The day is April 4th, 2018. Whether gamers think that it is important or not, a barrier in e-sports will be broken. Accompanied by her teammates of the Shanghai Dragons, Kim Se-Yeon, known by her in-game name as Geguri, made her Overwatch League debut. As she sat on the stage and the camera switched to her, the only woman in the Overwatch League, the audience roared with cheers and applause.

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Geguri in her Shanghai Dragons uniform in the Overwatch League. Photo credit: Robert Paul from Blizzard Esports

Geguri is not the first woman in e-sports, but her presence on stage surrounded by male players is explicitly noticeable. For the uninitiated with video gaming culture, some questions will arise: for people who are unfamiliar with e-sports, “what are e-sports?”. For the gamers who are skeptical of the importance of this moment, the question might be “why does gender matter? Anyone can play video games, right?”.  And if you don’t know anything about video gaming, you’re probably asking all of those questions.

Tutorial Mode: E-sports for Noobs

To answer the first question, e-sports can be described in layman’s terms as organized, competitive gaming, but the usage of the word “sports” to describe video gaming is contested by the general public and scholars. Jenny, Manning, Keiper, and Olrich (2017) define a sport as having the following characteristics:

Include play (voluntary, intrinsically motivated activity)… Be organized (governed by rules)… Include competition (outcome of a winner and loser)…Be comprised of skill (not chance)…Include physical skills—skillful and strategic use of one’s body, Have a broad following (beyond a local fad)…  [and] have achieved institutional stability where social institutions have rules which regulate it, stabilizing it as an important social practice (p.5).

With this definition, e-sports fits most of the criteria, though Jenny et al. acknowledge (2017) that the physicality and institutionalization of e-sports are questionable (p.5). In their view, this is because “fine motor skills” such as rapid mouse movement and rapid finger movements such as actions per minute (APM) aren’t considered to be equivalent to “gross motor skills” that condition “large muscle groups” and because e-Sports leagues and competition are not yet codified consistently across all e-sports (Jenny et al., 2017, p. 9-10, 14). As a counterpoint to the argument that e-sports aren’t as physically demanding, one should take into account the injuries the e-sports athletes face, such as carpal tunnel syndrome and muscle strain due to overuse. What this demonstrates is that e-sports players put their bodies on the line in the same way as traditional sports athletes.

Additionally, the authors have reason to be concerned about the standardization of e-sports: with many different types of e-sports such as “Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas” or MOBAs, that include “Dota 2 [and] League of Legends (LOL)” to “first-person shooter[s]” such as “Counter Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO)” (Boffard, 2016, p. 67) and Overwatch, and miscellaneous examples like Rocket League and the StarCraft series, each one is like a different discipline of e-sports with its own rules and regulations. While there isn’t yet a comprehensive e-sports body that governs all of e-sports, the game-specific leagues that developers have established such as the Overwatch League are a step in the right direction.

Gaming Culture & “Girl Gamers”

But the debate of whether e-sports is “sport” is the smaller question in this discussion. The elephant in the room for e-sports that seems to go unquestioned is the lack of women that participate in e-sports. In theory, e-sports are a neutral playing field,  where the physical playing space is abandoned in favour of avatars and electronics, where players’ actions in-game should be the only factor that matters. But in reality, the representation of people behind the screen is an important matter to consider because not everyone at the mouse, keyboard, or controller is having the exact same experience.

The bitter reality is that video gaming culture is male-dominated. What originally was seen as a nerd practice and a lesser form of masculinity has merged with dominant masculinity (Paaßen, Morgenroth, and Stratemeyer, 2017, p. 430) to create a gaming culture that caters towards men and boys. This is evident in young / teenage boys, as they will “play games more frequently and for a longer [length of] time”, whereas girls are more likely to stop video gaming altogether, if not play less (Farmer, 2011, p. 16). The ensuing logic results in less women and girls playing video games.

However, if women do continue playing video games, they will most likely encounter the negative elements of the gaming community.  Paaßen et al. (2017) explain that “although women might [continue to] play games” male gamers “[w]ould not…consider…[them] ‘true’ or ‘hard-core’ gamers because they play more casually and less skillfully compared to their male counterparts” (p. 421). If women don’t fit into this stereotype of the “casual” gamer, and pursue more competitive gaming options, they might be labelled as a girl gamer. The main reason why the term “girl gamer” exists is because it stands in contrast to the “male gamer”, who is the default demographic (Beavis and Charles, 2007, p. 695). Since a competitive “girl gamer” is considered an abnormality, they may not be welcome in certain gaming spaces. This isn’t always the case however, and e-sports leagues compromised solely of women do exist. Unfortunately, because of the aforementioned negative opinions of girl gamers and the fact that these leagues are separated by gender when it shouldn’t matter, “it might also reinforce ideas about women and men having different” inherent abilities according to gender; as a result “female-only leagues might serve to reinforce, rather than challenge, gendered gamer stereotypes” (Paaßen, Morgenroth, and Stratemeyer, 2017, p. 430).

This video in particular openly mocks women players of Counter Strike: Global Offensive for making mistakes and poor gameplay. When men make mistakes in-game, their entire gender isn’t criticized for being bad at video games. This double standard adds further importance to questioning why it matters who gets to compete in eSports, and how they get to compete in e-sports.

What Do The Rules Say?

