Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Women in esports and the burden of visibility

Written by:
Team Liquid Crest Logo Light Version
Escrito por:
Bonnie Qu
Copywriter
Team Liquid Crest Logo Light Version
Editado por:
Elise Favis
Team Liquid Crest Logo Light Version
Design gráfico feito por:
Yasen Trendafilov
Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Women in esports and the burden of visibility

Team Liquid Crest Logo Light Version
Written by:
Bonnie Qu
Copywriter
Team Liquid Crest Logo Light Version
Edited by:
Elise Favis
Team Liquid Crest Logo Light Version
Graphic design by:
Yasen Trendafilov
Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Women in esports and the burden of visibility

Team Liquid Crest Logo Light Version
Written by:
Bonnie Qu
Copywriter
Team Liquid Crest Logo Light Version
Edited by:
Elise Favis
Team Liquid Crest Logo Light Version
Graphic design by:
Yasen Trendafilov

Whenever the conversation around how we talk about gender identity in esports arises, it seems like there’s never one easy answer. From competitors to team staff to tournament organizers, every person of a marginalized gender has a different idea of how they want to be perceived and the kinds of storylines they want to create around themselves. Some people embrace their status as a trailblazer; others prefer to not have any attention drawn to their gender at all. Neither stance is more or less valid than the other — but it’s worth looking at why that divide exists in the first place.

With Team Liquid’s Eve Ascension — our tournament for WoW players of marginalized genders, presented by Alienware — just on the horizon, it’s as good a time as any to investigate why centering the identities of people from marginalized genders can at times be uncomfortable for them. In doing so, we can hopefully come to a better understanding of how to make esports and gaming spaces safer for everyone.

Rejecting visibility

It seems like it should be simple: we never mention male competitors’ genders, so why should we do it for anyone else?

In a vacuum, that would be true. But as we all know — and as we’ve written about in the past — gender can’t be divorced from anyone’s experience in gaming. Gender-based harassment is one of the biggest reasons why people of marginalized genders give up on pursuing gaming professionally, whether it’s in esports or streaming. Thus, when they actually get the chance to compete seriously or professionally, many tend not to want to draw more attention to their gender.

“Back when I was in college, I was trying to make an all women's team to compete in [LCS] Proving Grounds,” said Blake Tran, a freelance tournament administrator who’s been working in esports for the past four years. (Blake now identifies as transmasculine.) “I got some feedback from a lot of female players and they were saying that they didn't want to be seen as some sort of poster child. You do draw a lot of attention, and I'm afraid that's just misogyny. You want to be recognized for your skills. Not just, like, ‘I'm a woman so I'm different from the rest of the group.’ People want to assimilate, not necessarily to stand out.

Screenshot from ESPN, featuring a quote from Se-yeon "Geguri" Kim, the first woman to be signed to a team in the Overwatch League.

Even if marginalized-gender competitors aren’t dealing with explicit harassment, they’re still targeted by heightened scrutiny and unfair expectations, especially compared to their male counterparts. Even if they don’t want to be “poster children,” marginalized players do end up taking on that burden anyway simply by virtue of standing out; if a woman performs poorly, there will inevitably be naysayers who claim that it’s proof that all women aren’t suited for high-level competition.

It’s not just the detractors, though. Some marginalized-gender players also push back against being held up as trailblazers. Because it’s historically been so difficult to break through and make it to a higher level, fans of marginalized genders are often watching more closely, too. Even though that kind of attention is born from good intentions, it still places extra pressure on these competitors, who now have to perform exceptionally just to prove that they belong there. But Myra Davis, who helped run LCS Game Changers 2023 and helped NRG lift their first LCS trophy, sees this pressure as ultimately unavoidable.

“…When you are breaking ground, whether you like it or not, you are an example now,” said Myra. “Some people don't want to champion that forcefully for themselves, but think about any diverse gender individual that is in any sort of league, whether it's traditional sports or esports. You are, at that point, a groundbreaker. You’re a trailblazer. You are experiencing something that very few people have ever done, and by the nature of it, you will be an example that people will look at.”

