Despite the title, this article is going to be a little more serious than normal. I’m going to try to tackle and explain the massive gender diversity gap in esports and gaming from my perspective. I don’t mean to fully explain anything, and I don’t mean to be universal in any of my statements. So bear with me here, and let’s do a little digging.
The question does beg asking: where the girls at? Girls are a rare sight when playing video games, even more so when you consider the professional circuit of every esport. To my knowledge, there have only been a handful of female professional gamers, most notably Scarlett from Starcraft 2 and Remilia from League of Legends. But these are only two recognizable players of the hundreds or even thousands of pros. So what gives? Why aren’t girls playing video games?
According to this Quantic article, girls are playing video games, they just aren’t playing the same ones that I am. From the data given in this article, girls make up more than two-thirds of the playerbase for matching games like Candy Crush or Bejeweled as well as family and farming sim games like The Sims or Stardew Valley. After that, their presence declines rapidly. The female player presence for most competitive esports is far lower than 50%, with few of them even cracking 10%. For turn-based strategy games like Hearthstone, females make up 11% of the playerbase, while sports games like Madden or NBA have an embarrassing 2%. So why is this disparity so pronounced in competitive games especially? There’s the obvious argument about sports games, that since there are no female NBA or NFL players that girls are less likely to play those games due to lack of role models. But why are the others so hard to get into?
I attribute it to the culture of gaming. At the onset of video games, they were expensive and nerdy, lending themselves to dorky kids who didn’t have a future on the soccer pitch. And even now, video games are still sort of an asocial pastime. You don’t start playing Overwatch because you want to expand your social circle and build street cred. And with that asociality comes exclusivity. Even in the social circles of gaming, the members are pretty elitist. There’s an expectation of being an outcast, so anyone different who tries to make their way in is going to be shunned, at least at first. And who’s more different than a bunch of skinny nerdy dudes than a cute girl who’s good at video games? Girls are shunned more for their interest in video games because they don’t fit. It’s basic tribe mentality. You can’t be good at video games and pretty and funny. It just doesn’t work like that, at least in the minds of these gamers. And let’s be clear, this isn’t sexism. The vast majority of gamers don’t hold grudges against others because of what kind of plumbing they’re sporting. If anything, it’s like an inferiority complex. You feel worse about yourself because you see a 10/10 cute girl kicking ass in SoloQ and you’re hardstuck in silver on top of looking like an overstuffed pillow pet. And this inferiority complex is why so many male gamers are against the whole “e-gril” schtick: the Mercy mains, the Janna one-tricks, the… is there an e-gril stereotype for Hearthstone? If guys can pretend that girls are playing “easier” characters and getting special treatment from horny teenage boys, it makes it easier to rationalize that the girls don’t really deserve to be way ahead of them in the rankings. But this anti-e-gril sentiment isn’t the primary detractor from women in gaming.
Gaming culture is weird. It’s a highly specialized multi-faceted community that tends to bleed into other sub-cultures, like anime and comic books. And a lot of that culture revolves around memes. Even the e-gril name comes from an old meme, based on one unfortunate misspelling of girl. And as blood runs thicker than water, memes run thicker than blood in gaming culture. So old memes get repeated over and over until they no longer have any meaning to the memers. And when you get new people, especially girls, who don’t know the jokes and don’t have the thick skin of a seasoned gamer, they tend to be turned off by the seemingly hate-filled echo chamber that is a gamer’s voice comms. Last night, while I was playing League of Legends with some friends, I realized how much trash we were all talking, including some things that would definitely not be okay for polite company. And a fair amount of it was e-gril jokes directed at anyone who played those champions, like being a girl playing video games was a bad thing. Honestly, to anyone who didn’t know us, some of it could have come off as downright hateful. And that’s why it’s so easy to just write off the gender disparity as sexism. But remember, you have to take into account: gamers are dorks.
Unfortunately for most gamers, this elitist, highly exclusive and asocial club tends to have its drawbacks. One of these is the complete inability to interact with normal people in a regular setting, especially girls. It may seem like a stereotype, but in my experience, gamers have no idea how to treat a girl exactly the same as a guy. Even when they make a concerted effort to be amicable, something’s still off. It probably has something to do with the general thought process when talking to a girl online. It goes a little something like this:
“Wow, her voice is really cute. Is she single? I wonder if she’s cute? Oh wait, never mind. She’s Alan’s girlfriend, that’s why I’m talking to her in the first place.”
And there’s not much to be done about that. Boys will be boys, especially when they’re cooped up in their rooms playing video games on the weekends instead of doing drugs with the cool kids. And as Hanlon’s razor says: never attribute to malice what can accurately be explained by stupidity. It’s not sexism; it’s incompetence. And as long as boys continue to treat girls differently in video games and as long as the general attitude, deliberate or not, toward e-grils continues, there will always be a stigma against getting women into video games.
But if this is all low-level stuff, surely the pros must be better at it, right? Sure, they’re more professional, more sensitive to the hot-button issues. Pro teams also have a standing structure that allows them to deal with problems easily and efficiently. But when less than 10% of the players in any given esport are female, there’s not much of a pool to draw fledgling professionals from. Even if you could get five professional-grade women together to play on a team, who knows if they’d be able to get along and mesh to become a competitive force? Esports teams have fallen to the bottom of the standings and even dissolved due to team friction. Any five girls taken out of SoloQ might not have the cohesion that a professional team needs, and to strike the monumental blow for gender equality in video games, anything less than spectacular falls flat. A half-baked attempt that flounders and dissolves the team before anything notable can happen, even showing that a team of girls can compete at the highest level.
So what about a single girl on a mixed-gender team? Well, as we can see with Renegades Remilia and the ensuing drama, it tends to cause a stir. Even when you put aside all of Remilia’s unique individual issues that involved team affiliate Chris Badawi, there were still a number of hoops that Renegades management had to jump through to accommodate a woman like Remilia. Privacy is a big concern in a team house, and Remilia cited frequent invasions of her privacy, which while it may not be as big a deal in a house full of guys, is a much larger concern when you involve the opposite sex in the fray. Modesty and personal issues also become a concern; with so many teams requiring team wellness activities like exercise and sports, a female team member might be less inclined to join under those conditions. The cost to take on a female player goes up and up, and that shrinks the available pool of players that are even worth the cost. It’s unfortunate to think about, but at the end of the day, these esports teams are running a business. And while some of these concerns may be lessened by having players in individual esports, like Starcraft and Hearthstone, there is still the reality of female players costing more to the team.
But this isn’t to say that there’s no hope of getting women in esports. Female players are a better marketing opportunity for teams, either as a unique player who attracts a new demographic or an interesting character who brings a specific storyline for viewers. And while the first few teams to pick up female players will be pioneers, risking a lot to strike a blow for gender equality, as more and more women enter the scene the costs of taking on women go down and the benefits stay just as high. And with a concerted effort on all parts, maybe we can get that abysmal 2% number up.