Women’s Esports Competitions: One Path to Equity

Morgan Romine, Ph.D.
Jun 24 · 8 min read

The debate about women’s esports tournaments is older than the term “esports” itself but blooms anew every year, ageless and unchanged. DreamHack recently announced their $100,000 women’s CS:GO tournament for DreamHack Valencia 2019 and the arguments are near identical to those that cropped up in 2004 when women Quake players organized the Ms. QuakeCon event.

On the surface, the debate is understandable. Esports offers a competitive arena where physical strength and height have no bearing on the strategy and skill needed to win, and segregation based on gender is even being reconsidered in traditional sports. If our goal is to see players of all kinds represented together on the global championship stages of esports, why then would we support tournaments for girls, women, and non-gender-conforming players?

We Support Women’s Competitions in Esports

At AnyKey we support women’s tournaments as a key strategy for encouraging more girls and women to compete. We have researched and worked within gaming communities for nearly two decades, and in the four years since founding AnyKey.org we have put considerable focus on this fundamental question: “Why are there still so few women competing in esports tournaments when we’ve seen a steady increase in the numbers of women playing these competitive games at home?”

We published a white paper back in 2016 detailing some of our findings, but this here is a summary of Why and How women’s tournaments make sense as alternative competitive paths for girl and women players.

There are structural and cultural barriers that limit many girls’ and women’s access to competitive gaming. We do not yet have a level cultural playing field in competitive gaming, and that makes a huge difference in who gets the time, support, and space to develop into elite competitors.

These barriers to equity include:

  • The girls and women who choose to play games face various forms of gatekeeping, including accusations that they must be a “fake gamer girl” and playing “only for the attention,” or that there must be something undesirable about them if they are spending their time playing games. Those who persist and find acceptance in a community are often told they are “not like the other girls” setting up a social tension between them and other girls/women in the space.
  • Most girls and women encounter harassment and unwelcome attention while gaming openly. Some of it is abusive sexism, like being told to “get back in the kitchen”. Some of it is overtly sexual (i.e. dick pics). Some of it is unceasing romantic gestures that can turn scary when unrequited. Watch Twitch streams by women game streamers to see these patterns play out in real time.
  • Many women who are avid players at home still avoid tournaments because they anticipate that they’ll be the only woman there. Being the token representative of any minority adds attention and pressure that can discourage inexperienced participants.
  • When a girl or woman competitor plays in a broadcast tournament, the harassment, sexism, and sexual comments increase exponentially thanks to the public chat stream. Because of this, her experience in that competitive environment is often significantly different from those of her male counterparts. It can be especially intense if that girl/woman is the only one in the competitive space.
  • For team-based competitive games, many team managers and players are unwilling to risk recruiting women players for a variety of reasons including community backlash.
  • With so few women role models seen on the big esports stages, too few girls and women ever think to enter competitions. The lack of visibility perpetuates the cycle.

These are all significant barriers. It’s important to note here that all marginalized players — including players of color, LGBTQ+ folks, and gamers with disabilities — encounter similar sorts of obstacles. At AnyKey we recognize the intersectional nature of these barriers, and part of our mission is to support and develop programs that work to reduce obstacles and build opportunities for marginalized players. Women’s tournaments are one crucial part of the strategy to increase the participation of girls and women in competitive gaming spaces.

WHY WOMEN’S COMPETITIONS HELP

There are several large benefits of women’s competitions for both current and potential future competitors.

Visibility

You have to see it to be it. Women’s tournaments highlight the elite competitive role models already fighting to succeed in esports. Visibility and representation are keys to encouraging girls and women down the path towards high level competition.

Seeing someone like yourself succeeding in a competitive space can be a powerful motivator; it enables us to visualize ourselves doing the same and better.

Supportive Competitive Spaces

All-girl/women tournaments provide spaces where women feel they’ll be less likely to encounter harassment, and that even if they do, there will be other women around them for solidarity. Being one of many can be a buffer against the feelings of isolation that often result from harassment. Not to mention that finding a network of people with similar life experiences and interests can feel supportive and validating!

