Gaming and also competitive gaming, that is eSports, are at least theoretically very inclusive and diverse. Unlike, for example, soccer, tennis, volleyball, track and field, and actually all other classic sports, where not only men's and women's teams but also physically impaired people have to compete separately, eSports is inclusive. Anyone can compete against anyone here. Ultimately, it's all about the skills in the game.
This is proven by eSports pros like Niklas Luginsland, who we invited to ISPO Digitize 2019 already on ISPO.com have presented. Despite having a brittle bone disease, he has been a FIFA professional for VFB Stuttgart for several years and plays the soccer simulation game at the highest level in the German Bundesliga.
"In terms of my physical limitations, there are of course no barriers in eSports. In eSports I can just as anyone else just take the controller in hand and just go. And can achieve success just as."
But more and more female eSports pros are also in the spotlight. Sasha "Scarlett" Hostyn has been a star in the eSports sky for years. In StarCraft 2, she has been among the best players* in the world and among the top 10 non-Korean players* in terms of both prize money won and the Elo system almost consistently for the past ten years.
However, despite these positive examples of the inclusive possibilities of eSports, true diversity, especially at the professional level, is not yet a reality. Furthermore, there is a clear majority of male professional gamers. According to a recent estimate, the percentage of female professional players is only 5%. This is staggering when compared to the nearly 60% of women ages 18-29 who regularly play video games. So the professional gaming sector is 95% dominated by men. Because of this lack of diversity, there are several groups and movements in the industry working to make eSports more inclusive in general.
Whenever the discussion about women in the eSports sector is initiated, one must of course also face a discussion about the gaming scene and eSports culture in general. Playing video games is not yet as accepted in society and less widespread among young girls as it is among boys. As a result, girls often start gaming much later and stop again, especially as teenagers. But in recent years, this is changing. In 2020, 96% of boys and 76% of girls reported to play video games regularly, while the corresponding figures in 2018 were 96% and 63%. These figures show that social acceptance of gaming, even among young girls, has only begun to make strong progress in recent years.
In addition, young girls rather rarely see themselves as real gamers, and computer games are often just a pastime for them. With boys it is clearly more frequently the case that these identify themselves as Gamer and lay out their whole life around computer games and the eSports. In the survey cited above, several boys said they could imagine their own future in which computer games played a central role. For example, a profession as an eSports athlete, streamer or game developer.
But even if fewer young girls and women see computer games as a fixed part of their lives; those who do, often have to deal with more problems in the online world than their male counterparts. The eSports is far away from equal opportunities here.
The personal experience of many female players shows that boys and men often do not take female players seriously or even hit on and sexually harass them. If one does not respond to these advances, sexist insults not infrequently follow. It is hard to imagine developing the motivation in such an environment to put in the necessary time and work, which is necessary today to keep up at the highest level in the eSports field.
A discussion about diversity in eSports and equality is therefore necessary and must be held.
In the search for explanations for the lack of diversity, one must therefore also start with the basis of the gaming community. Because only those who started as casual gamers at some point can later become professionals. The vast majority of women, however, never make it to the professional level. Reason for this, could be the toxic gaming community.
Because anyone who has ever played a multiplayer online game knows that toxic comments, trolling and cyberbullying are commonplace here. This phenomenon is a problem in the gaming world that has been around since the very beginning. In some games more, in others less, but ultimately every popular multiplayer game is affected by it. In a 2020 study, with the help of the Toxic Comment Classifiers by IBM investigated the most different gaming communities on the internet platform Reddit to find out which games struggle most with this problem. What stands out most is that almost all highly competitive eSports titles like Counter Strike: Global Offensive, DOTA 2, League of Legends and Overwatch are represented on this list of the most toxic communities. So if you play these games regularly, sooner or later (and if we're honest, usually sooner) you'll be confronted with homophobic, sexist and racist statements.
By the way, women are particularly affected by this. A study by PickFu and Utopia Analytics from November 2021 shows that 30% of women surveyed have directly experienced insults and toxicity while playing online games. Most of them (72%) have directly encountered sexism and misogyny. In comparison, none of the male respondents said they had experienced any form of gender discrimination.
LGBTQ+ gamers also report similar experiences. A report published by the gaming website OnlineRoulette published survey of 788 people between the ages of 18 and 70 shows that 73% of all LGBTQ+ athletes have been harassed because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Players who come out online are 21% more likely to experience verbal harassment than other players.
The eSports industry itself knows that the current state of the professional scene is not desirable. Especially in recent years, game makers*, tournament organizers* and eSports organizations react with projects that, for example, put women and LGBTQ+ gamers* in the spotlight and thus advertise the diversity and inclusive possibilities of eSports.
However, not all that glitters is truly gold. From tournaments and leagues that are only open to women's teams, debates arise about whether male and female players* should even play together. And often these projects seem more like failed PR stunts than measures that really promote diversity in eSports.
In 2019, for example, the Russian eSports organization Vaevictis fielded an all-female team for the first time in the League of Legends Continental League (LCL). However, the team failed to record a single win in 28 matches, set a league record for the shortest average game time, which means the fastest average losses, and the most frequent in-game deaths. Player manufacturer Riot Games consequently kicked the team out of LCL again the next season. Whether the project was now really a success, advertising for women in eSports and encouraged female gamers to strive for a professional career, let's leave it at this point.
However, there are of course also positive examples and diversity-promoting projects. For example, Telekom is committed to more diversity in eSports and gaming as part of the Equal eSports Initiative.
"Gaming and eSports are now fixed components of the everyday culture of many adolescents. With this new initiative, Telekom wants to support this movement and address key issues such as diversity, Inclusion and strengthen digital education," says Birgit Bohle, Chief Human Resources Officer and Labor Director at Deutsche Telekom AG.
The project includes, on the one hand, a professional female team in the game League of Legends in cooperation with SK Gaming. The first all-female professional team in Germany will be professionally trained and can thus go into his competitions at the highest level.
Another part is the Female Player Program, which focuses on the promotion of young players. In addition, the initiative includes the Equal eSports Council, consisting of 13 top female players and greats of the Esports scene like Melly, Miss Rage, Anna Baumann or Kristin Banse. Together with a network of strong women from the business world, this council will steer the program.
But not only women are promoted. Also people with impairments have their place in eSports and their presence must be promoted with suitable projects. Worth mentioning here, for example, is the cooperation of Microsoft and the Paralympics "Gaming for Inclusion". The virtual, multi-day eSports tournament brought together more than 90 Paralympic athletes for eSports competitions in the games Forza Motorsport 7, Madden NFL 22 and Rocket League.
eSports has, even more perhaps than traditional sports, the possibility to connect people, to bring them together and to overcome borders. However, it is crucial to know that this theoretical possibility does not automatically entail practical implementation. All those involved in the industry - whether game manufacturers, tournament organizers, sponsors, brands and, of course, players themselves - must be aware that eSports is far from being as inclusive as it often pretends to be. On the one hand, fundamental social differences play a major role in this, but nevertheless the gaming community is not entirely innocent. It is important to allow an open discussion about the grievances and problems, but also about positive projects in this area. At the same time, players of all kinds who are and want to become part of the gaming and eSports community should be promoted, celebrated and appreciated by this very community.