The gaming and esports industry is seeing an incredible explosion in audience growth on all levels, including women who are playing and interested in working in esports. However, it’s also uncovered a dark culture that has existed for far too long. Stories of sexism and misogyny in video games are common, and in an industry that has always been demographically dominated by males, many have unfortunately grown accustomed to this behavior. It’s a repellent against desperately-needed diversity, and while more women are beginning to find and create roles in esports, much of this toxicity hasn’t lessened.
The statistics from 2019 are still the ones being pulled today: 46% of women play video games, but only 24% of women are video game developers. And while developers are only a tiny percentage of the video game industry, it’s indicative of the initial problem: the ratio between men and women who work in the industry is severely unbalanced.
But what about inside the smaller niches of gaming? What about esports?
While the numbers will inevitably fluctuate as more roles are available or created, it’s estimated that women make up only 5% of those who are working or playing in esports. The need to push this awareness has developed several initiatives gaining positive momentum for women and helped launch new organizations such as Women in Games. The need for more women in esports has opened doors for many, but it has also emphasized the imbalance.
For esports journalist Heidi Duran, there are definite bright spots, but even some opportunities can feel hollow: “My experience is slightly different. When I entered the gaming industry some 11 years ago, I can count only two times that someone treated me differently because of my gender that I would consider negative. Both at GDC. One booth ignored me for a demo and then asked if I was waiting for someone. A volunteer jokingly refused to give me a free poster unless I could name all the game references on it.”
She continued, “Other than that, my complaint has been on the other side of the spectrum, and probably unique. I have been given more opportunities because of my gender than my abilities or expertise. I’m grateful for the opportunities, of course, but sometimes I don’t want to hear that I was chosen over other candidates because your company ‘has too many guys.’”
For women in this situation, it becomes a question of value, which in turn can create an air of distrust. This formula may lead to a hostile atmosphere where women feel the need to constantly prove themselves beneath a scrutiny that men don’t normally experience. Are we here because of skill or are we here for optics?
For players, the toxicity can be explosive and jarring.
In 2016, professional Overwatch player Se-yeon “Geguri” Kim was put under a microscope and pushed into the spotlight after being accused of in-game hacking. The then 17-year-old had to prove otherwise after multiple accusations led to an investigation by Blizzard Korea.
The situation was highlighted on Reddit: “Her dominating performance in scrims and in tournaments caught people’s attention and some of the players started to accuse her of hacking. After winning the qualifiers for the Nexus Cup, the opposing team required Artisan to report Geguri to Blizzard Korea. Two pros even bet that if she wasn’t a hacker, they would quit playing professionally.”
Geguri’s skill was all her own, of course, and the two professionals who made accusations did permanently leave the scene. While Geguri felt vindicated, she admitted that the situation placed her under stress.
“When [men online] find out you’re a female it goes downhill from there,” NBA 2K20 player Hazel “hazelfierce” Childress told The Washington Post.
“Sometimes they try to flirt with you. It’s crazy,” NBA 2K20 player Amber “ABPureBlood20” Sammons added. She would try to keep [the players’] focus on the game. “Hey man, let’s just hoop, the common goal is to win.”
While many companies are battling the negative culture, at least at face level, the toxicity remains.
The state of the industry as it stands is in no shape to fully support women, minorities, and people of color. It’s time to hold our industry leaders accountable, and promote diversity in a way that emphasizes professional growth. Fortunately, some organizations are actively trying to build diverse communities.
XSET is one of the latest examples of organizations driving a message of diversity and inclusion. Developed by former FaZe Clan president Greg Selkoe, XSET plans to fill a void in the gaming marketplace.
Selkoe told The New York Times, “Gamers are from all walks of life and all backgrounds. But if you look at the current organizations, they sort of resemble a frat house. They’re not reflective of the racial and gender diversity in the gaming world.” XSET has tried to create a sense of diversity and inclusion in a whirlwind of hip-hop culture and street fashion that has moved beyond the gaming bubble.
Since its establishment, XSET has brought on talent both in and out of gaming. Minna Stress is a 14-year-old skateboarding sensation, and also a member of USA Skateboarding. She was preparing to represent Team USA when skateboarding made its Olympic debut in Tokyo before the Olympics were postponed.
Popular lifestyle and esports brand 100 Thieves contains one of the most popular streamers in the world. Rachell “Valkyrae” Hofstetter has become the fastest growing live streamer in the world. Ryan “Fwiz” Wyatt, Head of Gaming at Google, announced that she was also the biggest female streamer in the world.
Since moving from Twitch to YouTube, Valkyrae has driven her stats up the charts. Her peak concurrent viewers, once sitting at just over 3,000, have now exploded to over 66,000. In a chart on Twitter, she revealed that she was collecting about 300,000 live views at the beginning of the year. As of the middle of October, she now has over 11 million live views. Most recently, Valkyrae streamed Among Us with US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to help urge viewers to vote.
Major organizations and individual content creators are doing what everyone in the industry needs to practice. Creating platforms to drive inclusivity and diversity will help share the stories we need to hear, and expose us to those content creators and organizations taking a leadership role and doing the most to help bring balance to the industry.