Apart from separate leagues, the seemingly obvious examples of women in e-sports are the female gamers who are competing in the same leagues as men. What’s important to note is that apart from one PR disaster from a Hearthstone tournament, there are no rules that state only men can compete in e-Sports contests.  Despite this, it’s still a noticeable feat to crossover into e-sports as a woman.  Writing about conventional sports, Elena Bertozzi (2008) writes that “When a female steps onto the playing field as an equal, it is disruptive to deeply engrained cultural norms” that frame men as superior than women (p.478); this mentality can also be applied to the openly anti-girl gamers.

All this being said, it’s important to acknowledge those women that have made waves in the e-sports world, just by competing and making their presence known.

ToSsGirl

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StarCraft player Seo Ji-Soo, or ToSsGirl. Photo Credits to STX. 

Considered to be one of the original e-sports athletes, Seo Ji-Soo, or in-game name ToSsGirl is one of the earliest known examples of women participating in eSports. She was a multiple time champion in female StarCraft leagues, before transitioning to male-dominated leagues. She would retire in 2012, after having an e-sports career that lasted for ten years.

Remilia

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Remila, playing for Renegades in League of Legends. Photo Credits to Riot Games.

One of the first attempts of entering women into competitive League of Legends did not come to fruition. It would be years later where Maria Creveling, in-game name Remilia, would receive her time in the spotlight. Best known as the Support player for Renegades, Remilia competed in the North American Challenger Series (NACS) and North American League of Legends Championship Series (NALCS) from 2015 to 2016. Both the first woman, and first openly transgender player in competitive League of Legends, her career was shortened due to personal matters and conflict with Chris Badawi, co-owner of Renegades.  The ensuing fallout of the situation resulted in the Renegades organization being banned from League of Legends.

Scarlett

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Scarlett, holding her Intel Extreme Masters (IEM) PyeongChang trophy after defeating Korean player sOs with a score of 4 – 1 in a Best of Seven series. Photo Credits to Intel/ESL.

Sasha Hostyn, better known as Scarlett, is one of e-sports most prolific athletes, and chances are this may be your first time hearing of her. A StarCraft II player since 2012, Scarlett would rise to prominence over the next six years, and have quality performances against the world’s best StarCraft II players. Her most recent major achievement was in February 2018, where she upset Korean player sOs in a Best of Seven series to win IEM PyeongChang. At the time of writing, Scarlett is one of the highest ranked non-Korean players in StarCraft II, and she will continue to build her legacy for years to come.

Intersectional e-Sports

The reason why it’s important to highlight women who are in e-sports is because more exposure means greater representation for the different kinds of women that exist in the world. For example, Remilia and Scarlett are transgender women, and their existence as women in e-sports is affected both by their gender, and because they are transgender. In certain public spheres, Scarlett’s gender identity is called into question in blatant displays of transphobia that deliberately misgender her. In these articles linked here, both authors compare Scarlett to Fallon Fox,  a transgender woman who competed in Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) as an MMA fighter. The discourses that surrounded Fallon Fox during her stint in UFC, specifically the rhetoric that her physiology as a transgender woman would provide an unfair advantage in the ring (McClearen, 2015, p.79), emerges in conversations surrounding Scarlett in a similar way. Were Scarlett not transgender, she would not have to face this extra layer of discrimination from people in the gaming community.

The Gamers of Tomorrow

It will take time to change gaming culture so that people are more accommodating towards women. But every single trailblazer that’s been mentioned in this article played their part, whether they knew it or not, in increasing the visibility of women in e-sports. And unlike the worry in traditional sporting that girls will pursue the imagined “new beauty ideal, that of the athletic body… [and] impossible standard[s] against which girls will measure themselves and find themselves wanting” (Heywood and Dworkin, 2003, p.46), e-Sports athletes come in varying body types, meaning there isn’t a specific ideal that’s placed on a pedestal.  With female role models to look up to, young gamers can have more than just male gamers to look up to.

In the end, it is how the gaming community moves forward that will shape the coming generations of gamers. With these precedents, perhaps in the future, other female e-sports athletes will be called the new “Geguri” or “Scarlett”. That future will only come if we as a gaming community acknowledge where we have made mistakes, and do a better job at caring for all gamers, and not the default ones.

Besides, the default male player model is boring.

Academic References

Beavis, C., & Charles, C. (2007). Would the ‘real’ girl gamer please stand up? Gender, LAN cafés and the reformulation of the ‘girl’ gamer. Gender and Education, 19(6), 691.

Bertozzi, E. (2008). ‘You Play Like a Girl!’: Cross-Gender Competition and the Uneven Playing Field. Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies,14(4), 473-487.

Boffard, R. (2016). ESports: How to make money. Engineering & Technology, 11(4), 66-69.

Farmer, L S. J. (2011). Are Girls Game?: How School Libraries Can Provide Gender Equity in E-Gaming. Knowledge Quest, 40(1), 14-17.

Heywood, L. & Dworkin, S.L. (2003). Sport and the Stealth Feminism of the Third Wave. In, Built to Win: The Female athlete as cultural icon (pp.56-85). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Jenny, S., Manning, R., Keiper, M., & Olrich, T. (2017). Virtual(ly) Athletes: Where eSports Fit Within the Definition of “Sport”. Quest, 69(1), 1-18.

McClearen, J. (2015). The Paradox of Fallon’s Fight: Interlocking discourses of sexism and cissexism in mixed martial arts fighting. New Formations, 86, 74-88.

Paaßen, B., Morgenroth, T., & Stratemeyer, M. (2017). What is a True Gamer? The Male Gamer Stereotype and the Marginalization of Women in Video Game Culture. Sex Roles,76(7), 421-435.

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