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With gender disparity in esports, researchers look for ways to close the gap

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How can more women become inspired to enter the world of esports?

Women represent half of the game-playing public, but their representation in the growing esports scene is criminally small. At this year's GDC, Morgan Romine, PhD, director of initiatives at Intel and ESL's AnyKey project, was joined by CounterLogic Gaming Red Counter-Strike: Global Offensive player Stephanie Harvey —€” who also happens to work for Ubisoft —€” to discuss how best to increase women's presence in esports, by organization and by example.

Romine opened the panel by discussing the controversy over whether women's competitions are a good idea. She explained that she and her partner at AnyKey brought women with experience together to hash out the topic and what value women-specific tournaments have. They concluded that these events are a necessary short-term strategy, and part of a many-pronged approach needed to address systemic problems in the space.

Romine specifically cited the importance of Title IX in legitimizing women's athletics programs in the U.S. Title IX passed as a federal law in 1972 as part of the Education Amendments Act, and stipulated that men and women must receive comparable and equitable access to athletic programs at institutions receiving federal funding. Title IX led to a surge in women's participation in collegiate athletics, which in turn has proven to normalize and serve as inspiration for girls hoping to participate in sports.

Similarly, women-specific tournaments create a supportive space and role models for young women who aspire to compete in esports, Romine said. In her work with AnyKey with writer and researcher T.L. Taylor —€” who "literally wrote the book on esports" with Raising the Stakes: E-Sports and the Professionalization of Computer Gaming —€” Romine has some key takeaways for increasing access and participation for women in esports. Gender-neutral tournaments should be the goal, but opportunities are necessary, Romine says. Next, gender policing —€” the act of determining the "legitimacy" of a participant's gender identification —€” should not be a factor, and exclusion should not be the goal.

Romine was also conscious of the danger of perpetuating the stereotype that women can't play as well as men, but it's a risk that seems necessary to build the kind of grassroots movement and organization necessary to bring forward progress to the scene.

"If we want to see women competing at the top tier, we have to build a groundswell"

Stephanie Harvey is a professional gamer with a master's in architecture and a degree in game design, and is on a sabbatical from Ubisoft while pursuing a career in competitive gaming. Harvey wanted to demonstrate some of the practical realities facing women in esports by relating her experience in the space. She explained that the generally younger-skewing demographic of esports exacerbates the sexism and racism that can seem so generally common in online spaces. As a female gamer, she was exposed early on in her career to the kind of scrutiny —€” often sexualized —€” that other players may not be subjected to until they find more success.

Harvey began her pursuit in 2003 with the original Counter-Strike. Early in her career, at a tournament where Harvey acted as a mascot for a team, she was approached by young women excited about her visibility and participation, and that inspired her to serve as an example, she said. Harvey explained she was doing it in part for other women "who wouldn't be able to see without a little push" that they could also participate.

Romine elaborated on the disproportionately high level of harassment women receive while streaming. She talked about her recent experiences at IEM Katowice, one of the world's biggest esports competitions, where AnyKey helped to stage a women's tournament that attracted controversy by virtue of its presence. Romine emphasized the responsibility organizers hold to manage their community, including in-stream commenters, and she elaborated on some of the more abusive practices commenters engage in. This has previously included posting both doctored and real risqué imagery, and nude photos of women competitors, in chat.

Despite the hostility shown to female players, Harvey explained her enthusiasm for competition. She described her time playing in the mid-2000s representing Canada in tournaments on an all-female team and how dedicated she was to making a real career happen. She says her first appearance in a World Cup event was entirely due to seeing professional Counter-Strike player Alice "Alie" Lew compete. Lew would later serve as Harvey's captain.

single events aren't enough to create a sustainable scene for women in esports

Romine explained that single events scattered throughout the calendar year aren't enough to create a sustainable scene for women in esports. Players identify with storylines that arise organically as teams evolve and develop rivalries, which requires a regular, frequent schedule to make happen —€” fans need opportunities to watch players compete and invest in their success. Romine also explained that scheduling plays a key part, as women's events can't compete with major tournaments due to their lower visibility and awareness with esports viewers. Events at PAX and other non-esports gatherings are underutilized opportunities to expose the scene to new people and attract new blood.

Harvey explained that men often question why women can't be inspired to play competitively by male players, but she believes that women can be inspired by both male and female players, further establishing that women's tournaments are justified. It's a platform to give women an entry point to play competitively. She stressed to women not to give up, and to continue despite "haters." She doesn't know if she'll achieve her goal of being a full-time competitive player, but she seems more focused on removing the need for women-specific competition within a few years.

The hope for the next generation of competitive women in esports may lie with college gamers finding community for the first time, according to Romine. "If we want to see women competing at the top tier, we have to build a groundswell," Romine said. "That's happening a lot at the college level, and we need to encourage the women playing with their friends" to follow their competitive ambitions, she added. "You have to see it to be it."