The case for inclusive esports tournaments

Given how reluctant some competitors of underrepresented genders are to discuss the effect their gender has on their path through esports, it may seem counterintuitive that inclusive esports tournaments like Eve Ascension or Game Changers exist. After all, these tournaments, by their very nature, draw attention to their competitors’ identities. But tournaments specifically for players of marginalized genders have never been about segregating the genders — rather, they were created to foster talent and help players hone their skills in a safe environment.

“In esports, where they have leagues or tournaments for women alone, there's always those people that are like, ‘why do you need your own tournament? This is discriminatory towards men,’” said Kelsey Cox, General Manager at Raider.IO, a WoW Mythic+ and raid progression rankings website. “Those comments always come up. And if you say it's because we need opportunities for women to compete, then of course it becomes, ‘if they're good enough, why aren't they playing with the men?’ There's that disingenuous take of ‘clearly they're not good enough,’ and there's no consideration for the fact that the pathway there, for a woman, is so different to that of a man.”

Team Liquid Brazil's 2024 roster.

It’s very easy to just say that all esports tournaments should be open to people of all genders. And that’s because it’s mostly true — all major esports tournaments are technically open to people of all genders. And yet, at the highest level, they’re populated entirely by men. Some people think this is because women are just inherently worse at video games. But the reality is many women have later starts and fewer opportunities.

“When we're young [girls] we are discouraged from playing video games,” Kelsey said. “It's getting better, but it's still considered a boy's activity.”

Young girls often don’t get the same opportunities or encouragement to play games, especially competitive ones, that young boys do. By the time they get older and realize that they are interested in games and esports, they already lack the fundamentals that their male counterparts have. Despite this, many still assume that the playing field is already even, and focus on the “biological differences” (a myth that has been proven false) rather than the social influences.

“We're discouraged by societal pressures, and then we're discouraged within the esport itself, by men who just don't want us there, which just roots itself in pure misogyny,” said Kelsey. “So in order for us to get to that point where we can suddenly say, ‘I'm good enough to compete,’ we have waded through so much muck. And our path has been so difficult and the amount of women who actually can make it through that swamp to the other side is so small.”

And it’s not just a matter of “making it” — even female players who have made it to the rarefied upper echelons have to then deal with more harassment. Overall, women have to contend with a lot more difficulty than men do when it comes to making their own way in gaming, which is why events that emphasize community and inclusivity are so important. After all, how are you supposed to learn to be a competitor if you have no experience in real competition?

Quote from a 2022 interview with Daiki and Palestra on TL.com.

It’s one thing to be good at playing a game; it’s another thing to be good at competing in a game. Being able to play in a non-hostile environment, with and against players who won’t attack you for your gender, is something that everyone should be able to take for granted — which is why inclusive tournaments exist.

“What I love in every sport is when, at the developmental level, they have a league circuit series of tournaments that is specifically for marginalized gender individuals,” Myra said. “For me, I don't want things to be set up where they feel like they're trapped in that ecosystem, and they might become too big of a fish in a small pond. I want it to be normalized that the events are a way for people to have a safe starting point to learn and grow, and then from there move up to the higher level leagues.”

Ultimately, inclusive esports tournaments are there to help everyone involved get tournament experience without having to worry about harassment or unfair treatment. This extends far past the players, to both team staff and tournament organizers as well, who have to deal with obstacles of their own.

“I remember a bunch of women that are leaders in esports commenting about how, in the industry, you’re forced into having to be the person that represents women, and it’s very difficult because of all the expectations placed upon you,” said Blake. “The amount of pressure you have to bear is crazy. Talking with some collegiate leaders and directors, there are some college entities that are very patriarchal, and it’s really hard to get things approved and to get a budget, because they look at them and don’t respect them as much because of their gender.”

Where does the pressure really come from?

Obviously, everyone is entitled to their own opinion on whether their gender is or isn’t spotlighted in whatever they do. But speaking personally, I think it’s a shame that the instinct for most is to shy away from anything that even touches upon their gender. It’s something that does, irrefutably, impact someone’s experience in esports, whether they talk about it or not. Female competitors aren’t remarkable just because they’re female; they’re remarkable because they are great players and they managed to make it to a high level despite facing unique challenges and adversity.

