It’s undeniable that becoming a professional Esports player is increasingly a viable and lucrative career path. Professional players can make a lot of money through a combination of winning tournaments and other sources of income such as streaming. However, it is also undeniable that female players have not enjoyed the same level of success in Esports as male players. This can clearly be seen in the gender pay gap among professional Esports athletes. The highest-paid female player is Scarlett (real name Sasha Hostyn) who has made $425,939.86, while the highest-paid male player, N0tail (real name Johan Sundstein), has made $7,183,837.80. In fact, if we were to rank players by earnings without considering gender, Scarlett would not even be in the top 100 highest earners.
Women not only make less money compared to male players, but they’re also severely underrepresented at elite levels. For example, no woman has played in the League of Legends’ Championship Series since 2016 and no woman has ever won a DOTA 2 world championship. In order to address the considerable gender gap, some companies and private individuals have taken steps to organise women-only Esports tournaments, such as LSPS. Women-only tournaments are intended to boost female participation in Esports, and can even somewhat improve earnings for female players. However, there is an argument to be made that, despite the good intentions of the organisers, the gender segregation that such tournaments promote is ultimately both unnecessary and potentially a hindrance to women’s equality in Esports.
In conventional sports, gender segregation exists because of physical differences between the sexes (such as men having higher testosterone and muscle mass) which make women uncompetitive at elite levels. These differences don’t exist in Esports. Physical fitness is obviously not a serious concern when it comes to playing a video game, making sex differences related to strength and physical performance completely irrelevant. Some players claim that other biological factors might make women inherently worse players than men, but this conclusion is not supported by research. Once confounding factors such as playtime are controlled for, studies have found no difference between men’s and women’s skills at playing video games, and no difference in the rate at which they improve. This strongly suggests that social rather than biological factors are causing the gender gap in Esports. This means that, unlike in most traditional sports, women-only leagues are not necessary.
Furthermore, gender segregation in Esports might actually contribute to sexist ideas about female gamers. There is already a perception that women are not capable of performing at the same level as men. Having separate Esports tournaments for women could reinforce this notion. This is because, as stated before, the reasoning behind having separate leagues in traditional sports is that women have certain biological disadvantages when compared to men. There is therefore a risk that sexist players who already think women are inherently worse at video games will see women-only tournaments as a confirmation of their beliefs. In the long run, women-only tournaments risk increasing sexist perceptions about female players.
However, there are other arguments for women-only competitions. Female players often face sexist and discriminatory attitudes from opponents, teammates, and viewers. More than half have been subjected to sexist comments, while 12.1% have even been subjected to rape threats. Naturally, this leads to a stressful, unpleasant experience for female gamers. Escaping the toxicity and verbal abuse they can face in male-dominated tournaments is also a compelling reason to have separate women-only competitions. It could even be argued that playing in a less hostile environment might even increase engagement and participation at all levels of play, hence ensuring that more women play long enough to accrue elite-level skills.
While it is undeniable that women should not have to face sexism and harassment in professional gaming, segregation is only a partial solution that doesn’t address the root problem. A better solution would be to address the virulent sexism present in some mixed competitions. Large Esports organisers such as ESL already have a code of conduct that states that hate speech (including misogynistic hate speech) is not acceptable. In order to make high-level competitive play more welcoming towards women, tournament organisers should fully crackdown on abusive players, perhaps with penalties such as long-lasting bans. Solutions that tackle misogyny in Esports could lead to community-wide improvements that create a safer environment for all female players. Women-only tournaments can only create safe bubbles within a wider toxic community, limiting their potential for positive change. In addition, asserting that gender segregation in Esports is necessary to protect women from harassment unfairly shifts responsibility to the victims of sexism. Saying that women who don’t want to face misogyny in Esports should just play in all-female competitions is similar to saying that women who don’t like street harassment should control what they wear and where they go. In both cases, expecting women to change their behaviour in order to protect themselves is wrong. Instead, we should be focusing on changing the behaviour of perpetrators so that they can’t hurt anyone.
The impulse to protect women from sexism, or to close the significant gender gap in Esports, is certainly laudable. However, we must ensure that our attempts to do so are improving things rather than making the situation worse. Furthermore, since we have limited time and resources, we must also ensure that our attempts are the optimal way of solving the problem, or as close to optimal as possible. It is unclear whether women-only leagues make the situation better or worse for women in Esports. On the one hand, it can give some female players a chance to hone their skills in a safe, welcoming environment. On the other hand, it can give ammunition to those who think that women are inherently incapable of competing at the same level as men. There are other ways of creating safe spaces within Esports for women which don’t reinforce untrue and damaging stereotypes. Those who want to protect female players from harassment could organise tournaments where sexism would not be tolerated.