Illustration by Malcolm Jackson | Instagram: @houseoffire

There’s a racial gap in esports. Let’s talk about it.

Xavier Johnson
10 min readJun 18, 2019


Gaming is a truly global source of entertainment and esports typically represents the diversity of gaming well. There’s no shortage of world cups and national teams across various games and some of the biggest tournaments are a melting pot of nationalities and ethnicities. Last year’s The International, DOTA 2’s largest tournament, featured competitors from 24 different countries.

While esports is a global force, there is a distinct racial gap between games that quickly reveals itself to new viewers.

The gap is split between genre and platform lines with Asian and White American and European players making up the vast majority of gamers in the PC-based arena shooters and Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) games. In contrast, black and Latino players are far more prevalent within the console-based fighting game community (FGC) and sports games like Madden and NBA 2K.

Steven “Kodak” Rosenberger

This is not to paint the picture that these PC-based leagues are actively exclusionary toward black players or not diverse. There are a handful of notable black players like League of Legends pro Zaqueri “Aphromoo” Black or Overwatch’s Steven “Kodak” Rosenberger who make their name with a mouse and keyboard. However, these players are the exception and not even close to the rule.

A brief glance over at the FGC paints a much different picture for black representation at the highest levels. Look at Combo Breaker 2019, one of the biggest tournaments of the year in the FGC. The event had hundreds of black gamers in attendance in various capacities from competitors, audience members and commentary. For Street Fighter V and Mortal Kombat 11 both grand finals featured two black gamers battling it out.

Why are black players so prevalent in the FGC and sports games but don’t pursue the highest levels of the MOBA and hero shooter world? Clearly race doesn’t determine whether one can push a payload, destroy a nexus or execute Rashid’s rushdown.

StarCraft and Quake, some of the earliest esports, had scenes that grew organically through LAN parties, forums and online tournaments. Competitors would travel to major LAN tournaments after grinding at home in online ranked matches to gain experience.

While StarCraft and Quake were growing into esports as we know it today, the fighting game community was experiencing a similar growth. However, these communities weren’t primarily online, but found their home in the arcades of major American and Japanese cities.

The face-to-face interaction and low barrier of entry made local fighting game tournaments appealing to black gamers. All a competitor needed was their skills and a controller. No PC or stable internet access required.

“I’m not saying that people from other games haven’t had a hard time, but they don’t understand the struggle. We (FGC) are used to going to the arcade with 5 bucks,” Street Fighter professional Toi “Toi” Bridges said.

Toi “Toi” Bridges

Bridges is a top 100 Street Fighter player that spoke about many of the sentiments shared by other black members in the FGC. The accessibility of fighting games and console games in low income communities made them natural landing spots for talented black gamers looking to scratch their competitive itch.

In addition, the face-to-face nature of locals builds a close knit community. Gamers were competing against people from their own neighborhood. A young black gamer will go to a tournament and see plenty of people that look like them. This level of representation extends to national-level tournaments as well.

For black players in the FGC there isn’t usually the issue of being the only black person in the room, which brings a level of comfort to gamers entering the scene and seeing people that look like them succeed — especially when the gaming community can be exclusionary toward black gamers.

It’s no secret the gaming community can be an unwelcoming place for minorities. Whether it’s under the guise of “trolling” or genuine hatred it doesn’t take long to hear racist and sexist language during a gaming session. Bridges said at least once a week from gaming online he could guarantee someone would call him the n-word.

These dicey online interaction are a deterrent for black people entering the gaming community. From console gamers sitting at home to the top 8 of major tournaments black gamers can’t seem to escape online issues.

Marcus “The Cool Kid93” Redmond making his way into top 8 during Evo 2018

While the FGC is more accepting, it’s not exempt from toxic online culture. Marcus “The Cool Kid93” Redmond is a Street Fighter player that earned top 8 at EVO 2018, the biggest fighting game event of the year. During his matches, Twitch chat would light up with comments about his wife cheering him on from the sidelines. His wife does cheer very loudly, but many of the insults immediately turned into attacks on her race.

“My wife goes with me to tournaments, and she is so loud. She cheers me on as loud as she can be. A guy tagged me in a post and said he wished Capcom had moderated the chat. People were saying racial slurs about my wife and myself. It’s the little things I notice like my wife cheers for me loudly but that same event people were cheering for their friends loud and that’s cool and fine. My wife cheers for me now she’s ‘ratchet’ and ‘doing too much.’

I ended up locking my Twitter because now it gets to the point where feel like people are just snooping on your page to see what’s going on, but they aren’t a fan of you. This is the phase where I’ve learned to not worry about Twitch chat, it’s hard but I’m getting better.”

While harassment does happen in every gaming community, the FGCs greater level of diversity and in-person competition makes the community more accepting because black gamers are a normal rather than an exception.

In other communities where black gamers are a rarity they become easy targets for harassment. Look at the controversy surrounding the TriHard emote and its use toward black people on Twitch.

In the chat section of Twitch, an online video game streaming platform, emotes are small images that commenters can post. They’re an integral part of the Twitch chat experience.

During Overwatch League broadcasts, every time host Malik Forte was on the screen chat would constantly post the TriHard emote, which is an emote of the face of popular black streamer TriHex. The emote would be used as a method of harassment when Forte was on the stream, who just so happens to be the only black member of the Overwatch desk team.

