Talk about getting esports into the Olympics is all well and good, but there's a pressing matter at a far more fundamental level still waiting to be tackled: why are there so few UK women and girls involved in esports?
Last week's European Women in Games Conference at City, University of London had a special focus on esports and the role of women and girls in this ever-growing sector. Following a seminar on the subject, Gamesindustry.biz spoke with two members of the panel: Cordelia Chui and Amy Snowdon. Chui is social media and community manager for Ginx esports TV, as well as a pro Hearthstone player with Barrage Esports, and winner of the inaugural Women in Games Player Award. Snowdon is a freelance player manager and current manager of exceL Esports' Ladies League of Legends team.
While the topic at hand is fairly narrow, the whys and hows of a multimillion dollar industry with millions of fans around the world not having a major presence from the UK's women goes much deeper. But the simplest, most fundamental question first: what is the current state of UK esports for women and girls? A pause, a slightly sad smirk, and an answer from Snowdon:
"...Sparse," she sighs, "There's a lack of players. There's definitely a few, but the people who are in the games have to be strong... It's sparse, but the people who are in it do understand the industry."
Chui adds: "The problem goes way down to the player pool in general. The reason there aren't enough women at the higher level is because there aren't enough women at the lowest level of esports, in the UK especially."
Esports in general is smaller in the UK than in Europe, Asia, America and other places, she explains, meaning there's already a small community of players from which to draw an even smaller number of female talents. Simply put, it's a lack of women.
The lack of women has of course led to a 'no girls allowed' mentality from some regions of the internet, and the attitude does permeate through to the fore at times.
"I've had strangers completely unsolicited start backseating me, because they assume I'm not good," Chui said. "It's really fun to play along and act like I don't know what I'm doing, then absolutely beat them."
"It's kind of sad, but I just leave out that we're a ladies team and just see if it's easier going into it. Like 'Hi, we're a high diamond master tier team looking for scrims.' Maybe I shouldn't have to mention we're a female team anyway, but it's the kind of thing I do choose to leave out."
Toxicity is an obvious element that's off-putting, especially when even developers themselves are being censured for sexist workplace cultures. But less obvious to the casual observer are things like mere discoverability - the UK doesn't have any major esports tournaments with a female focus, and while the field is shifting on an international basis, there's still work to be done to show women and girls they have spaces in which they'll feel welcome and like they belong.
"We've been lucky enough now that I have access to national tier scrims," Snowdon says, "It's kind of sad, but I just leave out that we're a ladies team and just see if it's easier going into it. Like 'Hi, we're a high diamond master tier team looking for scrims.' Maybe I shouldn't have to mention we're a female team anyway, but it's the kind of thing I do choose to leave out. Hopefully, eventually, it will just become a norm."
"In my own life I've met other women gamers so rarely," Chui says, "Then when you see them on-screen it's like, 'Whoa, there's loads of us all across the world!' It just makes me feel really optimistic. I want those [women's] tournaments to grow and spread, to include more countries and include more games, and then maybe, hopefully, in several decades or something, I'll be saying, 'Back in my day there weren't any women players'."
In their time around esports, both Chui and Snowdon agree they've witnessed positive change, with teams and audiences alike becoming more accepting of the women competing, managing, and generally being involved.
"[But] there's still way too much harassment," Chui adds, "And the stigma against women gamers is still a real struggle. But I think now we're talking about it. At least a discussion has started, and I think it's getting better... [And] I think, hopefully, the whole fetishisation of women gamers will decrease as esports become more mainstream."
"Let's be clear," Chui says, "Sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia - all forms of hate speech - they aren't exclusive to games. Esports and gaming doesn't have a specific sexism problem: the world has a sexism problem and gaming isn't exempt. So the better we get at dealing with sexism in other world issues, the better it will get in gaming and esports as well."
There is one aspect that both Chui and Snowdon agree is unique to esports, and that's the online culture associated with Twitch chat - or the 'festering cesspool', as Chui calls it.
"That's the problem that's unique to esports: the mob culture, the cult-esque mindset that people get into when they're trolling on the internet"
"You are a nameless, faceless entity that can post anything without any consequences," Snowdon interjects, before Chui continues: "That's the problem that's unique to esports: the mob culture, the cult-esque mindset that people get into when they're trolling on the internet. I don't think ignoring things is a good solution - I think we should actively speak up. Men should speak up when they see something they don't like, women should speak up when they're being harassed, and more women should support other women."
The need for volume - for drawing attention and piling on visibility - isn't just linked to the negative aspects women have to face in esports. This need for awareness isn't just to highlight bad people and discourage harassment; it's to amplify the few existing female voices in the UK esports scene, and to hopefully encourage more women and girls to pursue dreams they might not even know they had until now. The simple fact is top-tier esports players are mainly men right now. Some women are up there - none from the UK - but in the most part it's guys.
