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The Ever-Present Question on Sexism in Esports

We sat down with Hurrah's Angela Natividad to discuss the topic at hand.

  • Text: Sam Bishop
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When looking the gaming industry as a whole, sexism is something that crops up time and time again, from the everyday gamer playing games online to the esports world, the latter of which is something that we've spoke to creative agency Hurrah about. Their co-founder and COO Angela Natividad offered to talk to us recently about the issues that women face in the competitive space, and how it compares to the other issues that women face in different areas of society.

Hurrah is an esports and gaming agency that focuses, and since one of their core pillars is inclusiveness, we asked them about the industry as a whole, which starts with the #MeToo movement. This hashtag started life at the backend of last year in response to sexual harassment and assault in the workplace in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein allegations, and we asked Natividad about how esports is impacted by this.

Angela Natividad of Hurrah.

"It's not so much that esports is going through a movement similar to #MeToo; it's that #MeToo has an impact across nearly all industries—perhaps disproportionately on industries that are historically male-dominated."

"Before going into that, though, it's important to dissociate esports and gaming. Gaming is broad and close to 50% female, depending on how and where you cut the pie. Esports is a younger sector with lots of ways in which people can participate—as streamers (where there are many women), pro-gamers, fans, hosts, casting crews, event organisers, team managers, coaches, publishers, and more. In many ways, the rapid professionalisation of esports invites a comparison to sports. And because professionalisation is happening fast, it's always been easiest to pull from the existing codes of sports—including many of sports' bad habits. This includes ghettoizing women: Tacitly separating teams by gender, sponsors preferring to support male players over females, teams and coaches overlooking female training."

"Woman gamers and esports business professionals also have a very different learning curve from most sector men. They often have clocked fewer in-game hours, for many reasons ranging from abuse in-game to the fact that, from childhood, gaming has always been perceived as mostly a male pursuit. And when women actually have held their own competitively—Scarlett comes to mind—they are treated as representatives of their entire gender, both in their winning and their losing. In practical terms, this makes winning a big victory. But all they have to do is lose once or twice for their support to be pulled."

"Back to #MeToo. Various efforts exist among publishers, teams and within communities to boost diversity in esports generally. I suppose the big difference between this, and #MeToo, is that they aren't really organised. They're more like sums of initiatives brought to light and aggregated, thanks to everyone's current hyper-awareness of everyday misogyny. This means there's a lack of structured movement; it's more like a heap of gathered small, mid-sized and big disconnected efforts, which is typical of a young and growing industry."

"The advantage esports has is its ability to adapt and evolve rapidly. And as demands change and games do too, growing more and more entertainment-oriented and defining an identity separate from traditional sports, but also growing more mobile-aware (which tends to be more female), you're going to see a demographic shift. Overwatch and Fortnite have been interesting teachers in this regard; culturally, they're already very different from more traditional esports. (Notably, Overwatch League's logo is Tracer, a female character.)"

The Overwatch League logo.

Having talked about esports we also asked Natividad about streamers as well, in particular popular Fortnite streamer Tyler 'Ninja' Blevins. He said this year that he wouldn't play with female gamers because of the fact that the relationship between the two can be misconstrued, later adding that he wanted to minimise online harassment, something that Natividad thinks has an unintended negative impact.

"Look, Ninja's a person. And—just like Mike fucking Pence—he can do whatever he wants, including act like a Puritan to supposedly protect his marriage, family and reputation (including, ostensibly, the reputations of other female gamers). I get that rumour-mongering and trolls suck. Wah."

"But what he's also done is help people who don't want to work with women build a case. A lot of people think female streamers are attention-mongerers. A lot of people think female players could disrupt an otherwise-male team because of flirting and dating and jealousy (oh noes!). I've actually heard justifications like that from team managers."

"Women in male-dominated industries deal with harassment as a matter of course, especially when they're public facing. As a woman myself, it's hard to feel compassion for Ninja's position (I've worked in advertising, tech and now esports—all dude clubs). The real sticking-points are the '50s-style arguments people in our industry make to avoid including women in pro teams or companies. It's easy not to, the same way it was once easy to argue women didn't belong in offices. And now one of the biggest personalities in streaming has taken the "brave" stand of saying he's doing this to protect women? Well, that makes those parochial justifications even easier. Good fucking job, Ninja."

"Meritocracies don't really exist as we understand them. Skill is rarely 100% sufficient to get you where you should be. We are a social animal. People who succeed in industries need to be able to network, and to get a shot from those who've already been where they are. Networking as a woman in esports—as a pro-gamer, on the business side, as a streamer, take your pick—is fraught with difficulty."

"Ninja just exacerbated that. He could've said "Chill, women game too, every woman I game with is not a love interest"; instead, he fed a corrosive belief that will make breaking in as a woman that much harder, skills or not. And the men who deny them opportunities will say, condescendingly, that it's for their safety."

Fortnite's famous face, streamer Tyler 'Ninja' Blevins.

So aside from isolated incidents around popular streamers and teams, we had to ask a wider question about the status of sexism in esports. After all, we do have female teams in areas like CS:GO as well as casters, analysts, and more, so we wanted to really dig deep into where the industry stands as a whole.

"I've already elaborated on this a lot—maybe too much—but let's start by saying most people do consider gaming a male pursuit, even from childhood. As in coding, this gives young men an
advantage from early on. What's more, video game marketing tends to be pretty male-focused, and you're going to draw the people you're talking to."