That’s one high profile example of this type of targeted harassment toward black people on Twitch which extends beyond Forte to any black figure in the public eye.

Look at what happened to professional Hearthstone player Terrence Miller. As one of the few notable black players in the community, Miller became a lighting rod once he reached one of the peaks of his career.

At Dreamhack Austin 2016 in Sweden, Miller finished second place losing to Keaton “Chakki” Gill. During his breakout run the stream was littered with racist messages directed toward Miller. Miller was unaware while competing, but after his matches he looked at the chat after concerned messages from fans telling him about the racism.

“It was surprising to the level that it was happening and like how — I wouldn’t say accepted, but just how prevalent it was and how many people were doing. It wasn’t just a few people there were a bunch of people doing it and also people that were in positions of power like moderators that were either contributing to that type of behavior or not punishing people that were participating.

There’s also the side that were like you guys need to stop or we need more moderators. I think there’s always people looking out for you but the sheer number of people participating was kind of off-putting. But, I have pretty thick skin and for me it’s more of like, it has to not happen so that other people don’t feel discouraged by it.”

In the face of online harassment Redmond and Miller understand what the role of representation and handling these incidents with strength means for fellow black gamers.

“I had somebody that also competes, and he said he actually looks up to me as a black player that I’m actually still competing and still trying. There are people that feel discouraged when they see black players as the minority.” Redmond said.

There is also the fact that the FGC is a fairly strict meritocracy. If you are skilled you will climb the leaderboard and be discovered. At the end of the day it’s about entering tournaments and winning, which can’t be denied.

While the appeal for most esports is its meritorious nature, in some bigger team-based leagues pure skill sometimes is overlooked due to team politics. These team politics have been the reason women competitors have been denied roster spots. At a press conference during Season 1 of Overwatch League, Houston Outlaws owner Matt Rodriguez echoed concerns that teams had in the Overwatch League preventing them from signing Kim “Geguri” Se-yeon due to the politics of co-ed living. There is also Kotaku’s report of a toxic, sexist work environment at Riot Games, the publisher of League of Legends.

While the FGC will provide opportunities to anyone who is skilled and can top 8, there are still concerns over the increased corporate presence of the once grass roots community bringing politics within the league and hurting black players.

Street Fighter player Rob “RobTV” Burney spoke on some of his concerns with the politics within the FGC.

You see Toi’s pop off on Street Fighter League and you see in the chat people calling him ‘ghetto’ but if a non-black player did the exact same pop off, there may be criticism, but the word ‘ghetto’ would not be used.

I’m fully aware that even though people think that we need to tone it down these companies want us to be entertaining. America is fascinated with stuff that we find normal as black people. In Middle America, the people that are spending the money, this stuff is fascinating. The more money that comes into the FGC, as long as they get the right people to put their money behind, could be big.

Toi’s popoff in Street Fighter League

It’s not just access that drives black gamers to favor combo breakers over team fights, it’s also a cultural divide making certain games ‘cool’ within the black community. A black gamer is naturally going to gravitate toward a basketball game, for example.

A similar phenomenon is found within the attraction to fighting games. There’s a natural connection stemming from the popularity of fighting within the black community. From Kung Fu movies and Wu-Tang Clan to Toonami and the popularity of Shonen anime like Dragon Ball Z within low-income communities, fighting has a direct cultural link to the black community.

Longtime video game journalist Gerard Williams, also known as the Hip-Hop Gamer, said the reason sports games and the FGC attract black players is its cultural links.

“With sports it’s like when Biggie said ‘Either you’re slinging crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot.’ Black players go into fighting games because that’s something we’ve all grew up on, and we can relate to fighting. We always had to fight and do more so fighting is something we can relate to. Even in the movie ‘Juice’ you had Street Fighter in the arcades. There’s always been a culture of fighting. It’s me vs. you and we’ve always had that me vs. the world mentality in the hood,” Williams said.

With esports growing at a huge rate these racial dynamics will be analyzed and criticized but most importantly to the companies in charge, it will represent a chance to change and boost their bottom line.

According to an often cited Pew Research Center poll 83 percent of teen respondents that consider themselves gamers are African-American. While the poll does not differentiate between console, PC and mobile games it’s an indicator that black people play video games at a rate comparable to the white and Latino populations.

There is a lot of money to be made by capturing the black audience and energizing the black player base into pursuing uncharted seas like League of Legends and Overwatch. In order to reduce this gap these companies need to catch up with fighting games in terms of access and a clear path to success.

Street Fighter player Sean “Shine” Simpson said fighting games are becoming increasingly accessible and accommodating to players that are unable to travel frequently but still want to succeed at high levels.

“There’s a lot of opportunities for people who play online. Geico Gaming Series an event every week and throwing up 1000 or 600 every week for Street Fighter and Tekken. There’s an online series where you can build points for the tour right from your home,” Simpson said.

Giving lower income players more opportunities to play and attend tournaments is a clear way for companies like Blizzard and Riot Games to foster a more diverse player base. More players means greater competition and more representation should translate to a larger amount of players investing in the game, which can’t be a bad thing.



Xavier Johnson

Card Game Writer at Dot Esports. Contra Costa College graduate. I’m a huge esports fan and I want to ask questions and tell cool stories. Thank you.