"You just accept that there's going to be men," Chui admits, "It's the default. That said, when I see a woman playing I do get excited - I love watching Scarlett play Starcraft, the same way I feel if a game is quite dominated by Caucasians, I enjoy seeing an East Asian player for example. Representation does have an impact."
And who players identify with does have an impact, Snowdown adds: "I think there's one professional female Overwatch player, [Geguri] - 100% I'm more interested in seeing her development than I am the other 50 guys. That's not because I hate guys, it's because I identify with a woman... I identify more with her than I do a guy who's playing."
The impact of representation is something Chui has first-hand experience of, too. As she explains, "I was playing the qualifiers for a Hearthstone tournament in Barcelona, and it was on stream and everything, and I managed to qualify for the finals in China. I went to the finals and met one of the women who'd qualified from Canada. She told me that she'd seen me playing on stream at the European qualifiers and that had inspired her to try to compete. It was incredible."
The positive impact goes both ways, in Chui realising she had such an impact on another woman, as well as the player in question seeing someone they can genuinely, easily aspire to be like on the screen.
"It's proof that women being at the forefront is enticing," Snowdon says, "It's normalising - because it isn't normal. A lot of people have the misconception that 'games are for guys, make-up is for girls'. But when you see that you've inspired someone... When I've seen women up top, I've been like, 'That is where I want to be'. I've seen all these people and it inspires you. You wonder if you could be up there; if you could make it something that's normal."
"Something we should try to instill in women is that you don't have to conform... If someone likes something, let them like it"
Another thing that's slowly being chipped away at is the notion a 'gamer girl' has to look or act a certain way, has to - in many ways - be 'one of the guys'. The recent Girl Gamer Esports Festival in Portugal welcomed the kind of sponsor you wouldn't likely see on the men's - or even mixed - circuit: Sephora. The company provided professional make-up for the women competing, bringing with it the message that one can be 'traditionally feminine' while still taking part in high-level, competitive gaming. And that's something both Chui and Snowdon appreciate.
"It was so good," Chui smiles, "Unifying something really feminine with esports sends that message that it is for girls and women. These things are not separate."
Snowdon agrees: "You can have both, and that's the thing. Some people will wonder why we have to have make-up on, but it's not about that. You can have the best of both worlds, you don't have to just either be into make up or games."
All of this would involve jumping down a pop-psychology rabbit hole from which we're unlikely to emerge for some time, but the basic thinking is: women and girls - especially teenage girls - see their interests, their likes, their passions, endlessly derided by all facets of society. An enjoyment of make-up - the desire to simply allow yourself to look a bit nicer - is jumped on, insulted, used as a stick with which to beat. A woman who wears make-up and likes games? She must be a poser, she doesn't really like games, how can someone who looks like that be into something like this?
That mindset insidiously makes its way into the psyche of young women, leading them to believe they need to look and act and think a certain way - leading them to think that, say, a woman wearing make-up and saying she's into games... must be a poser. "I grew up as a gamer girl, but I didn't want to look super girly because 'those girls were faking it, those girls weren't taken seriously'," Chui admits, "So then I didn't wear make-up, I was a tomboy, a woman in boyish clothes.
"Teenage girls have so much competition with each other because of society and social pressure. It's definitely better [than it was] - it used to make me sad how small gaming is as a space, and how small women in gaming is as a space within that, and then we were still competing with each other."
"Something we should try to instill in women is that you don't have to conform," Snowdon says, "You still get it, 'You don't really like games' and everything. It shouldn't be based on what someone looks like [or if they wear make-up]. If someone likes something, let them like it."
Ultimately, what holds back a lot of women and girls from getting into esports - aside from visibility and awareness - is the very basic desire to fit in. If you have to be 'one of the guys' - an 'othering' phrase, according to Chui - it's off-putting. It's a barrier to entry. But as more women make their way through the ranks, become more visible, speak their minds more - and without fear of reprisal from toxic elements of communities - the more the tide will shift.
"As much as it's nice to fit in with your friends, I should be able to fit in with my friends without having to be one of the guys," Snowdon says, "You can support other women by being yourself, you don't have to say 'Yeah, I'm different'. You don't have to think you're better. I used to feel like that - now I can't believe I was like that. I want to support everyone... We have to work together to make it a better, more welcoming place for other women so they don't come into a toxic, competitive environment. They can come into somewhere where they're met with, 'How do you want to get into this and how can we help?'
"We look back and say we can't believe we were like that, but I'm happy to take that fall if other girls can come in and not have to go through that and feel like they're competing, or they have to be on par with men. You can just be yourself. It doesn't have to be a dog-eat-dog world."