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Women pro-gamers: the barriers to entry

Written by: Melanie Ang

Edited by: Ria Chia

Illustrations designed by: Catharina Schultz

Content Warning: Discusses verbal and sexual harassment.


No woman has ever played competitively in any rendition of The International (TI), arguably the largest esports tournament in the world.

TI is the main tournament for the game of Dota 2, akin to the Olympics for the game. Held annually, it always had the largest prize pool in all esports tournaments around the world. In 2019, the prize pool was almost USD$35 million, with the winning team taking home more than USD$15 million. Though many females have played prominent roles in casting and hosting the many renditions of this tournament, we have not seen a woman player in any of the competing teams, and we likely won’t be seeing one anytime soon. Granted, Dota 2 is just one game out of many. Professional women gamers have competed in other tournaments, and even won (once) but they still make up a very small percentage of pro-gamers. Why is this so? And why is the competitive gaming world geared so much towards one gender?

As I looked into the research surrounding this topic, I found a few plausible explanations. A thesis on gender inequality in esports theorised that women go through three phases in gaming: casual gaming with friends, competitive gaming after gaining more experience, and being harassed resulting in loss of interest. This theory holds true for many women, with many gamers from both genders expressing that their entry into gaming usually starts with friends and harassment in competitive gaming is common.

Moreover, women pro-gamers do not just receive criticism from men but also women who uphold cruel standards for other women.

Kim Se Yeon, the only women pro-gamer in Overwatch League, was once accused of cheating with aiming software all because her aim was “too good”. Confident that she did not have the skills, two male pro-gamers even put their careers on the line, saying that they would quit esports if she wasn’t cheating. It took her streaming with a live camera on Twitch and a statement from Blizzard, the developer of Overwatch, to push these naysayers away. The two gamers eventually left the scene because of this incident, and Geguri was signed onto a pro team. While there is a happy ending in this story, it isn’t a victory for aspiring women pro-gamers.

It showed that gender is a barrier, and such harassment is the norm for women looking to go ‘pro’.

We can also see rampant harassment in a popular video game streaming site, Twitch. In general, women gamers on Twitch have received more sexual comments and comments on their appearance than their male counterparts. The recent #MeToo movement in gaming showed how much underlying abuse there is in gaming, abuse that major platforms like Twitch knew about but did nothing to stop.

The vast amounts of allegations of sexual misconduct, harassment and abuse say a lot about the industry. Even as brave women make their stories of sexual harassment public, they’re still afraid that “men will get away with it” because they have never needed to be accountable for their actions until recently. As Twitch starts banning partners that have been found guilty of using its platform to harass women, others are calling for more to be done. Many are saying that the industry needs to go through systemic change so women are better protected.

We can thank the industry for normalising toxicity and perpetuating the stereotype that gaming is only for men. Early gaming ad campaigns specifically target adolescent boys, using sexualised images and violent connotations to sell.

Image courtesy of The Guardian

Aside from the harassment women face, the stereotype of women as inferior to men in gaming impedes performance. Many studies have shown that this stereotype reduces women players’ confidence. This stops them from playing and improving their skills, widening the skill gap between male and women gamers. To make matters worse, the stereotype results in decreased performance in playing games; a study has shown that when a person is reminded of the negative connotations that are attached to their gender, they perform worse cognitively. Lastly, the association of gaming to men also leads to women constantly feeling unwelcome and unable to identify with being a gamer. That, coupled with the expectation of harassment results in a lack of interest to compete. The lack of women gamers then strengthens that association and it becomes a negative feedback loop.

There have been many counter-arguments to this theory, saying that women are worse than men in video gaming due to their biology. However, many studies have shown that women actually do not possess inferior gaming skills as compared to men. When pitted against each other, men and women who have the same amount of hours spent gaming showed no discernable difference in skill. Some even surpassed men in skill. Take Simone Lee for instance, she won her first ever Pokemon tournament against much older competition at the age of seven! Even so, both men and women still believe in the stereotype that women aren't anywhere near the level of male gamers.

As a woman and a person who plays games, reading this research has been enlightening.

Unbeknownst to me, I have subconsciously been affected by the stereotype of women being inferior in gaming.

Even now, I don’t consider myself a gamer; feeling that the tag should be given to someone with a better calibre of skills than I do.

I’ve also been afraid of revealing my gender in the games I play, choosing gender-neutral gamertags and typing out communications instead of speaking in the microphones. Many other women players have felt the same, some even expressed that speaking in online voice chats usually results in sexist remarks or sexual harassment.

The gamer and esports culture is also seen as unfriendly to many women players. Many feel that women competitive players who get signed onto teams can be perceived as a token player; that they were not recognised for their hard-earned skills because they are women. While women wish to see more representation in professional gaming, proving that females are skillful and can win men in competitions, they feel that it would be too much pressure to compete themselves.

Competing as a woman, because of the minority, can result in an increased pressure to perform, which ironically impedes their performance.

Not to mention, the pay gap between men and women is enormous. Out of the top 500 players with the highest earnings, only 1 is a woman. Admittedly, this statement is contentious because of the vast difference in earnings one can get due to the game they compete in. Currently, the most lucrative game to compete in is Dota 2, one which the majority of the top 100 highest earning esports players compete in. However, it is also a game that has never seen a woman player in any of its major tournaments. This is unlikely to change as most of the game’s active players are men.

Multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) games, a genre of games that Dota 2 belongs to is known to be one of the most complicated types of games to play. In MOBA games, players are split into 2 equal teams and compete against each other on a predetermined battlefield. Dota 2 is known to be the most difficult MOBA game to play, and the least beginner friendly one due to the lack of comprehensive new player experience. Furthermore, the player base is known to be one of the most toxic ones, where players flame one and other in game due to the smallest mistakes.

This could be the explanation for its lack of women players. Studies have shown that women generally have less leisure time to spend on games than men. Because of that, most women prefer casual games than more complicated games like Dota 2 which takes a long time to learn and play proficiently. The lack of females is not exclusive to Dota 2, the majority of MOBA players are male. It seems that to compete for the largest prize pool in esports, one must go through these larger than normal barriers with additional ones for women players.

There’s still a glimmer of hope. Now that women gamers are on the rise and many game developers are producing more gender-neutral games, we can expect that the male and women gamer ratio will become more or less equalised. Esports tournaments are also looking at creating a safer space for women pro-gamers. All-women teams have been included in tournaments and there have even been communities created just for women gamers, hopefully, this will help more females compete professionally.

MOBA game developers have to focus on creating better new player experiences and having a more supportive player base. This will help make the games less intimidating to start which may attract more women players. More positively, there have been community-led initiatives where more experienced players volunteer to coach newer players for free. However, in terms of attracting new players to start playing, there is still a long way to go.

Community wise, there are a lot more that gaming companies can do to support gender equality in games. For one, cracking down on the harassment being dished out and toxic behaviour amongst gamers. Valve has recently implemented new measures in the Dota 2 game to provide more accurate reporting against players. However, community behaviour cannot be changed with just software updates. Many players, including professional players, still have the mindset that it’s okay to engage in toxic, even racist, comments towards other players in game. Companies need to actively educate the consequences of harassment, properly punish prominent players for such behaviour to set an example and clamp down on player behaviour through in-game reports on toxic communication.

Professional players need to speak out against unacceptable behaviour and set a positive example for the community. Most importantly, women need to support other women, lift them up and not put them down. Only then will the community’s mindset change and gaming can be a better experience for both women and men.

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