It’s no secret that women continue struggle to find equality in today’s world. Many people believe that the progressive nature of video games and esports, which don’t rely on physical prowess, are a place where women should have no problem finding equal footing. Unfortunately, this couldn't be any further from the truth, especially in esports. Many major titles have no women competing at the highest tier. The handful of women in gaming who have broken through are usually alone at the top. The recent success of individuals like Sasha “Scarlett” Hostyn in Starcraft II and Kim "Geguri" Se-yeon in Overwatch is wonderful for their careers. It means even more as these players become role models for women everywhere.
Video games aren’t like basketball. There aren’t physical advantages in gaming that would put men and women on different playing levels. So where are the women? While there are anecdotes everywhere of harassment as a major barrier to entry for women into competitive games, there is a another reason beyond even that. It comes down to numbers. Think about the tiny percentage of athletes who have the innate skill, mental fortitude, passion, time investment, and financial ability to devote their lives to making it to the professional level.
The same concept applies in esports. Natural ability is rare, early exposure to gaming develops instincts and mechanics, and continued time playing fosters improvement for the chance to play professionally. During the current esports generation’s childhood (the pre smartphone era), women just weren’t as likely to game as men were. This puts them at a disadvantage for developing the skills necessary to be a professional gamer.
Overwatch boasts the highest female participation. Women make up 16% of the Overwatch player base with CSGO at half of that. League of Legends has published stats showing that over 90% of their player base is male. Dota 2 has not released any official statistics. A Reddit survey with over 30,000 responses was 95.8% male. YouTube traffic on popular Dota videos from creators like Theeban “1437” Siva and D2Bowie have around 2-3% female traffic. Twitch demographics in 2015 from from known Dota 2 streamers also show that 2-3% of viewers were women.
For those who have the talent, the time, and the mentality, there is still the barrier of devoting enough time to build a career. Without the pre-existing successful women in the scene, there is a higher risk for women to turn down gaming careers in favor of pursuing a more traditional path.
A few women have managed to beat the odds and prove that they belong in the professional scene. Canadian Starcraft II player Scarlett made history recently when she won her first title. Not only was she the first woman to win a major Starcraft II championship, she did so dominantly against one of the top ranked players. She also did this while at the first Olympic committee endorsed esports event. This was only the second time in history that a non-Korean won in a Korean tournament.
Within the same 24 hour time period, sources indicated that Geguri would be the first woman to join a roster in the Overwatch League. She is known for her impressive Zarya and is expected to address her new teams’ weakness in tank play. Dota 2 has had two women enter the spotlight. The first was a Chinese player Bi "Axx" Xia during the DAC 2017 qualifiers. Marielle 'Layla' Louise showed up later for the Kiev Major North American qualifiers. Neither player managed to qualify for the LANs, but their presence alone does more for women in gaming than any article ever could.
They didn't ask to be role models - in fact, some of them are actively opposed to being used to further anyone’s agenda in gaming. All they want is for their skill to be acknowledged while they dominate in games they are passionate about.
To quote a well known superhero moment:
With great power comes great responsibility.
These women are some of the first to make waves in the professional esports scenes. Their existence is encouragement to women everywhere that there is a place for everyone at all tiers of gaming. Figureheads that fill quotas and then fail to perform help no one. Women with real skill and dedication can make a difference, even if its unintended.
Demographics do not change overnight. The industry has a long way to go before attitudes, game design, and opportunities are more evenly distributed. The rise of successful women in gaming is a key component to addressing the problem. The last few years have seen role models rise across all areas of gaming, giving the next generation of women real people to build goals and dreams around. Gaming may not be the progressive and equal industry that we expect, but that doesn’t mean we won’t get there. Players like Scarlett, Geguri, Axx, and Layla mark the promise of a new generation. These women are building one where they really will be judged on skill alone. They can help make a world where esports might not actually need to care about gender.