“Do we highlight the fact that these women have made it, or do we talk about how difficult it was?” said Kelsey. “You kind of have to draw the line between always bringing attention to the fact, or not talking about gender at all. It is a tough one, because if you constantly bring it up, it can feel like you’re tokenizing it, and it can feel like you're bringing too much attention to it, to the point where it downplays the [person’s] achievement. 

“I don't have an easy answer. It's something that you just always have to be considerate of. You want people to understand that those achievements mean something different because they're a woman, but they still got the achievements, and they didn't get them because they were handed them or they were tokenized in some way or they got it from some quota… or they had an easier path. Because, in fact, their path was probably more difficult.”

That’s the crux of why players of marginalized genders are unwilling to discuss how their identities have affected their journeys: they don’t want their achievement to be trivialized. In the end, they’re competitors above all else, and to be a competitor requires immense fortitude, discipline, and sacrifice, no matter who you are. 

But because esports is a male-dominated field, anyone out of the ordinary who breaks through is automatically scrutinized — and if they aren’t deemed exceptional, they’re assumed to have been given their new role for the sake of optics, or to feign inclusivity. The narrative then becomes that they couldn’t have made it to where they are based purely on their own merit, something that men never have to worry about.

“Everyone that's made it to a pro league has struggled tremendously; it's the nature of it,” Myra said. “The grind to become a pro is insanely hard, and the struggles that any hypothetical player would face are all individual, but they share the same theme. It just so happens that a woman’s struggles would be having to face prejudice because of who they are. These are just the individual struggles, and it's not framing it as some circus act or babying or coddling [the player], like, ‘I can't believe you did it.’ It's framing it as, ‘these are the battles and struggles someone had to go through,’ and I think that if you treat that the same way as any other player and bring it up in a way that makes sense — is not trivializing it and is also not the only fact about them — then I think that's really good.”

What’s next?

Throughout all my conversations about how to improve esports spaces for people of marginalized genders, the common theme was “normalization.”

“We basically just need to normalize women playing at these levels because I've always viewed Eve Ascension as a stepping stone,” Kelsey said. “To me, a tournament that is built for women and marginalized genders gives them a safe space to learn to compete, to learn how to be a part of an esport, to learn how to practice, how to VOD review, how to improve their skill set… how to do all these things in a safe environment where they are not judged. Where they feel comfortable learning how to do these things, so that when they decide to take the step into the [Mythic Dungeon International] they have that skill set.”

Inclusive tournaments don’t just exist to be worse versions of the “main” tournaments — rather, they’re there to provide people of marginalized genders with an opportunity to learn what it really means to pursue esports professionally. Some of them will find that they have a passion for it, and some will realize it’s not for them. Both outcomes are equally valuable, and it’s important that we have spaces to foster that.

“Anything that the game companies can do to promote involvement with their esports is good for them in the long term, and doing it with as diverse of an audience as possible is really crucial to the health of esports in the long term,” Myra said. “Up until recently, mainstream esports were very targeted towards a specific demographic. It kind of felt like they forgot women existed sometimes. The big thing that needs to happen for esports as a whole is just societally normalizing it, and that means for everyone, from the ground up. Normalizing it for everyone is how the pro leagues are going to maintain their viewership for years to come.”

Over the past few years, great strides have been made in normalizing people of marginalized genders competing in esports, and we’re already seeing the effects when it comes to individual teams. Earlier this year, Team Liquid Brazil became the first Game Changers team in any region to reach closed qualifiers for VALORANT Challengers. They lost in the upper bracket semi finals in an incredibly close match, then lost again in the lower bracket to get eliminated from qualifiers. 

It wasn’t a failure by any means, though. People naturally paid closer attention due to Team Liquid Brazil being the first of their kind, but it wasn’t the pressure of what they represented that caused them to lose, nor were they handed that opportunity to fill a diversity quota. Rather, it felt like part of the natural growing pains that any team has to go through on their way to becoming great. To give players and teams the space to try, and fail, and learn, and grow — at a fundamental level, that’s what inclusive tournaments are all about, and that’s what esports as a whole should strive to become.

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Apesar de atualmente trabalhar na redação da Team Liquid, em outra vida Bonnie escrevia sobre esports falando principalmente de Overwatch.

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