The status of women in esports has never been higher. In the last decade, more women than ever have risen to prominence as game developers, streamers, and professional players, paving the way for generations of girls after them. Communities like Girls Gank Squad and The GameHers provide spaces for women to play games together, make friends, and build support networks. When I was a kid – which was something like 15 years ago – getting a job in the game industry wasn’t something anyone did; now, programs like the IGDA Velocity scholarship provide mentorship and connections specifically for women hoping to make games one day.
There’s a lot to be said for reflecting on how far we’ve come, but this progress also highlights how far we still have to go. Despite the rise of these communities and support networks, women in gaming and esports still face a variety of problems. Being a woman and a gamer in 2021 means battling increased scrutiny into your life, logistical structures that weren’t built with women in mind, and frequent harassment simply for playing. The first step to solving these problems is understanding them, so let’s take a look at the barriers women in esports face today.
Being a public-facing female gamer, whether that’s in the esports scene, in game development, or as a streamer, means that your life is effectively on display for the world to see. As is the case with female celebrities, women who choose to go public with their gaming face more scrutiny than men who do the same thing. When Overwatch became the next big competitive esport, female Korean player Geguri quickly rose through the scene thanks to her skill at tanks. Her Zarya play was so good that some of her opponents accused her of cheating, going so far as to say that they would quit esports all together if they were wrong. In an attempt to help, Blizzard stepped in and stated that no hacking or cheating had taken place, but the rumors were still flying. Geguri eventually put them to rest herself by uploading an hour-long video of her play and a feed of herself playing to clear the air. Geguri would eventually go on to play for the Shanghai Dragons Overwatch League team and is the only female player in the League. Despite her obvious skill (and her ability to prove the haters wrong), she still faced baseless accusations and an unfair amount of scrutiny for simply being good at the game.
For many large and successful esports teams, it’s a fun perk of the job that players get to live together. Teams have pooled money to buy large houses that have room for each player to relax, socialize, and practice together; some of the more successful teams even hire personal chefs to cook the cuisine that players prefer. (There’s an easy “Mountain Dew and Doritos” joke here, but I’m not going to make it.) While that may sound like a fun experience, it becomes an issue for teams that have both male and female players. Women may feel uncomfortable living in such a small space with so many men, or they may just not be interested in the “bro” activities that can arise in such spaces. Few affordances have been made for women in this area, most likely because most teams don’t have female players – a problem in and of itself. Ideally, teams would have enough male and female players that they would be able to have a house for both, or would at least be flexible enough to accommodate women. Instead, female professional gamers who don’t want to live in the house may end up feeling uncomfortable or like outcasts. There’s enough ostracization in gaming already – we don’t need it to extend to logistical issues, too.
This is the one that most folks already know about – and for good reason. Female players, and even those with feminine-sounding usernames, are more likely to be harassed online than male players. In many cases, the harassment is direct: every female gamer has a story of how she joined party chat and tried to speak to the team, only to receive a flood of comments claiming that the game is lost because a girl has joined or requests for her to be their girlfriend. It’s hard to focus on playing a game correctly, much less having fun, when you’re in an environment that’s been made hostile to you. Developers of multiplayer games are working on adding additional support and player-reporting features, but as long as this behavior remains permissible in gaming communities, it will continue to happen.
Female players also receive harassment indirectly. When women are featured on tournament streams or gaming compilations, a buzzing chat can quickly become a hostile environment for both the player and women who may be watching the stream. The relative anonymity of the internet makes this sort of behavior possible: as long as chatters feel as though there are no consequences for their ugly, sexist behavior, again, it will continue to happen. Harassment can also include objectification, where female gamers are valued or devalued on their appearance. This is rampant in streaming, where female streamers deemed “ugly” receive less views or more rude comments than those deemed otherwise. No one’s value as a person should be judged based on their appearance or their gameplay – we’re all human beings who deserve kindness.
These are just a few of the barriers that women in esports continue to face. This is not a complete list by any means; there are certainly other issues that need to be addressed, but these are some of the biggest ones. During Women’s History Month – and every month, really – it’s important to remember that the woman on the other side of the screen or avatar is a real person, not some anonymous essence. The adage we all heard as kids remains the same today: treat others the way you’d like to be treated. When in doubt, be kind and remember that women face different boundaries than men in gaming and esports. It’s still a long way up, but with support, community, and strength, we’ll continue to shatter the glass console!