The esports industry must avoid replicating the sexism that blights other sports, says the gaming and tech journalist Keith Stuart
This weekend the best Fortnite players in the world gathered at Flushing Meadows in New York to compete in the games first ever World Cup Finals for $30m (24m) in prize money. Tens of thousands of spectators packed the famed Arthur Ashe stadium to watch the action live, and many millions more viewed on Twitch and YouTube. Fortnite is, after all, one of the biggest entertainment brands on the planet, played by hundreds of millions. Amid all the hype and fanfare around the finals, however, one depressing fact remained unavoidable: not a single one of the 100 finalists was female.
Despite the growing popularity of professional gaming throughout the world the audience figures for competitive gaming have reached 450m this year female competitors remain scarce. There certainly are high-profile examples of female pros trans woman Sasha Scarlett Hostyn is one of the most successful Starcraft II players in the world; Katherine Mystik Gunn is the industrys highest-paid female pro gamer and won the SyFy channels reality TV show WCG Ultimate Gamer; and Fortnite has stars such as One_Shot_Gurl and Loeya. But you could watch a year of big tournaments, whether its Call of Duty, League of Legends or Hearthstone, and count the number of female competitors on the fingers of one hand.
This isnt because women and girls arent playing games. The latest figures from the Entertainment Software Association show that 46% of gamers are women a figure reflected in several other recent studies. The female audience for esports is also growing: figures collected by Nielsen suggest that almost a quarter of the pro gaming audience is female, and in some parts of the world its much higher. So why arent we seeing that reflected in the Fortnite World Cup?
The easy answer is because no women qualified. The heats were entirely open and held online over 10 weeks more than 40m players competed with no restrictions on age or gender. The pro gaming scene likes to present itself as a meritocracy, where pure talent is all that matters.
This may be true in terms of the abstract qualifying rules, but the real issue goes deeper and its about why women are under-represented across the esports spectrum.
Partly its down to the culture of hardcore video game communities, which are overwhelmingly dominated by young men and as a consequence, often unwelcoming to women. Trash talk is a standard in most online competitive games, and can often cross over into misogynistic insults. Rare is the female gamer who plays with unrestricted voice chat. Even when theyre simply playing online with a group of strangers, women players are sometimes belittled and objectified, their abilities constantly questioned. Meanwhile, the sponsorship and marketing of events is highly focused on male viewers its all energy drinks and ads for ridiculously macho gaming joypads, keyboards and mice with names like Viper and Hyperion.
When women do compete, they can find themselves under disproportionate and unwelcome scrutiny. In June, a 15-year-old girl entered a tournament in New York based around the Nintendo game Super Smash Bros and promptly beat a top pro player. She was subsequently hounded and bullied online by his fans. Tweeting under her gaming tag, Bocchi, she claimed to be considering leaving the tournament circuit because of the abuse she received.
This is a longstanding problem: in 2016, when the BBC interviewed pro gamer Steph Harvey for its 100 Women series, she stated: Its still a boys club so as a woman youre automatically judged for being different. The way I get harassed is about what they would do to my body, about why I dont deserve to be there because I use my sexuality its all extremely graphic.
Earlier this year, Susie Kim, then manager of the London Spitfires team of professional Overwatch players, was asked by the Associated Press if women were good enough to play at the highest levels. Absolutely, she said. But theyre just like, Its a headache. I dont want to be part of this at all. I dont blame them. Even women who make it into well-known professional esports teams are subject to abuse and belittlement. In June, streamer and pro player Lunarkats, who creates content for the Lazurus team, tweeted a video of her playing Counter Strike Global Offensive online and receiving sexualised abuse from her own team-mates.