Tuning into The International, The League of Legends World Championship, or the Overwatch League Championships, you could be forgiven for thinking that they were specifically men's leagues.
That the nearly $1 billion esports industry has a gender diversity problem is not surprising to anyone. Plenty of esports industry leaders have either gone on record talking about diversity, or found ways to fund diversity initiatives. Just last week, League of Legends company Riot Games partnered with Women in Games France to sponsor an esports incubator program for women's visibility in their game. Speaking to GamesIndustry.biz earlier this year, esports league leaders such as Overwatch's Nate Nazer, NBA2K League commissioner Brendan Donohue, and leader of esports investment for Alibaba's AliSports Jason Fung all agreed that lack of diversity was a major issue that needed to be addressed, outlining little more than concept-level ideas to tackle the problem.
These are but a handful of examples, but at the highest levels of esports, lukewarm responses like these appear to be universal from those in power. It's simple to say that diversity is a focus for these organizations, or to run focus groups, or posit female-only leagues, or to claim that adding diversity to committees or behind the camera roles is improving matters slowly but surely (that one's a start, anyway). But the end result in all top level, visible esports so far has been a row of men behind the computers with, if we're very lucky, a single women either onstage or behind a casting microphone, and zero non-binary individuals.
"Mercifully, no one at the industry level is pretending men are the only people good enough at gaming and interested in competing in it"
Mercifully, no one at the industry level is pretending men are the only people good enough at gaming and interested in competing in it. The numbers certainly don't support it. Or rather, they indicate a high level of interest in watching and playing esports - with both UK studies and US reports indicating a higher rate of interest from women than men. Women are fans of esports, and they're participating in it in high numbers at certain levels.
That participation has been bolstered by a number of initiatives in recent years, though sadly not enough to really diversify the top-level pools. When we spoke to Hearthstone pro Cordelia Chui and League of Legends team manager Amy Snowden earlier this year about the issue, they both lamented the lack of women available to uplift in the first place.
"There's a lack of players," said Snowden. "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."
"The problem goes way down to the player pool in general," Chui added. "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."
That's not to undermine the incredible work done by groups such as Women in Games, the ESL, the LA Valiant's Be Valiant: Girls in Gaming summit, and countless others. Thanks to groups like these, there are welcoming spaces for women looking to get their start in esports and work their way up to its highest echelons, even though barriers still exist keeping them from reaching that top, visible level.
The numbers indicate that audience toxicity may be a major component. The Playgroundz Leisure Economy Research Study noted earlier this month that while women still make up half the gaming industry and are predicted to surpass the number of men by 2020, they make up only 30 percent of gamers on YouTube, 22 percent of esports team members, and 19.5 percent of gamers on Twitch. Women are playing, but they aren't willing to play for an audience. And again, none of these studies mention non-binary individuals.
"The reason there aren't enough women at the higher level is because there aren't enough women at the lowest level of esports"
It doesn't help that there appears to be a massive gender pay gap for streamers, especially in the US, where 24 percent of men and a whopping 47 percent of women streamers aren't being paid, according to Superdata. But one of the main reasons, surprising no one, is that audiences are known to tear apart women who gain an iota of visibility. A female Overwatch host received death threats earlier this year for expressing an opinion on Twitter. Overwatch pro Kim Se-yeon (known as Geguri) has dealt with hacking accusations just for being better at the game than people expected her to be.
And though those two examples are Overwatch-specific, this is by no means a problem unique to that game. A Bryter survey earlier this year reported that one-third of UK women gamers report abuse or discrimination from men, and will deliberately avoid revealing their gender or speaking in voice chat (an essential feature for competitive play) so as not to draw attention and harassment. Women also reported simply refusing to identify as a "gamer," or avoiding online play. And while 84 percent of teen girls in the UK now report spending their free time gaming, many people still view gaming and esports as predominantly male hobbies, discouraging young women from further pursuit.
The lack of visible diversity at the year's biggest and most prominent esports events is a problem that continues to grow more urgent as the industry booms. Already, esports is landing squarely in the dangerous territory of an outward-facing "boys club" that has caused no end of headaches for those just trying to enjoy their hobby or career. In 10 years, do we see an even split of women and men on the stage of an Overwatch League match? Do we see more women than men on the stage of The International, without creating a separate league for them? Do we see non-binary individuals visible and successful? Or do we see exactly one woman who has struggled her way to the top, in spite of all odds, only to be flooded with harassment in Twitch chat the moment she makes a single mistake?
Efforts have been and are being made to elevate diversity in esports, but those efforts are not enough when over half of those who loves esports face a nigh-insurmountable climb to success in its ranks based purely on their gender. The responsibility to change this lies with everyone in the industry, but especially with the (predominantly male) leaders of the world's largest and most successful esports and leagues. It's up to them to listen to the focus groups, teams, and players already in the industry that have begun the work on this issue, and to take action at the highest level to elevate diverse individuals, eliminate barriers, and ensure their safety as they thrive.