Going Solo: Diversity & Esports

Emma Witkowski
Mar 17 · 10 min read
Photo by Helena Kristiansson — via Blizzard Entertainment

Over the past few years, I’ve been thinking about the powerful role of single player game cultures on diversity in high-performance esports. Most of my research is trained on the networked multiplayer experience and networked structures tied to performance. You could say that super inter-embodied and material complexities float my research boat. But then there’s Hafu. That pebble in my scholarly Birkenstock. She’s a virtuoso high-performance player across titles and forms, and she’s a constant reminder of the manoeuvrability of the so-called “soloist” in esports, especially for less represented folks in a given game [though, please remember, it’s only a “so-called” soloist].

That mobility, which formally ekes out through top ladder rankings and notable titles, reveals a different kind of performance-management as players go through their less ceremonious everyday encounters while “going solo” in esports. Going solo is a significant practice for gender and esports in 2020. We are seeing high visibility cases, in fact championship efforts, by women in games these past years. During this exact same time, legacy media sports institutions are having more meaty deliberations around inclusivity in esports These solo players, these “lonely figures” [1.], are feeding us the practical evidence of how diversity and esports formats matter (and the Olympic year has only just begun!)

Interlude: The Case of Liooon

Early this year, a few games researchers were invited to comment on the rise of Xiaomeng “Liooon” Li, the first woman to win a global Hearthstone tournament. It turned into a brief expose on Li, celebrating women in games. It’s a pleasant little piece, but I don’t think my point came across in it (that’s word count for you!). So, I’m going to go ahead and thicken the soup here. The following text is the full response to that request to comment on Liooon’s achievements and the state of women in esports. Some modifications have been made to suit this format (hence the limited scholarly referencing in this response). In any case, let’s call it a mini-essay, a work-in-progress, Version 1b of “Going Solo: Diversity & Esports Formats” — A comment on women in esports.

How Single Player Games Matter for Esports & Diversity in 2020

Xiaomeng “Liooon” Li emerges at a time where there is a global surge of women independently and collectively driving for equity and better conditions in professional sports, esports included.

It’s been a banner year for collective action in women’s sports. In 2019, we saw the Australian national football team, the Matilda’s, receive pay and support parity to the men’s national team from Football Federation Australia. It was a moving moment and operational change for regional Pro/Am sports. It came about on the back-end of ongoing nudging, protest, and collective action from high profile athletes, teams, and associations in football worldwide who have been in a long-term fight for institutional recognition as elite athletes with the right to equal terms with their male peers. Their stellar achievements in team sports have backed their upward criticisms, as have their athlete-influencer profiles, as evidence was built around the game and these players as an economically viable spectator sport. These calls for recognition of equitable professional practices came from USA to Norway and took place on the World Cup stage [2.]. This represents years of work, protest, and action coming together (and those networked publics certainly came into being). It’s phenomenally great for sport no matter how you slice it. And while actions around equity initiatives and revised player economics are also evident and slowly developing in esports [3.], there is another distinctive piece of diversity work occurring, perhaps at a faster pace, and with the potential of a tremendous punch.

It should go without saying, esports are political too. I imagine that the first person who said politics and sports don’t mix was someone who never played organised sports. That’s unfair for people who never got a chance to participate in sports for a range of reasons, I know, but it drives the point: The embodiment of sporting institutions — grass-sport or sport run on bits — is full-frontal body politics. So, let’s start with some bodies and turn our attention to the work of the solo-esports player and why their practice matters for the state of diversity and high performance play.

Doing Esports & The Second Trade

We are seeing high profile players who identify as women using their platform on the world (tournament) stage, or other prominent platforms, to call out a lived reality: “doing” esports for women involves a different lived experience of esports . As one example, many high-performance players are caught up in doing a “ second shift” or what might be termed a “second trade” in esports Riffing off of Sociologist Arlie Hochschild’s the second shift (referring to unpaid domestic labour that is disproportionately carried out by women), a second trade is revealed in many expert player practices of those who identify as women. The second trade involves increased, often simultaneous, non-game and non-expertise specific labour by the individual, often taking place across multiple networked fields and audiences, in order to maintain or develop their networked career or serious leisure activity through their everyday pro-gaming practice (A form of context collapse management for networked high-performance esports players). This additional workload (the often synchronously managed high-performance play alongside of the work done to play within a “conventional” esports professional framework) is undertaken in order to make the playing field habitable for expertise development.

Where the first trade would be considered the core essences of a networked career in esports ,which is the hard track to developing expertise and an expert network, the second trade is the daily trading in networked identity and high-performance management, having to work one’s way along an identity tightrope that gets leaner and meaner as you stack up non-mainstream esports identities along the lines of gender, ethnicity, racial identity, body ability and other interconnected identities drawn into social marginalisation, particularly online while playing well. Game researchers have been addressing these intersections and challenges for decades. But we might do well here to consider second trade work directly from the high performance player perspective.

Liooon’s second trade work is voiced in her post-game blog post to Zhihu (A Chinese Q&A website). She describes how she moves her body through identity comments while taking the walk up to the competitive stage

“…when I went to the lineup, someone shouted to me, “Girls don’t come to waste the reserve quota.”

She continues to disclose the backstage mechanics of high performance recruitment, exposing the layers of second trade work affecting her craft and the body cost involved, commenting

“At the beginning of the year, major clubs were recruiting for this year’s team league. Some club managers directly told me “female inconvenience”, and then recruited male players who had worse results than me.” — ( Google translated for now as a draft placeholder — original post is here).