"Thus it's unsurprising that men compose the majority of visible esports fans and players. It isn't rare to hear female players share stories about online harassment—choosing gender-neutral names, turning their mics off to limit it within the realm of the possible. It's also another reason they tend to clock less in-game time. Even if you take into account the fact that toxic players will always exist, and that they just make more noise, the combination of this with all previously mentioned factors creates a vicious cycle that reinforces the same idea: This is a place for dudes."

The next question then becomes: what do we do about this? We've already seen unsuccessful programs like Bully Hunters try to stomp out some of the toxicity around women in games, but on the other hand progress is being made with efforts like the recruitment of female Overwatch player Se-yeon 'Geguri' Kim to the Shanghai Dragons Overwatch League team. There's plenty more to do, although it won't be easy.

"This isn't a simple question, because its answer lies in many small changes in an overall ecosystem. More should be done among publishers, platforms and events organisers about punishing toxic behaviour, but that's only a symptom."

"Many publishers are working on more diverse competitive characters and doing their part to support women's causes. Teams are increasingly open to incorporating and training women. On our side, we favour creative approaches and partnerships that express and insist on normalising diversity. Because there isn't always a clear trajectory to pro, a lot of the educational efforts by universities and local governments to cultivate young esports talent also focuses on bringing hardware and access to women, as well as underserved communities (esports is an expensive pastime; gender equality isn't its only problem. I mean forget the hardware; how many parents—and what kind of parents—can afford Fortnite coaches?)."

"But as with most industries, you can't effect paradigm change unless you address the roots of the system. Education and representation are everything. Esports has strong grassroots DNA; that's where we need to be cultivating diversity, training and access. On the professional side, ensuring diversity in your teams and insisting on it with partners is critical. I can tell you this is hard; every time we put out a job posting, 90% of the hopefuls are white heterosexual twenty-something men. We've had to diversify the images we use in job postings, change the language of our job profiles, broaden where those postings appear and be open to people whose trajectories don't classically resemble the diehard esports "expert.""

"But that's good. Diversity isn't just a thing we do for women or minorities. As we steer esports more toward the mainstream, diversity also ensures creative flexibility and the ability to solve problems from perspectives that aren't traditionally "esports.""

Kim 'Geguri' Se-yeon of Shanghai Dragons is making steps towards change.

We then raised the topic of current opportunities for women in esports, mentioning the example of female CS:GO teams like Beşiktaş Esports. Are these opportunities good enough? It's not quite as simple as that.

"Not all opportunities are equal—and this has to do with the aforementioned lack of structure in the way we approach this problem, as well as very old-school ideas about the effects of having a woman on, say, a male team. Those notions were thrown out in other industries, but weirdly we're still fighting them here. Even on the business side this is tricky; a woman in a major esports structure once expressed to me that she will be the first person ever to go on maternity leave. She had the right to a year, and she was fretting about it—what would happen to her job, would people think she was lazy, won't it be seen as abnormal since nobody ever had to go away?"

"But let's change focus. Someone who knows little about esports but watches a LoL competition will easily believe this is a dude's arena, and they'd be more or less right. Technically those competitions are open to women, which is often used as an excuse. But de facto structures are as powerful as dejure ones. You don't have to say certain types of people aren't allowed in the club house. If you aren't talking to them, if they're made to feel unwelcome, if they aren't trained in ways that accommodate their learning curve and given the networking opportunities that others have, if they're judged biologically before they're judged by skill, they'll just know they're not allowed in the club house. We aren't masochists or stupid."

And lastly we ended with an open question - how can esports fans and everyday viewers help with change? After all, esports exists because of the millions of supporters rooting for the teams in all of these games, and they contribute to the success and decline of competitions, communities, and players.

"The community is the beating heart of esports. And whatever game you peer into—be it LoL,
Overwatch, whatever—you're going to find wildly diverse and gorgeous cottage communities that experience real passion but never get the public play more "coded" communities get. But as this latter audience matures and broadens, and as it comes to expect more from its entertainment and publishers, you're going to see change... the same way we did in the TV industry."

"I mean, it's so hard now to find a new show with a cast of just white people and one-dimensional women. That was the norm not long ago. Now big players like Netflix or HBO, who in many ways are helping define the "golden age of TV", won't even look at pitches like that. They're actively recruiting diverse, often female, showrunners. The same goes for esports."

"We're in a rare sector where communities don't just care about their players and teams; they are actively monitoring the way the sector is evolving. That's how invested they are. Business people in esports are as heroic as players; many of the big names, including Twitch and Blizzard, pride themselves on having been launched by people who came from these communities. So when our community becomes less tolerant of toxicity and more demanding in terms of diversity, we're going to see a lot of change. It's already starting to happen; voices little-heard are starting to get louder. It's changing the way publishers behave. Publishers' decisions trickle into the wider industry; their priorities become event organiser and team priorities."

"Team priorities spill into brand priorities, because they're the talent brands want to associate with. And vice versa: Brands want to invest in esports, but they also want to feel safe there. Non-endemics are slated to bring in 50% of esports money in the near future. The more progressive their own values, the more insistent they are about them, the more change ripples through the sector.

It's true that we've seen great strides in pushing sexism out of games and promoting voices that are more diverse and inclusive for everyone, but just as we talked about with games in our article 'We Don't Want to Sacrifice the Macho Man on the Altar of Diversity', there are still plenty of steps left to take in esports. The changes being made are positive, and it's the responsibility of all involved, from the viewers at home watching streams all the way up to the game publishers, to ensure that these continue to be made to improve not only the opportunities for marginalised groups, but the health of esports as a whole. If we want to be respected, that has to be earned, and that can only come with time.

Julia 'Juliano' Kiran, one of the biggest names in female CS:GO.