This has nothing to do with differences in skill levels between the genders, however, MindSports International development manager and chess coach Eduardo Sajgalik tells us. Rather it's the best method of helping smaller demographics grow.
"Fundamentally, Chess is a rating based game," Sajgalik tells Polygon. "There's no is proven basis of skill or ability that justifies having a female only competition compared to splitting people by rating."
What it does come down to in chess, he says, is a purely social decision. In Sajgalik's words: "If it helps grow the number or comfort of female players, then its good."
"The competitive scene overall suffers from a significant lack of female players, so some people would argue these exclusive competitions are necessary to highlight these players."
The eSports community suffers a similarly imbalanced player-base. While the world of pro-gaming saw a jump in popularity among women last year, with its female viewership seeing an increase from 15 to 30 percent, currently there are few active female pro-gamers. Those who find tournament-level success are limited, but include professional StarCraft player Sascha "Scarlett" Hostyn, who previously came out ahead in the 2012 StarCraft 2 World Championship Series in Canada and later the Battle.net North American Championship that same year.
Tournaments, including the 2012 Femme Fatale StarCraft 2 Cup, the IeSF World Championship women's invitational, among others have also helped lay the foundation for female pro-gaming.
"In general, I think women-only leagues are a positive thing," says Matt Weber, director of operations at eSports organization Team Liquid. "Gaming competition is an insanely male-dominated world and it's hilariously daunting and unforgiving to women for a variety of reasons both socially and game wise (i.e. its hard for up-and-coming women to get practice and have people train with them seriously — just as its difficult for women eSports reporters or organizers or streamers to have fans/pros take them seriously for their career.)
"Women-only events help this slightly by both removing some of those barriers and fostering a community for an under-represented group to help find their place in the scene and establish a sense of togetherness for the people that fall into that group. I don't think this situation is terribly different than a place like Chess or even Engineering or Mathematics where outreach to help grow smaller sections in an otherwise homogeneous group can be helpful. There is a definite segment of our website who identify as women but don't feel comfortable sharing that information because of the weird attention it grants them, our world is unfortunately not as friendly to non-white middle-class males as it should be given what century we're in."
While female-only leagues can help foster these smaller community, the question remains whether they can help solve a fundamental issue of integrating women back into the main community, however.
"We're seeing gender-specific tournaments held under two assumptions: that they will help female players develop their skills among their peers and that they provide a better environment that a gender-agnostic one would," eSports commentator Matt Demers says.
"Both are true to a degree, but it's worth noting that splitting women off into their own may not be the best way of integrating them back into the main community; especially if they are playing the same players repeatedly, they can stagnate. There's a similar issue with 'newbie' tournaments, as playing within the same pool of talent can make them ill-prepared to move back into a proper bracket. Getting destroyed and being able to bounce back is a required rite of passage in eSports: you need to be able to lose every game for an eight-hour tournament that you paid entry and drove two hours for.
"I think some players might be hesitant about losing 'their thing' to pro gaming's rapid expansion, and are skeptical of newcomers, period. They have seen others make poor decisions that affect both them and the community of their game; this causes a disconnect in empathy that would help scenes be more welcoming."
Chess commentator Sajgalik maintains the inclusion of female-only chess tournaments has only benefited female players by creating a strong social experience for players alongside the many gender-agnostic chess tournaments.
"My personal view on the subject is that having a finite number of female-only gaming leagues can actually be a net positive for a competitive scene," chess commentator Sajgalik continues. "My thoughts are this would be similar to a Youth, Senior or similar criteria for entrance where there are a limited number of players in that demographic within the community, making these leagues similar to a social experience. Provided the competitors can enter the main open competitions freely and these are extra tournaments, it's a net positive to ease in players who may otherwise be daunted."
Sabrina Chevanne, founder of the London Academy of Chess and Education echoes these sentiments: "It is important for confidence issues amongst women as they get a chance for more opportunities if they are seen to excel in the world of women," she says. "Also, for a social aspect, it is nice to be surrounded by so many female faces that may not otherwise be seen at mixed leagues."
In the aftermath of player reaction, the International eSports Federation announced it would reverse its earlier policy on gender division within eSports tournaments but will retain all-women divisions. This, says GosuGamer's Radoslav Kolev, could be an example of solving the problems at the heart of female gaming leagues.
"Trying to invest more into all-female leagues before finding a way to beat the sexism issue can only backfire, I believe, instead of generating positives," Kolev says.
"Once/If this is solved, however, the positives are easy to see. Creating an adequate competitive experience for women can help lure more female gamers from their casual environment into competitive gaming. This, in turn, will generate tournaments of higher quality, just because the competing population grows larger and hence fiercer. The ideal goal, of course, is to aim for eSports to become similar to tennis, where both men's and women's competition draw equally large crowds and are appreciated in a similar matter."
But the solution is down to the community themselves, says Demers.
"There are no perfect communities (in eSports or otherwise) and because of the lack of centralization, policies are as diverse as the people who run the events. It's up to the community — both men and women — to encourage the right choices to be rewarded."