Perhaps the most important take-away on the second trade is its relevance for player attrition in esports. The affective labour [4.] of the second trade in esports is a node, a bottleneck, or in STS terms “a mediator” — if you are beset upon for simultaneous second trade labour — the job of “esports” is changed, and women in esports, moving from grassroots to more serious networked careers in play, express this clearly all the way to the top of their game. If esports institutions are not proactively working on eliminating the second trade work of their players across intersecting platforms, from everyday practice to the pro-stage, they display neglect to structural equality in esports across their designed infrastructures. A bolder statement would be that these institutions start to unbuckle themselves from significant and meaningful organisation of this social practice for second trade esports participants, which questions the rights to the governance of esports as a practice, particularly for such groups whose marginalisation has been well-documented as ongoing and institutionally under-addressed.

About solo play

When Liooon won the Hearthstone World Championship last year, she shot into the dominion of the expert’s expert. She represents a growing pool of women who can call themselves champions in esports. Most of the women who have made it to the pinnacle of esports, the best of the best, have succeeded in single player games. That’s notable. Champions like Liooon (Hearthstone) continue to whittle away at a pathway for what getting to the top looks like for women in esports. It involves getting an opportunity to play high performance level matches, “good games”, every-day with limited friction (the second trade of managing one’s networked identity in order to have a “good game”). It means access to expert networks (livestreaming changes everything here in terms of watching expert strategies). It means a clear pathway to a major prize purse. It means having a great coach (Liooon’s coach is her partner). I find it notable that players like Liooon, and her championship winning predecessors like Sasha “Scarlett” Hostyn, and Rumay “Hafu” Wang have had major successes in making a name for themselves in single player games. Linger on this for a moment. The single player game trajectory cuts out a chunk of second trade work — but certainly not all of it, as cases continue even on the main stage of professionalized esports or can be found tucked away in any number of high performance player VoDs. Though, some of the hoops players jump through to “make it” in team based esports are diluted in the solo game, from the mainstay of peer-referencing networks ( homophily and favouritism), to prejudiced stances on team chemistry — “ female applicants are avoided because of drama “. (While the last instance was from a world first raiding guild recruiting in 2007, I still hear this lingering sentiment today from young coaches to how players recruit their old high-school “mates”.)

What Liooon, Scarlett, and Hafu demonstrate through their greatness in single player esports (which includes Hearthstone, StarCraft II, and Teamfight Tactics) is that many esports structures stifle professional play for all. Through participation and persistence on these varied esports scenes, these star performers show us a future esports imaginary. They show us a vision where any body can win the championship game, and a future vision where they can get into a local game without a sweat, and open-up the possibility of a lifelong career in games. How these players have risen in solo esports shows organisations serious about equality in esports (such as national esports associations and the rapidly increasing number of regional and international federations) that tackling diversity questions at the stage of game choice and game format selection is another productive move towards addressing gender equity in esports. While I have discussed alternative tournament formatting with various league professionals and administrators as a theoretical move, this case study is starting to unpack how this practice makes sense.

We already see a blueprint of what altered formatting in a sport can look like from grassroots to pro in tennis. And if you need the experiential dimensions to drive the point home, former professional tennis player Andy Murray directs his own arguments for equality to the International Olympic Committee, making a pretty good crack at it prior to the Tokyo Games.

More than just women and podium places

The rubrics are laid out. If esports are to move into the historic space of Olympism, esports require a display (but more importantly a structure), towards anti-discrimination in esports. Hafu, Scarlett, and Liooon have years of expertise to contemplate on what it took for them to make it, and how that particular sporting format of the single player game does different kinds of diversity work [5.].As players, these women reveal the social-material essences propping up a networked career in esports, a championship medal, or both, through so-called solo play. And at the end of the big game, when the glitter falls down on them, these champions stand in the Open — champions on a non gender-segregated stage.

Clearly though, these voices are not enough, and neither is just the gold-medallist experience. Let’s hear from 4th place-getters and those invisible but practised players who never make it past the team interview. Let’s hang-out with those who step into the University esports club this year and turn straight back around. Let’s talk to coaches, recruiters, tournament moderators, and those who have the power to make the formats of play itself. While what we play and where we play it matters, the mundanity of game-formats, from 1v1 or 10v10, is deeply revealing of the possibility space for bettering equitable access to high-performance practices.

[DRAFT V1b. Emma Witkowski. A work-in-progress research post on “Going Solo”].

Notes

[1]. Andre Agassi’s biography “Open” has this paragraph on the struggle of the solo player in tennis which has stayed with me for a while, it goes:

“Only boxers can understand the loneliness of tennis players — and yet boxers have their corner men and managers. Even a boxer’s opponent provides a kind of companionship, someone he can grapple with and grunt at. In tennis you stand face-to-face with the enemy, trade blows with him, but never touch him or talk to him, or anyone else. The rules forbid a tennis player from even talking to his coach while on the court. People sometimes mention the track-and-field runner as a comparably lonely figure, but I have to laugh. At least the runner can feel and smell his opponents. They’re inches away. In tennis you’re on an island. Of all the games men and women play, tennis is the closest to solitary confinement….”
― from
Andre Agassi, Open

[2]. There is a discussion to be made here on the key structural differences, challenges, and techniques used from grass-based team sports to single player esports. I am not making that case today.

[3]. Collective action is happening in various ways for less prejudiced and more inclusive competitive play spaces.

[4]. M. Butt’s dissertation is a great resource here on the relational affective labour women undertake in everyday digital play.

[ 5]. This is not a case against supporting diversity in teams games (Hafu started out her journey in 3v3 World of Warcraft Arena!), but rather a case which reveals key techniques and the relational work involved in structuring human experience for a possibility to rise to the top level of play.


Originally published at https://medium.com on March 17, 2020.

Emma Witkowski

Written by

Esports & game cultures researcher | RMIT University, Melbourne AU | @ekwitkowski

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