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The Great (Gender) Divide in eSports

The notion of sexism in video gaming, and the video game industry as a whole, is one that keeps returning to the forefront of discussions on forums and social media. And many times, for good reason. While some incidents seem like molehills made into mountains, other incidents really leave you scratching your head and wondering what century you live in.

Recently, an eSports competition was taken to task over having separate divisions for male and female gamers. What’s so wrong with that, you ask? Well, it’s “e” sports. There is no advantage in physical size or strength between men and women working a keyboard, mouse, or controller. Mental acuity and hand-eye coordination are the main abilities used by gamers, and these abilities are not influenced by sex or gender. And to make matters worse, there are fewer games available to “females” in this competition, as opposed to the “male” division.

Several analogies have been made between this competition and the fact that many professional sports have male and female divisions, which may have led these eSports coordinators to feel it’s natural to do the same for their competition. I also received a comment that perhaps it helps to spotlight women in the competition that might not otherwise be noticed. Fair points, but allow me to share some personal anecdotes that might shed light on why this still doesn’t help women who want to compete in eSports.

I’ve always been a horse lover and owner, and I am an avid horse racing fan. In 2004, I discovered an arcade game from Sega called Derby Owners Club, or DOC. It allowed you to breed a “racehorse” from a list of sires and dams, save it to a magnetic card, race the horse, retire it, and use it as breeding stock to create your own bloodlines. The deeper you got in generations, the more powerful the “offspring” were. The DOC machine, which could be found at Dave & Busters, Jillian’s, and similar arcades, had eight consoles for people to compete against each other, for fun, bragging rights, and (as it turned out) ranked competitive tournaments.

Me being me, as soon as I found out I could compete seriously, and that there were tournaments all over the country, I set out to join the ranks. I got resistance immediately. As much as women typically love horses, there were no women competing on the west coast, and very few women competing around the nation as a whole. The first practice I tried to attend, I was turned away. I was told that I didn’t know what I was doing, and that I would be behind the “pros” at every step. I won’t lie: I cried on the way home, from anger. I took to the forums of that game, and blasted the folks who had ostracized me. Surprisingly, one of the local racers took pity on me, and invited me out to help me learn the proper methods to train and race my horse for competition. He basically held my hand throughout my first practice, and I was gratified when I actually won a race (out of 19).

I started attending every practice. Never did I see another woman compete. The only women I saw were the other competitors’ wives or girlfriends. But I wasn’t discouraged. I entered my first tournament in Peoria, IL. I was eliminated in the first round. Memphis, TN, I was eliminated in the second round. Alpharetta, GA, I made it to the semi-finals. Ontario, CA, I made it to the final table. By the time I quit racing in 2006, I had won a major tournament (the first and only female to have done so since the major tournaments were implemented), placed 3rd in another, was consistently making the finals, and was twice invited to the Tournament of Champions in Wyomissing, PA. I cracked the top 20 of 350 racers, and yes, by that time, I was the top ranked “female racer” in the rankings. Considering there were maybe six or seven other women out of 350, that in and of itself was not much of an achievement.

I still remember the surprise from some of the racers who were pioneers of this eSport when I beat them. I remember the incredulity when I got my trophy and prize money for winning the West Coast Major. I frequently heard my male counterparts tease each other with the put down, “You just got beat by a girl!” I knew what they were trying to say, and I didn’t get it. It was a video game. I was pushing buttons, not running around the track on my own legs. I didn’t care about being the top female racer, I wanted to be the best racer, period. And I was thrilled to make it into the top 5% of all ranked racers in the country.

This is why I strongly object to gender divisions in eSports. What good is it to be the champion of a limited field in a competition where physical differences (besides those who are physically challenged) don’t exist? Who wants to be the best of 10 competitors when they can be the best of 100? A gender division doesn’t help a female gamer feel empowered, it doesn’t help spotlight her in a positive light. It makes her feel less, like she isn’t capable of competing against males. She deserves the chance to hear “You just got beat by a girl,” so she can pat herself on the back and say “Damn straight, because I’m just as good, if not better, than the competition, male or female.” She’ll feel like an equal. That’s empowerment. And that’s what ANY eSports competitor deserves.

Afterword: I wrote this blog post on July 2nd. Today, July 3rd, the governing body of the eSports organization putting on the gender segregated tournament made a statement saying that it recognized the gaming community’s concerns and was altering the tournament format. There will now be an “open to all” division, with all the previously “male” game categories, and a “female” division with only two games, Starcraft 2 and Tekken (which, curiously, is not offered in the “open to all” division). The word on the street is that Blizzard Entertainment had a hand in bringing about this change as they didn’t want their games to be used in an environment that wasn’t all-inclusive. This is a step in the right direction.

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