Dear esports owners, publishers, commissioners and fans,
Your sport has a problem. It is not a new problem, nor is it a problem specific to esports. In fact, this problem is a very old problem, and esports just happens to be its latest manifestation. I am pretty angry with this problem because I’ve been warning esports for almost two years now that it’s going to find itself falling into the same pitfalls as traditional sports, yet no one seems to want to listen.
What is this problem? Representation.
To be more specific, female representation in esports, not just at the player level, but at the owner, manager, and coaching level as well.
My background is in football (the American version, for you sophisticated international soccer fans), where I played in the NFL for eight years. In the NFL, I had a front row seat to just about all manner of idiocy, and one of the dumbest things I saw was the idea that you had to have two XX chromosomes in order to teach the game, run an organization, or own a team.
“But it’s a man’s sport,” bleats the beer-swilling, couch-imploding ambulatory Neanderthal that makes up football’s loudest (and stupidest) online presence. “We can’t have no wimmins in here! We’ve never had wimmins in here!”
Yeah, apparently football knowledge resides only in male body parts. Who knew?
Football knowledge actually resides in the brain, and I’ve met plenty of women who were both tactically and strategically more proficient than coaches I’ve had, as well as less likely to panic in pressure situations (TWELVE PEOPLE IN THE HUDDLE AFTER A TIMEOUT DURING AN NFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME NO I’M NOT STILL ANGRY THANK YOU FOR ASKING!). The idea that women can’t coach, or manage, or own teams is the same misogynistic nonsense that we as a species have been perpetuating for thousands of years, and oh look, it’s happening again in esports.
Who could have possibly foreseen this completely predictable turn of events?
Based on research from QuanticFoundry.com, the percentage of women gamers is hugely variant based on the game. From a high of nearly 70% in Match 3 or Family/Farm Sim to 2% in sports games.
A quick glance-through Riot’s NALCS, EULCS, and LCK teams shows - surprise surprise - no female coaches, managers, or individual owners. The same goes for Blizzard’s new Overwatch League, and I’m not even going to mention DotA or Counterstrike because those communities are raging tirefires I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Valve has all the backbone of a pithed jellyfish when it comes to addressing diversity (though credit where credit is due - CS:GO does have a relatively thriving women’s pro league, but it comes at the cost of gender segregation and less overall visibility. The players themselves would like to have a fair chance in a desegregated league).
The OWL at least has the distinction of having a single female player (Kim “Geguri” Se-yeon of the Shanghai Dragons), though Geguri was only signed recently and was passed over during the initial draft process along with the normal bevy of excuses (“We don’t think she’s a good fit,” “We’re concerned about team chemistry,” “She hasn’t played at the highest levels,” <insert gagging noises>).
Gee, I wonder if the real reason why female players aren’t being considered is because, oh, I dunno, maybe you EXTREME GAMERZ don’t have any female voices in your organization. At all. No one to say, “It’s not Geguri’s problem if guys can’t handle her on the team, it’s their problem for being misogynistic idiots. Let’s sign her and watch her dominate with Zarya, and if anyone has a problem, we’ll make it clear this is a business, not a toddler’s playpen.”
The thing that frustrates me most, however, is that Blizzard is a highly diverse company with a commitment to diverse characters, and Riot, to a lesser degree, is as well (though Riot tends to fall prey to the oversexualization style of female character design). Overwatch is a fantastically diverse game. Riot employs numerous female referees and technical staff, and several female “shoutcasters” as announcers are called. The companies themselves seem to be committed to acknowledging the fact women exist. So why aren’t they demanding the same thing from the teams showcasing their product to the world?
Why did no one at Blizzard or Riot, when they were creating their fancy new leagues with their $10 million buy-ins, think to mention, “Hey, you know, maybe we should demand the same commitment to diversity from our teams as we demand from ourselves. Maybe we should have something like the Rooney Rule in the NFL (where teams have to at least interview an African-American candidate for job openings due to still-lingering inherent racism). Maybe we should acknowledge the fact that women play our game, watch our broadcasts, and might want to see themselves represented both as players and as teachers.”
See, one of the dirty little secrets of the NFL that the owners don’t want you to think about is that, if the NFL were truly committed to tackling racism, sexism, or any other ism, it could happen nearly overnight if the owners wanted it to happen. The reason why? The owners sign the checks. They have the money. They have the power. If they wanted to make things better in the locker room for gay players, it’s as simple as saying “I will fire anyone who uses homophobic language.” Boom. Problem solved (well, not that easily, but it would make things a lot better).
Esports is no different. If the publishers truly care about diversity and inclusion in their games, and by extension, the teams playing those games, they have the power to make it happen. They can mandate teams interview female candidates. They can highlight and enhance marginalized voices. They can force the status quo to change for the better, but they have to want to try.
Right now, I’m not seeing anything in esports that makes me think it’s going to be any different than the same idiocy I saw in football, and that’s a shame, because the opportunity is there to actually make a difference. At the risk of sounding trite, esports does have an advantage over traditional sports when it comes to bringing people together, because it doesn’t matter what you look like or who you are behind the screen. What matters is what you can make your character do on that screen, and in that arena women are just as capable as men. Sadly though, women are (once again) not getting a fair shake, and while the publishers are talking a big game about inclusion, until the underlying power structures actually reflect that inclusion it’s just another iteration of the same old, same old.
Chris Kluwe is a former NFL player who spent 8 years with the Minnesota Vikings, setting multiple team records, wrote an acclaimed collection of short stories and essays titled "Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies," is the lead designer of the tabletop card game "Twilight of the Gods," once engaged in a swordfight with Bigfoot, advocates relentlessly for social justice and empathy, and occasionally lies in his bios to see if anyone is actually paying attention. You can find him on Twitter @ChrisWarcraft, where he is constantly Not Mad Online.