It still amazes me when I open Twitch and see a woman participating in a gaming tournament. We’ve come so far from the time when video games were widely snubbed as a waste of time or a hobby for boys. Today, there are more examples than ever of women ascending the ranks in a competitive game and demonstrating their skill to others. Players like Geguri, tank player for the Shanghai Dragons Overwatch League team, and VKLiooon, the Hearthstone global champion, are showing players everywhere that esports is for everyone, regardless of gender. We’re finally moving toward an era where women are as respected and championed in esports as men.

Despite these incredible victories, there still aren’t as many visible women as there are men in the competitive scene. In an effort to change this, game developers, esports organizations, and tournament hosts have taken steps to encourage women to participate in esports and shine a spotlight on those who are already there. A frequent method of highlighting female players is to create women-only gaming tournaments in order to show off what women can do. It seems like a great way to move the needle forward, but…it just doesn’t quite make it. While the creation of tournaments for women is a nice gesture and a great way to spotlight incredible talent, it’s not going to solve the esports world’s bigger issues with gender diversity.

What kind of women-only tournaments and teams are there?

Over the last few years, there have been several high-profile tournaments that aim to gather and represent the best female talent in a variety of competitive games. The recent Valorant Ignition tournament for women encouraged female players to try out for their chance to play in a three-day tournament with a $50,000 prize pool, making it the first of the Ignition tournament series to focus exclusively on women. Valorant is a popular up-and-coming title in esports, and to have a tournament just for women that incorporates such a popular title (and was sponsored by Riot Games itself) sends a powerful message. Amateur organizations have been getting in on the action, too: Heroes Lounge, an amateur Heroes of the Storm competitive league, is hosting the Athena Championship later this month. A tournament for female players in Europe, the competition aims to give some of the community’s women a chance to show off their skills in honor of Women’s History Month.

There are a lot of positive aspects to these kinds of tournaments. Obviously, they’re great showcases of awesome female talent that might otherwise get covered up or overlooked in large-scale tournaments. Ensuring that women play with other women, as is the case in team-based games like Heroes of the Storm, helps ensure that the environment is safer, more positive, and more inclusive. They’re excellent opportunities for women to make friends and build networks in the community of the games they play. Based on all of these reasons, it makes sense that esports organizations and game developers feel as though women-only tournaments are a good way to fight the gender diversity issues within esports. It’s true that they’re a great start, but these tournaments aren’t the final answer. Ultimately, it’s up to the gaming and esports industries to continue moving forward in this aspect rather than resting on their laurels.

What are the issues with women-only teams and tournaments?

Despite the positives of these teams and tournaments, there are still some major pitfalls. In physical sports, tournaments and athletes are separated by gender because of essential physical differences and body builds. Regardless of skill, it wouldn’t be fair to put everyone in the same group. One of the great things about esports is that this divide isn’t necessary – there are few to no differences between men and women when it comes to reaction time, eye tracking ability, virtual aim, and other qualities that make up a professional gamer. While separating teams by gender is a good way to spotlight women players, it can also make the average observer feel like there’s a reason that women need their own tournaments and leagues to play in – say, for example, because they’re not good enough to compete with male players of the same game. Though this obviously isn’t true – as previously stated, the divide exists in order to spotlight extremely talented female players – separation by gender can and does foster that thought, knocking female players down a peg when the whole goal of the tournament was to raise them up.

Another unfortunate reality is the difference in prize pools. As another indication of companies’ and organizations’ unwillingness to invest in female talent and esports competitors, prize pools for women-only events are frequently significantly smaller than those in ungendered tournaments. Unfortunately, this also mirrors the real world, where women’s sports teams are frequently paid much less than men’s teams, despite no difference in achievement, skill level, or winning record. This is a much larger issue that, if addressed in the esports world, could serve as an example to other industries and sports. There’s absolutely no denying that when they’re performing at the highest level alongside men, women deserve the same amount of pay, sponsorships, and opportunities that men receive.

What can be done to help women?

These problems are huge issues, but with a little bit of foresight and consistency, we can start the process of making them smaller. There are a significant number of skilled women players out there – all they need is an opportunity to show their stuff. Many aspiring esports players do so through Twitch, and the most skilled (and luckiest) end up signed to teams, like Geguri. When granted an opportunity to show their stuff, it immediately becomes clear that there is a lot of female gaming talent out there. What game companies and esports organizations can do to foster the real inclusion and diversity of women in esports is to work on removing some of the other barriers to women in gaming, like logistical issues and the widespread nature of harassment.

Speaking specifically about tournaments, organizations and developers can make qualifiers and tournaments themselves easier to access, encourage women specifically to sign up, and actually punish harassment and sexism within their teams. Companies should ensure that women are easily visible on the stream and that they are given as much screen time as men during the tournament. When women join an ungendered team, logistical issues like living situations should be carefully discussed and planned, with all female team members in attendance at the meetings. Game developers can create better reporting tools within their games’ competitive and ranked modes to make competitive gaming a more welcome environment for women and to get more women interested in competitive play in general; they can also make a special effort to reach out to high-performing women within their game’s ecosystem and communities. By reducing the barriers to entry, esports can create an even playing field for everyone. It shouldn’t be easier for women to be accepted into tournaments and teams than men, but there are a lot of worthy female players out there who are outperforming folks of all genders but are still not given the opportunities that their male counterparts are. There’s a real opportunity here for esports to show what it’s like for men and women to compete together, a rarity in sports.

Women-only gaming tournaments are a step in the right direction, but they’re not the end-all be-all that many game companies and esports organizations are making them out to be. While they’re great at showcasing female talent and demonstrating the fact that esports is for everyone, they have enough pitfalls that it’s clear that the industry needs to keep thinking of better ways to support women. These tournaments are another rung on the ladder that leads to true equality, diversity, and opportunity throughout the worlds of gaming and esports. We’re heading the right way, but if we want to keep making progress, we have to think of better solutions – and ensure that women are at the forefront of those solutions.