Anyone following news around gaming and the industry is likely to have seen the report that emerged from Finland’s Assembly event (their huge gaming convention which takes place each summer) that the Hearthstone competition was limited to male players only. This came up initially when a Reddit user posted the advertisement on the competition rules. This caused a lot of discussion and prompted criticism of the Finnish eSports Federation (SEUL), though the SEUL pointed out that they were restricted in this way due to standards set by the International eSports Federation (IeSF), of which they are a member nation. According to SEUL, they (along with other Nordic country members) had been actively lobbying to get rid of this segregated-gender approach without much success. But that all changed yesterday.
Until just recently (as in yesterday), and for quite a while evidently, the regulation had been in place to facilitate one competition pathway for female gamers and another for male gamers. And it wasn’t just that the pathways were gendered, the types of games available for males and females differed. Starcraft II could be played by both males and females; but Hearthstone (the trigger for all the forum and media coverage) was just for males. This was done, in part, to help eSports better mirror other types of sports (thus legitimising its place within the cannon of ‘sports’) and to promote and encourage eSports among female gamers, who are a largely underrepresented demographic on the competitive edge of the gaming sphere. This justification (on their Facebook page) did not satisfy the many readers/gamers out there who were suddenly tuned into the issue and as a result the IeSF called their Board together and made a decision (influenced by Blizzard, Hearthstone and SC2 producer, most likely) to change their approach, now having an ‘Open for all’ competition category (which all players can compete in regardless of gender) and another one for female players only (aimed at encouraging more women into eSports as they are so woefully underrepresented globally).
What I first found amazing in this sequence of events was how quickly this all happened.
1. The Reddit post was made on July 1.
2. A PC Gamer article (among others) was posted on July 2. There was a subsequent amount of negative backlash around this issue on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and elsewhere over these two days.
3. Blizzard got in touch with IeSF on July 2.
4. The Board of IeSF met and changed its regulations on July 2 to allow for ‘Open to All’ competitions while also maintaining ‘Female Only’ competitions.
This seems to demonstrate that gamers/the games industry can work together to effect change very quickly. That’s not to say that the arrangement is perfect, of course, but at least now a game like Hearthstone can be played by both male and female gamers (I play Hearthstone, for goodness sake!) in a competitive, sanctioned event sponsored by the IeSF.
I understand why IeSF felt that in order to legitimise eSports within the larger canon of Sports they wanted to do something to stem the major gender gap. I also understand that as an international organisation it has to consider how games are played in different cultures and regions. But as Phil Savage (PC Gamer) wrote (in his article linked just above), segregating games that were not designed to be played by one gender alone does not seem to be the way to do it. I also don’t think that games companies are going to want their games to appear to be sanctioned by something like the IeSF as being for one gender alone–that’s a PR nightmare in the making… Even though I know it would be naive to suggest that a lot of the games we’ve evolved into an eSport aren’t designed with males in mind (even if that’s just a subconscious thing), I don’t think any games company wants to suggest that they would deny a 35-year-old woman a chance to play that game if she so desired to. So yes, have a ‘ladies’ only’ event, but make sure it’s the same games as the ‘all can play’ event.
Also, I think there are a few key issues that need to be addressed to better balance the gender gap in eSports:
1. Are we including the right games to attract more female players? I feel like we’ve just barely skimmed the surface of what’s possible with competitive gaming and perhaps the ones we’ve started off with are just generally less appealing to female gamers or have fewer of them playing in the first place. I’m not saying we perpetuate stereotypes of the types of games females play (the issue won’t be solved by having a Candy Crush tournament) but more that we ensure we really explore what games can be developed into a competition and perhaps look at proactive development with women in mind rather than following the market.
2. Does the way we set up an eSports federation or standardisation of eSports rules necessarily have to follow what we do with other Sports? I don’t see why they have to. It’s a whole new way of competing. Yes, it’s a lot like a sport, but that does not mean it has to be exactly like other sports. No one would ask that how we approach Athletics (Track and Field) is identical to how we approach, say, Darts or even the Luge. And there are well-established sports that cross the gender barriers: Equestrian events, some Sailing, Chess, etc. Maybe this is a GameSport or a SportGame… or a whole new word.
3. Are we encouraging enough women/girls in the right way to get into and consider competitive eSports? There aren’t many opportunities for kids of either gender to get into competitive eSports (I saw a BBC piece recently where eSports organisers were lamenting how UK gamers don’t play enough computer based competitive sports–but I didn’t hear how they are setting up local leagues with younger players to encourage them to get involved and coach them to compete) but as boys tend to gravitate toward computer/console gaming at an earlier age than girls (if ever) perhaps it’s not surprising that for some teenaged/young adult males, it’s not such a huge leap to go from amateur PVPer to a pro-gamer as they’ve been doing that with their school mates for years already. Girls may need more structured encouragement or training to realise they can compete.
