Where are the Women in eSports?

Globally, close to half of all gamers are women. Why then do they continue to represent a minority in the eSports arena? A look back at the historical origins of the gender divide in the videogame industry.

Since they were academically legitimated in the 2000s, videogames have carved out a place for themselves in popular, artistic and community culture. Today, they are considered as fully fledged media products. Indeed, videogames have the capacity to depict our world through a certain number of exclusive codes and norms.

In 2016, there were approximately 18 million gamers in Canada, all platforms included. Source: ESAC

The videogame’s cultural legitimization has given rise to a variety of highly standardized practices such as electronic sports (or eSports), which we shall define here as the organized and competitive play of an online game, alone or with others, accompanied by a performance dimension that sometimes takes on the form of prizes and rewards as well as by a strong community dimension to which the participants or audience members give form.

eSports have massively gained in popularity in the last few years, especially in the United States, Asia and Europe. It’s a rather recent phenomenon that has nevertheless borrowed certain codes from traditional sports, including visibility and male/female distribution patterns, i.e., a clear-cut division, in most cases.

In electronic sports, mixed teams remain scarce and women are to this date not always welcomed. How has this practice perpetuated this irrelevant divide and what form has this divide taken in historical terms? What role can the community play in this regard?

Sports and women: reclaiming the sports discourse through electronic sports

In ancient history, women were often excluded from practices that were considered to be reserved for men because they [women] were perceived as being physically weaker. That could be observed in how competitions were organized: the women often competed after the men had competed and the rewards offered to women were less generous and often associated with stereotypical attributes (fertility, family or marriage). Women were not judged on the basis of their personal abilities but were instead compared to their male counterparts.

In modern history, the same basic considerations applied to female athletes, who were considered from the onset as beginners during the 1900 Olympic Games, where women were allowed to compete in certain disciplines for the very first time in modern games. In the official summary of the 1912 Olympic Games held in Stockholm, de Coubertin went so far as to declare the following: “An Olympiad with females would be impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic and improper!”

It is not before 1972 and the U.S. Education Amendments that discrimination was confirmed to be illegal within any educational program or activity that received funding from the federal government.

To understand the overall distribution, representations and perceptions regarding women within the online gaming community, one must re-examine the creation of videogames as cultural, commercial and industrial products.

Gender-based marketing and its consequences on the distribution, visibility and representation of women

1983 was a year marked by the triumphant success of arcades and the world’s first home gaming consoles and the American gaming industry had produced more content than expected. The market was inundated by the surplus production and sales went down. Most of the major American producers were going bankrupt, and the situation allowed Nintendo to take the lead position following the release of its Super Mario Bros game in 1985 and of the Super NES console in 1990.

In response to the crisis, the entire videogame industry was forced to adopt a new client approach. The priority was to win gamers back over by proposing novel content that corresponded to what they desired and needed. To boost sales, the industry’s players focused increasingly on gamers’ profiles.

Seeing as games and consoles had been initially sold through department store and dispensaries, the industry needed to find a new solution to increase its visibility. To target their clientele more effectively, the main videogame producers therefore decided to sell their products in toy departments.

Until then, the target group had been more universal and rather family-based, given playing videogames was considered as a family-friendly activity. The most avid consumers were children and teenagers, and the market therefore needed to adapt to this new public.

Illustration excerpted from Tracey Lien’s excellent article titled No girls allowed.

Dividing traditional toys according to gender (boys and girls) highlighted the need for industry players to choose a “side” and they chose the boys’ toy department seeing as most videogame players were young boys in 1983.

Using gender-based marketing, the videogame industry found a way to advertise more targeted products that were more powerfully identified with the public. Moreover, marketing managers had fully understood that universally designed products tended to detract from the message: consumers were more naturally attracted to tailor-made products that met their specific interests. This represented an extremely successful and lucrative loophole for gender-based marketing.

Marketing fragmentation eventually reinforced the gender divide by making it difficult to identify and include women in the gaming environment. Not only were female characters underrepresented, but also the environment itself successfully excluded girls by proposing products that did not necessarily meet their expectations or needs.

Female gamers and harassment: an image tarnished by the community

The consequence of these representations was to render the presence of women in the videogame environment and other technology-friendly environments optional if not outright intrusive. Seeing as the industry had been built to cater to the wishes of boys and men, it evolved into a sort of object of division, a sort of bubble in which a fundamentally male public reigned violently. Many men therefore perceived the presence of women or the demands for gender equality as parasitic disturbances within their very new environment.

That is when harassment, insults, verbal and even physical violence came into play in the online world to devalue and deny the simple fact that the presence of women was normal, natural and necessary in the name of diversity. Take for example the Canadian-American feminist activist Anita Sarkeesian who posts vignettes on the presence and representation of women in videogame world on her website (Feminist Frequency). Sarkeesian was threatened with rape and death, both online and directly at her home, following the announcement of the funding of her project Tropes VS Women on Kickstarter.

Also, it is not rare to witness naturalized sexist behaviour in the industry during gaming conventions. For example, women are sexualized or used as sales arguments (stripteases, ridiculously sexualized costumes) at certain kiosks for the same reasons: the sexualized woman sells. How can women identify with and feel safe in an environment that does not respect their own gender or even goes so far as showcasing them as objects?

A more accurate reflection of players on a global scale

It is necessary to update the numbers and, especially, to disseminate them seeing as close to 50% of all gamers of all ages in the world are women. The contemporary generations who were introduced to the first gaming experiences are getting older and, consequently, videogames are no longer associated with children and teenagers as they once were. The average age of male and female gamers is constantly increasing and the cliché of the teenage boy is no longer relevant.

As far as eSports in particular are concerned, women were reported to represent between 15% and 30% of all spectators in 2013 (according to Polygon). There exists very little data on female gamers but they are reported to represent approximately 30% of all female professional players and this percentage should logically increase in the coming years (according to SuperData).

Going forward, diversification appears as the most powerful weapon with respect to the gender breakdown and the elimination of gender stereotypes. The current dominant representations illustrate that a woman in a game does not exist mainly for her looks, which contributes to conveying erroneous standards of femininity.

Videogames possess a strong and unique potential given the unique agency form they take on compared to other supports. Exploiting their specific features could therefore contribute to a broader evolution of their representations. Nina B. Huntemann, a doctoral student in philosophy and professor of communications and media studies, believes that game designers have the power and the responsibility to renew and update these representations in order to present us with “realistic virtual environments.”

Montreal’s Sailor Scouts female team.

Furthermore, one must take into account the place occupied by girls and women in this environment to ensure that it is more representative of our society. Luckily, things are moving in the right direction. There are more and more female eSports teams, such as Overwatch’s Sailor Scouts team in Montreal (Blizzard, 2016) that is increasingly popular.

Also, more and more inclusion, learning and digital media and videogame trade awareness groups in Canada and in Quebec cater to women and sexual minorities (Pixelles, Girls on Games, etc.).

In this regard, we invite you to consult this list of regional and national resources to improve workplace inclusion and diversity.

Pauline Zampolini
Passionate about video games since (almost) always, Pauline Zampolini decided to pursue a master’s degree UQAM on that very same subject. While she closely follows the indie scene, eSports and the presence of women in video games, she’s interested in everything related to gaming.
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