GDC 2015 Recap: The Rise of Women in eSports

League of Legends

Last week was the annual Games Developer Conference. GDC consists of various talks from all walks of life in game development including programming and art, and for the first time, it included a track on eSports. I nearly jumped out of my skin when I heard there would be an eSports track and made sure to clear my GDC schedule to spend most of the day at the Summit. I was extremely pleased to see that, amidst the talks about League of Legends design and game balancing, the Summit also included a talk titled “Growing the Participation of Women in eSports,” moderated by Lil Chen, a semi-retired Super Smash Bros. Melee player. The rest of the panel included Rachel “Seltzer” Quirico, an eSports host and Frag Doll; Heather “SapphiRe” Mumm, a competitive CSGO player and Managing Editor and journalist at ESEA; and Kim Phan, Senior Manager of eSports at Blizzard.

The panelists touched on many issues facing the lack of women in eSports, issues that are present in all aspects of gaming, but seem to be hyper displayed in the traditionally masculine world of sports. All the panelists touched on being the “token” female player in games, and that there’s a lot of pressure to live up to expectations; that, if you lose, you’re not only letting down your team, but you’re letting down women, too.

“This is what I always experience as a female player—not only do I have to play amazingly, I have to care about how I look, I have to make sure I’m friendly enough but not too friendly, all these little factors weigh in and they stop me from the best competitive player I can be,” said Rachel Quirico. Heather Mumm brought up the depressing reality that if her team lost in a competition, the loss was blamed on her for being a woman, but if her team won, it was only because the rest of her team carried her.

The topic of all-women tournaments was touched on, which I was thankful for, particularly as a poorly managed LoL all-female tournament was discovered at the beginning of February (Riot, LoL’s maker, later indicated that they were working to fix the issue). The panel didn’t discuss the nitty gritty details of these particular tournaments, but the consensus was that all-women’s tournaments were a good idea, if they were handled with care. The panel also conducted a mini-poll of the audience, and more than half the audience raised their hands as interested in seeing these types of tournaments.

The panel urged caution in the execution; Mumm spoke about positive all-women CSGO tournaments she had attended, and Kim Phan brought up all-women chess tournaments. “If you see a safe environment, people will come out,” she said. “If it reduces the amount of fear, why not give it a try?” Quirico took it a step further, hammering on the point that tournaments help women to connect with each other, and that tournaments do much more for a community than just showcasing top level play.

Hearthstone

The panel turned to solutions that could help get more women playing competitively. “More great and positive stories,” said Phan. “How did they overcome?” It was a consensus among the panelists, it seemed, in both the panel and speaking to them afterward. They wanted more stories and interviews that focused on the gaming, their abilities, their training schedules, and not pieces that focused solely on their gender. When I told Quirico after the panel that I always felt obligated to ask these questions (about being a woman in a male-dominated space), she came back immediately and bluntly with “Why?” It felt honest and raw.

eSports is a growing and wide field, and while there aren’t any concrete numbers on competitively playing women, it’s far smaller than the number of men playing professionally. For every Hafu or Scarlett who achieves success, there’s also stories like the recent MagicAmy one where a player is hounded and accused of being fake or a man—because, obviously, women can’t compete competitively. Quirico made what was maybe the most powerful statement during the panel: “The women that you know are walking through a minefield and you guys are skipping through a daisy patch.”

Hopefully, this panel is a step in the right direction to make eSports more accessible for everyone, not just for the men skipping obliviously through the daisy patch, but for the women who navigate this field, too.

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