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An Overwatch Women’s League isn’t the answer

Overwatch League could (and should) be the turning point esports needs

Tracer saluting to a young buy as seen in Overwatch’s cinematic debut trailer Blizzard Entertainment

The Overwatch League’s inaugural season is in full swing. Favorite teams have already been chosen and the special skins have been purchased. But there are no women among the all-star lineups and the flashy team colors.

Overwatch has a huge, diverse fanbase with a ton of non-male players, so where is the official representation? If women were in the World Cup, they should also be in the pro league.

But they aren’t.

We’ve seen a few women compete in the Overwatch World Cup before, so what happened? The reasons we’re given, whether by team managers or the players themselves, are symptomatic of larger problems. Professionals are turning a blind eye to a very specific opportunity to challenge the current esports climate.

A growing industry like esports has room to stretch its legs — but right now, it’s a boys’ club. And the solution isn’t creating a similar, separate girls’ club to level the playing field. The solution is to get women in the same arena, right alongside the men.

But you have to begin work at the bottom before you can fix what’s going on at the top.

“If women really wanted to compete, no one would stop them”

We should be focusing less on what the norm is now and more on why the pool of professional women players is so small. The easy and short-sighted response is that there just aren’t any women who are that good at the game or that they’re simply not interested in playing on the competitive level.

That idea is absolute bullshit.

Consider the case of Ysabell Müller, who has played the game since the Overwatch beta launched. Wired reports:

She says she had designs on going pro herself but found that getting useful feedback from her teammates was difficult. “They treated her, she says, like she couldn’t endure criticism — that if criticized she would be offended and accuse her teammates of sexism and get them kicked out of the game.”

It’s not about whether women are even interested in going pro. It’s about if they can even endure participating in today’s climate. Most talented female players stop short of considering themselves professional competition, knowing the kinds of harassment they’re likely to endure.

Women face the toxicity of male players as soon as they turn on their mic. Comments quickly devolve into criticism, accusations of being a “fake gamer girl,” sexist comments, and then rape threats and death threats. The challenge becomes one of endurance of abuse, not skill.

Even Geguri, one of Overwatch’s top players in the world, even considered buying a program to change the sound of her voice. With a toxic culture firmly place, it’s misguided to think that women have “absolutely no reason not to compete.”

No one is immune to the verbal, gendered abuse people receive on a regular basis, and expecting someone to be that hardened is unrealistic. Whether you identify as a man, woman or non-binary — enduring both online and offline abuse shouldn’t be a prerequisite for competing at all, much less at the higher levels.

Yet we’re repeatedly told that “if you can’t take it, leave.” Putting up with toxicity like it should be another thing on our checklist of errands is not a feasible option, nor is it a sustainable one. If you want more female players to compete, you have to make the game itself more hospitable for everyone. Right now, the abuse is tolerated, if not ignored. Men are the norm, where women have to prove they can take the abuse that everyone knows they’re going to get.

We have to stop taking that abuse for granted.

The first team with the “token” female

Kotaku’s Nathan Grayson asked members of the Overwatch League about the lack of female players during its opening weekend. Their answers were disappointing, to say the least.

“You have to go through all these hurdles, like if you pick up a player, is the press gonna call it a PR stunt, or is it because she was the best?” said Outlaws general manager Matt Rodriguez.

A “PR stunt” is an appalling first suggestion to describe a non-male hire. A “stunt” implies that the new hire is solely for media attention, as opposed to the team being a vanguard for long-term change — and that the woman doesn’t deserve her spot on the team. There’s no reason to add a token female to the roster if she doesn’t have the skills to earn it. When Grayson asked one of Outlaws’ DPS players about Geguri, he said:

“People would always be doubting, always be judging. So it has to be the right person, the right player, and those things have to come together at the right moment—which makes it especially hard for women in the scene right now.”

But there is no “right” moment. Waiting around for the first female player to magically join the League is, at least for now, another way of saying that these teams don’t want to be the ones to do it. Teams must begin putting in the work now, not just to change the demographics of professional esports, but to course correct the toxic culture inherent to them. And the more we normalize teams that aren’t all-male, the less of an anomaly they will become in the long run.

“Sure it can happen, but later,” is a phrase that’s all too familiar, and it’s a crutch that won’t hold up forever. Everyone who comments on the problem just repeats the fear of taking a leadership role in real change. They take turns saying they’re too scared to do it.

Yet no one says they shouldn’t be welcome because they can’t take the heat. It’s weird how that works, isn’t it?

A well-oiled team isn’t just skilled, they’re social

“We were trying to find someone who already meshed well with their team,” Scott Tester, who had a large part in putting together New York Excelsior’s team, told Kotaku. “So I don’t think it was really about her specific level of skill; she’s a really talented player.”

It’s true that the dynamic of each team is invaluable. Personal chemistry, mutual understanding and trust all have to be there. But the term “mesh well” is thrown around a lot regarding team rosters. We keep hearing about skill, but never about what’s really the big fear factor here: socialization. And what we have to consider is, at least in Geguri’s specific case, that the social climate may have played a large part of her absence in the league. In an interview with Geguri, ESPN reported:

In Korea, it’s considered taboo for unmarried women and men to live together, which makes it hard for female gamers to move into team houses. This stigma applies in other countries too; North American coaches have expressed concerns that coed players might develop romantic ties.

There are some valid practical and financial concerns. What will diverse teams do about shared housing? While more and more teams are moving away from the idea of living in the same quarters, the communal construct still exists today. But we won’t know how that changes the social structure until we try to challenge it.

This argument is almost always a backdoor way of saying that the team itself wouldn’t know how to act around a woman, not that the woman wouldn’t fit in or would make problems for the team. Once again, the issue becomes what men are willing to endure, not whether the player has the skill necessary to play.

Managers and players telling Kotaku that they “absolutely see no reason why [women] can’t compete,” if anything, is indicative of willful ignorance and demonstrative of how esports culture glosses over gender equality. In order to dismantle this, male players need to start speaking out.

Everyone needs to hold themselves accountable for the culture of toxicity. It’s the work we all need to put in to shift that perspective and make it a mainstream concern.

Growing pains are inevitable

If there is any game that can shatter esports’ glass ceiling, it’s Overwatch. Blizzard prides itself on Overwatch’s rich, inclusive cast of characters. With a world full of people (and omnics) from such different backgrounds, it would only be natural for us to see more diversity among the pros too.

That is to say, it’s not all on Blizzard, the athletes, or the OWL itself. It’s an entire culture that needs to shift. But the Overwatch League is still new, and I believe it has a great potential to change things for the entire competitive space. I don’t doubt that its teams and players can do it — the sentiment is there.

The fans definitely want to see women in the arena. It’s just a matter of who will take the first step.

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