A tiny women’s college in Columbia, Missouri, made headlines last week as the first of its kind to have an esports team. But its president is quick to brush off any applause.
“Stephens just happens to be the institution among women’s colleges that stepped up first,” President Diane Lynch told Polygon of the buzz that came after she announced that Stephens College would be the first historically women’s institution to give scholarships to collegiate esports players.
Stephens College has joined the National Association of College esports, and the school will have its first team begin competing this fall. In addition to offering scholarships to particularly qualified students, Stephens College will also hold a round of tryouts this summer.
The esports space, collegiate and otherwise, is and has been predominantly male. To Lynch, getting the Stephens student body into the competition was only a matter of time.
“Stephens, like hundreds of other colleges and universities, have a gaming club — and we’re not the only women’s college that has a club — but we made the decision probably a year ago to elevate that to the status of an athletic team or sport,” she said.
That decision was the result of a series of developments in the world of collegiate esports, all of which made Lynch more comfortable with bringing her student body into the fold.
After developing confidence in the collegiate esport ring’s code of conduct, what the Stephens College administration needed next was a game. Although there are competitive games with female heroes, it was important that the school’s first foray into esports came on the back of a title that represented its core values.
“Overwatch, while not perfect, has evolved over the past several months as a gaming platform that works hard to reflect the inclusion and diversity and respect that we think are important,” said Lynch. “While some of the characterizations and representations continue to be stereotypical, there are many characters who are not, so that encouraged us.”
Overwatch has been praised for its inclusive roster since it launched last May. Of its 24 playable characters, 11 are women. People (and machines) of a variety of ethnicities are also well-represented, so Lynch found it an obvious choice for her students.
Overwatch even has an inspirational figure specifically for pro female gamers. An entire feminist organization began in the name of D.va, who made a name for herself in the game’s canon as a top StarCraft player. South Koreans were seen raising a flag bearing her familiar logo during the worldwide Women’s March in January, causing an international stir. A member of the organization told Polygon back then that D.va was a role model, being both a woman and a success in the traditionally male competitive gaming space.
It also helps that the existing gaming club at Stephens College already had big Overwatch fans. The school is certainly using its new esports program as a way to appeal to incoming students, but there’s already a sizable coalition of players enrolled.
As Lynch watched her students fall in love with the multiplayer game over the past school year, she began to see it as a game that aligned with everything Stephens College strives to represent — and one that is just as competitive as any other esport.
“It’s still a shooter game,” she said of Overwatch. “There’s nothing about it that somehow softens it, that’s not as competitive and strategic and physical, if you will, in a digital sense.
“It’s not about the competition being any less intense. It just recognizes that all types of characters can be champions.”
With a game in place, Lynch had other criteria before bringing launching Stephens’ esports program. A huge one concerns harassment, a real possibility when bringing anyone — and especially women — into what can be an intense, highly visible space.
Lynch needed to be confident that any Stephens student playing on the amateur level was well-protected, she said. The National Association of College esports has begun to shape its code of conduct to be more in line with the standards of behavior outlined by its big sister, the National Collegiate Athletic Association. That’s encouraging — because the potential of harassment is a top concern for Lynch and her collaborators.
“We are not naive here about the culture of gaming,” Lynch told us. “Going back to the fact that it’s so surprising, it’s news that we’re doing this. But if you spent five minutes doing research on why that’s the case, it’s entirely about the fact that the culture has been so difficult for women.”
Although they make up a near-equal proportion of the overall game-playing population, women in gaming remain far less visible than men. Yet the harassment faced by figures like Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian — frankly every target of GamerGate — can quickly put off women considering entering the field professionally. On a smaller scale, esports competitions like last week’s Dota 2 Kiev Major can be alienating or even uncomfortable for women. Women can face a barrage of gendered insults online and offline, simply for showing up.
It’s difficult to damage control for potential incidents sight unseen, but Lynch and company are preparing themselves. Insulating Stephens students from online harassment will be imperative, and team members will be required to participate in sessions about how to maintain a secure online persona. They’ll also be discouraged from linking their esports identities from their daily lives, which comes as something of a frustration to the school’s president.
“It’s challenging and in some ways disappointing that that is a necessary condition for their successful and harassment-free participation,” said Lynch of safeguarding students from the oft-hostile online space. “That’s the reality of what it means to be the first and one of the pioneers in helping women establish a place [in esports] — establishing protocols for the privacy protection of our students to make sure that, they don’t suffer.”
It’s never easy to be a minority in any space, professional or otherwise. That’s in part why women’s colleges continue to exist. Research by the National Survey of Student Engagement at Indiana University found that women’s college students “report greater gains in self-understanding, including learning effectively on one’s own and working effectively with others, than women at coeducational institutions.” A professional esports team run by a women’s college may seem like a small step toward that goal, but it’s an important one for Stephens students, Lynch said.
It’s also a logical one, the way she tells it. Just as women’s colleges encourage students to pursue careers in science, technology, media and whatever else their heart desires, she sees gaming as a burgeoning field women shouldn’t shy away from.
It’s not just women’s colleges that should be embracing these lucrative industries, but every college, Lynch added. University of California, Irvine made waves last year as the first public school to give esports scolarships; Robert Morris University has several scholarship-based esports teams.
Stephens College will be remembered as a pioneer, but the president hopes the school is just one if many to recognize that young women belong in esports.
“We’re not naive about the challenges about doing this, but we’re not naive about the importance,” Lynch told us. “If rugby or lacrosse or basketball is an appropriate activity for a woman, then so too is esports.”