4. Is it helpful to lump all types of computer/videogames under one single eSports Federation or set of regulations? As with item 2, I don’t think we’d regulate Baseball in the same Federation as Rowing.. but at this point we seem to be doing that with eSports. I realise that’s because things are fledgling at this point and there may be ‘sub-federations’ or categories of eSports in the future, but this could be another reason why this gender divide is perpetuating itself.
The IeSF is located in South Korea and while it aims to represent the world and promote eSports as a legitimate sporting activity, it is just six years old and has only 42 member nations. Most notably, countries such as China, Germany, the UK and the US are not members, despite being what I’d term ‘gaming nations’. What is notable about IeSF, though, is that the federation does have a wide geographical range and a nice mix of emerging and developed economies. What is laudable about organisations like IeSF is that they are actively trying to make eSports part of the larger body of sporting.
And of course, ‘everyone’ out there (with the exception of the ‘pro-gamer’, the eSports fan, the eSports industry, games designers, and the very fledgling eSports regulators) is still coming to terms with the idea that little Joey who likes to play DOTA2 so much could a) be GOOD enough at it that he might win a world championship, b) actually win some prize money for his efforts, and that c) we’d actually call it a sport. But that’s how things emerge and become mainstream: slowly but with a growing body of understanding around how the ‘sport’ works and re-evaluating our own personal definitions of sport. I still remember being surprised that there’s a competitive sport that combines mountain climbing and ironing. Who wants to iron at altitude? Blech.
In my own research, I engaged–more on serendipitous terms than with any strong intentionality–with studying the emergence of eSports during my three-year study of raiding in WoW. In the final weeks of my thesis write up, in fact, top ranked raiding guilds had begun to engage in ‘boss fight’ raid races to see who would clear a dungeon the fastest. They were remarkably fun to watch, well cast and demonstrated how very large teams (up to 25) could compete against each other. It wasn’t just the rapid responses of two SC2 players competing against each other or the 5-player teams engaged in PVP.. eSports was emerging and growing in scope. I won’t deny that the majority of gamers I spoke with tended to be male. I noticed that while many female players were raiding in casual or more relaxed types of guilds, the higher up the competitive food chain I went the fewer female gamers there were. This was largely due to either an issue with time (many female gamers I spoke with just didn’t have time to raid as much as the competitive guilds required), a lack of confidence or experience (many doubted their abilities to ‘keep up’), or certain highly ranked guilds choosing to restrict membership to males only (it reduced the ‘drama’, they claimed).
Since its fledgling beginnings around the turn of the milennium (though there was a lot of such competition happening well before then), the activity of gamers engaging in organised competition began to be termed a kind of ‘electronic sport’ or eSport, though most conventional sports fans might (and still do) roll their eyes at the idea of people with computers or video consoles ‘playing a sport’. I still remember going to a Leisure Studies Association conference in Leeds some years back (early into my PhD) and going through the dynamic features of raiding and gaming in an MMO. I was still struggling with a kind of vocabulary around what mattered to serious raiders and how you could qualify their approach to play. As I showed other academics my screenshots of player-modified UIs and how ‘add-ons’ enabled and sustained competitive gameplay, one of them chimed in ‘Well, it looks like a sport to me.’ I was gobsmacked. I mean I’d been feeling this way myself, as many of us have within the world of game, but I felt really validated to hear from another person–one who researched conventional sports science and one I would have cynically predicted to critique or knock down my notion of raiding being a kind of sport–that this looked like a sport. This had a major impact on my approach to my research going forward.
It will take a long time before we’ve worked through the nuances of what competitive gaming really is and if it’s truly a sport like other sports or if we even need to mirror it like everything else. Maybe it’s more like a GameSport or SportGame. Maybe that very hybridisation transforms the idea of play and gaming and sports in a way that we’ve not really considered yet. And we have a very long way to go before female gamers feel like they’ve got a place at the eSports table and that they are even welcome to take place. In those cases were women really were equally part of the gaming equation, I felt like the gamers had stopped focusing on ‘who’ was playing, but more about what they were doing. At the very least I don’t think we’ll get any closer to sorting these issues out any time soon–the gender divide is huge in many areas of modern society and seems to be taking a few steps backwards in some alarming ways. But the good news is that in a very short period of time a major issue that IeSF’s member nations had been debating about for quite a while was resolved–with some fan critiques, some belief in gender equality, a lot of social medial and a (very big) games company. Maybe we can teach the rest of the world a few things?