Currently, the eSports scene suffers from a lack of gender representation in professional play. There are few women in the majority of all major tournaments and there are even fewer who are even recognised for their skill. In some cases, the eSports setting can be quite hostile to female participants, leading to increased harassment and/or scrutiny from both viewers and fellow competitors alike. Female players have to have extremely thick skin to even try and establish themselves as a legitimate player within eSports because of the toxic culture.
If there were more women in eSports, their presence could be normalised which could lead to reduced harassment. However, I have realised that some women in eSports are used as short lived publicity stunts or marketing tactics (see Team Vaevictis or Mayumi) so the slow increase of women in the scene is clearly doing nothing for stable female representation. I came to the conclusion that the only way that female participation can be increased in eSports is by changing how we perceive women and technology by destroying gender stereotypes. Doing so would be beneficial both for the game company (they receive more revenue) and the cause of representation in eSports.
Firstly, companies have to stop using women as a marketing tactic, all this does is create a further divide between men and women and reinforces negative stereotypes about women and technology. The perpetuation of the belief that women are mechanically inferior men only makes it harder for women to feel like they belong in eSports at all thus reducing the chances of equal representation altogether.
If the media can positively promote women in eSports for their skills rather than their appearance or failure, gender stereotypes can be destroyed. If women are portrayed as being able to subvert the expectations that men are mechanically better at video games then the social beliefs surrounding gender and video games will have no choice but to adapt. When there are more girls in eSports, girls who normally would be uninterested in gaming might instead develop an interest due to gaming no longer being perceived as a male activity.
The power of perception
The perceptions of women and video games are quite rigid and influences how women are treated in the professional scene. One assumption is that women are generally worse at video games than men or that men are more likely to excel in video games.
Why does this belief exist? It is because of the presumed prior gaming experience that the majority of men are believed to have in comparison to women. The belief that prior experience in gaming means higher base skill level in all games is a factor contributing to the lack of confidence in newer female players in online competitive multiplayer games (Kim, 2017). Of course, the easiest way to fix this issue is by introducing technology to girls at a younger age but that leads me to the other perception of women that obstructs this solution.
There is the existence of a moral panic associated with (usually young) women and technology in general. The perception of women as vulnerable and technology as dangerous can cause society to be more protective of girls and their access to technology (Cassell and Cramer, 2008). With video games, their frequently violent content and access to contact with strangers through voice and text chat is not seen as socially acceptable while male exposure is such things is accepted.
Now then, what could be done when there is the need to introduce younger girls to gaming but society condemns this? Make the game more socially acceptable for girls through aesthetic design (no, this does not mean making all games look like Fortnite).
Take the example of overwatch, the character design and colour scheme are bright and appealing; the roster of playable ‘heroes’ is also diverse, many of the women in particular are not overly sexualised which further establishes itself as more socially acceptable and appealing for girls.
Another example is the newly released tactical FPS, Valorant which also has a diverse range of ‘agents’ and is an aesthetically prettier version of similar games like CS:GO. The lack of sexualised characters is also linked to female interest in the game as over-sexualised representations serve as a barrier for enjoyment for many women (Cruea and Park 2012).
A Culture of Toxicity
Women are often turned away from competitive games because of the generally accepted culture of toxicity that exists in many games such as League of Legends, CS: GO and Overwatch. It appears that toxicity is normalised within competitive games and many players believe that if you can’t deal with it then you should just leave. This should not be the case and developers should take an active role in trying to reduce harassment in their games as it could be detrimental to their potential player base since many players are turned away by toxicity (Tang, Reer, and Quandt, 2019). Currently, developers are not doing enough to make gaming communities an enjoyable space for everyone involved which makes it almost of equal importance to the game itself; because the game might be good but how great can it be if other players ruin the fun?
For example, in League of Legends you can report players and if they receive punishment, you will have a message pop up stating that a player you reported received a penalty. However, I recall countless times that I reported players in LoL who have thrown games, gone AFK or abused team-mates with no report of them being punished.
The worst example of toxic behaviour I’ve seen was earlier this year in a game of LoL where three out of five of my teammates were throwing a myriad of racial slurs at each other in a rather uncomfortable 30-minute game. Afterwards, my friend and I reported the players but of course it did nothing. I could not believe that none of those players received punishment of any kind, this moment made me realise the complete ineptitude in the LoL punishment system.
Toxic behaviour being the norm is not a helpful environment for new players to persevere and learn new skills because why would you keep playing a game where you always get abused? Especially as newer players are not used to being in such a heavily toxic environment. Therefore, as more girls are driven away because of the toxicity, the chances of women developing the confidence in a game to eventually go into eSports becomes far slimmer.
Developers should spend more time in creating more reliable reporting systems that will improve the morale of their player base. When developers start taking a more active role in trying to reduce toxic behaviour and condemn these player actions, it is possible that the acceptance of toxicity as a normal part of the gaming culture can be changed.
Alternatively, games like Apex Legends have incredibly expansive ping systems which make participation in voice chat more optional in a genre where teams who use voice chat are usually at an advantage. Having the option to make a wide range of callouts using the in-game pings instead of using voice chat can allow more players to enjoy themselves without worry of being harassed. Additionally, such systems are more accessible to people with physical disabilities who can’t use voice chat at all. Other games could follow suit and create similar ping systems to make their game more accessible to players in general.
If girls start to play video games at a younger age, the perception regarding female vs male skills in video games can change, leading to more acceptance of women in eSports and increasing female confidence in abilities. Developers should try and cater their games towards this market through the moderation of player behaviour and aesthetic choices.
The number one goal should be to get more women into eSport because when there are more women visible in the gaming subculture, these communities can stop having this ‘boys club’ atmosphere and start being a more accepting place for women to exist.