The first esports event Sabrina Wong ever attended was MLG Anaheim 2014. The competition was an important one for fans of Nintendo’s “Super Smash Bros. Melee.” It was the first “Smash” tournament held by Major League Gaming since 2011, and the first “Melee” featured since 2006. But, out of the thousands of cheering fans packing the Anaheim Convention Center, Wong could only count four other women in the crowd.
“I was so confused because I thought it was such a great experience,” said Wong, who’s now events lead for the esports organization Immortals. “I didn’t understand why.”
|Immortals events lead Sabrina Wong
Esports has experienced a popularity boom in recent years. The industry is expected to grow to over $900 million this year, according to market intelligence company Newzoo. Major networks like ESPN and Turner now regularly air tournaments with prize pools rivaling some of the biggest events in traditional sports.
While its audience is typically male and millennial, there are signs esports is becoming more diverse. About 29% of U.S. fans between the ages of 13 and 40 began watching in the past year and they “skew less male and are less likely to be millennials than fans who have followed esports longer,” according to a report from Nielsen Games. That same report said women now make up approximately 25% of the U.S. fan base.
There’s still a distinct lack of professional female gamers to watch, however, and it’s one reason why the industry remains unattractive to many women.
There are some notable exceptions, of course. The Shanghai Dragons signed the Overwatch League’s first woman player, Se-yeon “Geguri” Kim, during its inaugural season. Sasha “Scarlett” Hostyn is currently the only woman to win a major international “StarCraft II” tournament. Team Dignitas signed an all-women’s “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive” team last year. Global esports organization Gen. G recently created an all-female U.S. “Fortnite” team, signing Tina Perez and Madison Mann — perhaps better known by their respective gamer tags, TINARAES and Maddiesuun. Epic Games’ battle royale title is hugely popular, with over 125 million players, and a large portion of that fan base is female, Gen. G said.
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“We started looking at the female players and noticing that they were just as good, if not better than the male players,” said Jordan Sherman, Gen. G’s head of partnerships. “But no female players were really given the opportunity to come into a professional environment and play competitively as part of an organization.”
|Tina Perez and Madison Mann (a.k.a. TINARAES and maddiesuun)
Gen. G also recently hired Kristen Valnicek as its head of new gaming initiatives. Valnicek is a popular Twitch streamer who goes by the name KittyPlays, as well as the founder of Team Kitty, a network of over 100 (mostly) women broadcasters on Twitch. In her new role, she will work on new sponsorships, partnerships, recruiting, and community engagement. She told Variety she’s the first woman streamer to transition into a business role in the esports industry.
“Even though we’ve had some role models, I think the treatment of our role models on the internet has created this barrier for women,” Valnicek said. “But, I think now with ‘Fortnite,’ you really see all genders being embraced. The communities are very, very positive.”
|Gen. G head of new gaming initiatives Kristen Valnicek
“In my mind, the way that you create true fandom … is standing for something a little more than just a win and loss record,” said Immortals CEO Noah Whinston. Immortals owns the Overwatch League team L.A. Valiant, which claims to have the highest percentage of female fans in the league. “By having a real undertone of values. A foundation of values. So that when you’re a fan of an organization, when you’re participating in fan communities around an organization, you know that everyone around you has these fundamental beliefs that are the same as you.”
Immortals’ values are consistent across all of its players and employees, and it’s led to a community that’s more inclusive and welcoming, Whinston said. He believes esports in its current state is limited because roughly half the world’s population is not the most welcome in it. That percentage might be even higher when you include the LGBTQ community and gender non-conforming people. “There are a lot of minority and marginalized groups that don’t necessarily have a place they can call their own in esports,” he said.
Esports’ lack of diversity could negatively impact its reach and profitability in the future, according to David Smith, founder and chief financial officer of the nonprofit Women in Games. “The existing, largely male audience is not large enough to support all the companies who want to participate,” he said.
While Whinston said Immortals would never recruit a player from a marginalized group simply because they’re from that marginalized group, he also believes it’s not enough to simply have female-only leagues or the occasional pro player.
“I think that the best way to make sure that there’s a generation of professional caliber female gamers within the next three to five years of OWL is to start at the grassroots level,” he said. “To take talented female players that are too young for OWL, they might not be experienced enough yet, but it’s really to give them resources to climb that ladder and encourage participation at the lower levels of play and at the grassroots level of play, and hope that some percentage of those female players filter up to the professional level.”
Toxicity also remains an issue. Earlier this year, two Dallas Fuel players, Timo “Taimou” Kettunen and Félix “xQc” Lengyel, faced disciplinary action in two separate incidents. Kettunen was fined $1,000 for using anti-gay slurs on his personal stream, while Lengyel was suspended for four matches and fined $4,000 for using an emote in a racially disparaging manner on the league’s stream and on social media. The OWL also broke its contract with 21-year-old Boston Uprising player Jonathan “DreamKazper” Sanchez in April after he allegedly pursued a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old fan.
Immortals and Gen. G both believe one of the best ways to combat toxicity among their players is media training. Gen. G recently brought in former NBA star Chris Bosh as a player management advisor, while Immortals regularly invites organizations like You Can Play and GLAAD to come speak with its teams and teach them how to deal with different social issues.
|Jen Neale, manager of PR and communications for Immortals, LA Valiant, and MIBR
“We bring in these young kids … we take them at 17 to 18 years old, pluck them out from behind a computer and throw them into an environment where we expect them to act like professional athletes,” said Jen Neale, manager of PR and communications for Immortals, LA Valiant, and MIBR. “And when you don’t have the same social skills that maybe a player that’s come up through the NBA or NHL has, it takes some learning.”
Thanks to the media training, however, Neale said Immortals’ players have changed dramatically. “They really have changed the way they talk and the way they interact and present themselves to our fans,” she said.
“I don’t think that we’re in a position that we could stop the internet as a whole, but I think we can play our part,” Sherman said. “And I think our part is saying, ‘We’re going to make a commitment to female gaming. We’re going to make a commitment to female community organizing. We’re not going to apologize for who we are or the way we play, and we’re going to build a fan base of people who want to root for us and support us.’ If we take that path, Gen. G’s really gonna stand for something and we’re going to grow really quickly. Because we think a lot of people will rally around that message.”