Playing among other women can also reduce the feeling that every win or loss will be judged as representative of the gaming potential of all womankind. This is not an uncommon or unreasonable feeling. Being the one representative of a minority in a competition exaggerates competitive pressure and judgment.

Perfect example: Overwatch player Geguri knows that her performance as the only woman competitor in the Overwatch League is carefully scrutinized by both fans and critics as proof of what women players can or cannot do.

All-women tournaments create spaces where any given girl or woman player will be one of many others, meaning they won’t have to shoulder the reputation of all women gamers on their own. This is especially helpful when they’re just starting out.

Pipelines and Stepping Stones

Gaining all-important competitive experience is one huge benefit to women trying out competition in these more supportive all-women competitive spaces.

The competitive career path of StarCraft 2 player Scarlett provides one of the best examples of how this kind of stepping stone tournament can help women competitors succeed. She first started competing in the NESL Iron Lady tournaments for StarCraft II in 2011, and won a couple of them before focusing on the main event SCII tournaments. Last year she won first place at IEM PyeongChang, becoming the first woman ever to win a premier esports tournament.

HOW TO RUN WOMEN’S COMPETITIONS

While women’s competitions are a fundamental part of the overall strategy for boosting the participation of women in esports, just doing them isn’t enough. How you run them can make or break their benefit. We wrote an AnyKey paper outlining the Best Practices for Gender Inclusive Tournaments, but here are the highlights:

Include ALL Women

All girls and women — cis and trans — must be welcomed to participate in women’s competitions.

But the ultimate goal of inclusion goes beyond that. Gender is a spectrum. If the broader point is to create inclusive competitive spaces for players of marginalized genders, then that also refers to folks who are intersex, non-binary, gender queer, gender fluid, third gender, or agender. People who are gender non-conforming are often as much in need of supportive spaces to compete as women and girls, so consider opening your events to include these players as well.

Maybe this sounds complicated, but it’s not really. Our AnyKey Best Practices for Gender Inclusive Tournaments paper has advice about how to create inclusive processes around registration and eligibility.

Frame Women’s Tournaments as Alternatives, not Replacements

Segregation is not the strategy. The premier esports tournaments must stay fully integrated. Women’s tournaments are most supportive of players and communities when they are framed as alternative competitions rather than as parallel to the main events. If the goal is to guide women into the premier tournaments, then it’s important to underscore how these all-women’s tournaments are stepping stones, not replacements for the main events.

Create Equitable Events, not Afterthoughts

The risk of setting up women’s tournaments as alternatives is that they can feel like an afterthought or low priority, which does a disservice to the skills and efforts of the participants. Women’s tournaments do not have to be identical in size and scale, but they must be run with the same rule sets and same standards for production quality as the main events.

Mindfully Manage the Competition and Community

Good community management supports the current players while also reducing the kind of visible harassment that drives away future prospective competitors.

ALL tournaments should have a Code of Conduct, reporting system, clear procedure for rules enforcement, and well-trained moderators, but these become especially important around gender-inclusive events. Our AnyKey paper outlining Best Practices for Chat Moderation is a good starting point for any tournament organizers looking to make their tournaments more inclusive for players and viewers alike.

EQUITY IS THE FUTURE OF ESPORTS

There are successful examples of beneficial women’s competitions at every competitive level, from the grassroots Smash Sisters events, to the Intel Challenges for pro-level women’s CS:GO. Success is measured in the positive experiences among players and the increase in participation in those circles.

Women’s tournaments must not be the only tool we use to increase the participation of women in competitive gaming, but it is one strong strategy for increasing visibility, competitive experience, and confidence among girl and women players.

We maintain the hope that esports will eventually fulfill its promise of being a truly level arena where all the most skilled players can be celebrated. But before that happens, more will have to change than esports. Until then, women’s tournaments are a win for everybody.

Morgan Romine, Ph.D.

Written by

Director of Initiatives for AnyKey.org | Cultural anthropologist, researcher, and advocate working towards a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable world.