Seeking Safer Spaces and Inclusivity in Esports

By Andreea Hanko

What is Esports?

Esports, which are video games that are played in a highly organized and competitive environment have become controversial in the last couple of years due to their lack of diversity in players, despite being a significant cultural phenomenon and serving a billion-dollar industry. Audiences for esports have grown substantially over the past five years, and player demographics have changed. According to Vividata’s 2020 Esports Study, there are currently just under 6 million esports viewers in Canada seeing an increase of about 1.3 million fans in the past year. Greater percentage of those who watched esports yesterday were women (53%) versus men (47%), indicating that esports viewing recency is higher among women.

Source: Vividata’s 2020 Esports Study, n = 5036

Games are no longer just a passion for young boys. A growing number of girls and young adults from various backgrounds have shown interest and talent in them as well. In fact, Vividata’s 2020 Esports Study reveals that close to 50% of women adults believe that “video games allow me to pretend I am someone or somewhere else,” emphasizing the lure of fantasy here. The motivation to imagine and fantasize in esports is only slightly higher among men. A similar proportion of women believe that they play video games because “it is cool”, because they “can stop anytime” as well as agree that they “make purchases within the game to get further”!

All of this only goes to show that the rise of esports is here to stay. Globally crossing a billion dollars in market spend in 2019, a year-on-year growth of +26.7%. Although it may take a few years to fully realize the impact of esports, the rise of mobile and virtual reality gaming has become an enticing niche for the future of the gaming industry. What the esports and gaming industry as a whole really lacks is more opportunities for women and minorities which have to be created, in order to generate a fairer and more inclusive gaming world.

Harassment in Esports – Online and Offline

Overall, while esports viewership is growing, there has been a significant increase in both occasional and enthusiastic gamers as classified by varied gamer segmentations. Occasional gamers are those individuals who participate in gaming occasionally, while the enthusiasts are those avid gamers who play all the time, with some even making a living out of it. Between 2016 and 2018, the number of occasional gamers increased significantly from 160 million to over 215 million.

Globally, the number of esports enthusiasts have increased from 121 million to more than 165 million. Although the occasional gamers are the main audience, these numbers are changing rapidly and experts predict that by 2021 there will be a 35% growth in the industry.

Although we see changes in industry trends, the question remains: where are the women? Globally more than half of all gamers are women, yet we continue to represent a minority in esports.

A similar situation is happening in live sports. Although women have gotten closer to achieving gender equality in sports in general, true equity hasn’t been attained yet. And the media doesn’t make it better by portraying certain sports including football and hockey as masculine activities not suitable for women. Women’s sports is often regarded and presented in a different style that reflects stereotypes and “incurs” discriminatory attitudes and everyday sexisms. Violence against women, exploitation and harassment are some of the persisting challenges that women report facing in a male-dominated sports environment.

It’s truly appalling that women continue not to have a voice and be discriminated against and harassed. Some of the women describe the harassment as verbal, including insults, lewd messages and invective being sent over the platform. Others have been receiving death threats and hate-filled comments. One woman who chooses to stay anonymous says she’s been afraid of speaking out due to fear of causing trouble and lack of support. People need to be more open-minded to the idea that we live in a more modern age and start welcoming players from all countries regardless of race, background or gender.

“The problem is not everyone outside of esports is as open-minded as we’d like them to be yet.”

Mickie Rataschoud, a 25-year-old avid gamer from Thailand.

By failing to address issues of discrimination and racism and a toxic online culture, developers and publishers of many-core and online games are failing to attract a wider audience and are fostering a closed community.

With regard to the treatment of female gamers, there have been numerous instances of harassment while playing games online and no one seems to be doing anything about it which causes even more problems within the industry. Online games have an advantage over offline games because they allow gamers to build relationships around the world. These games help users learn about team play, and collaboration, however these games appear also more likely to lead to aggression, harassment and addiction. Offline games are less likely to be played in isolation requiring people to gather in groups or teams. A reason offline gaming is less popular is because they require more investment into the gaming equipment. The bottom line is there is the perception that women are less likely to experience harassment or discrimination while playing offline because they are not as exposed to trolls.

In terms of the diversity of video game characters, according to a Nielsen 360 Gaming study published in the US, over 65% of multicultural gamers felt that they could not relate to any of the characters in a game. More than half of these gamers believed there is a lack of racial and gender representation in video game characters. One such game is the popular Grand Theft Auto V which did not show any signs of being inclusive at all. The latest game in the franchise left gamers frustrated and divided with its portrayal of violence against women, ethnic minorities and the LGBTQ community. But it’s not all hopeless. There are some games that have tried to appeal to gamers of all races and backgrounds or classes.

Two that stand out are “Watch Dogs 2” a game that features an awesome range of young people from various walks of life and a better representation of minorities, and “Life is Strange,” a great example of a complex game that embraces LBTQ values and relationships, as well as bullying, sexism, mental illness and violence against women. Furthermore, as a response to the lack of diversity within the industry and the discrimination found in online gaming, organizations have started supporting underrepresented groups.

In Canada, especially in Quebec, there are some female esports teams emerging including Overwatch’s Sailor Scouts which aims to bring together players from Overwatch and Starcraft II and encourage more women to play competitively in the world of esports. There are also many video game trade awareness groups that cater to women and minorities such as Pixels, Girls on Games etc. based in Quebec. Similarly, in the UK in Europe, there have been various initiatives to represent women in a male-dominated industry including the British Esports Association Women in Esports Committee.  Although harassment has been tackled due to an increasing number of reports and the frequency of comments that contain verbal abuse showing up online, there is still a lot of work to be done. “Trash talk” as it is known in esports is becoming a fundamental part of the esports culture, according to an anonymous source.

However, over the last couple of years many different solutions have been identified for eliminating the stereotypes and establishing a safe and welcoming environment where women feel empowered and appreciated. This includes educating women and increasing their access to more opportunities and resources, providing them with more leadership roles and better security to advance in esports.

Towards Safety and Equity in Esports

Although there have been many initiatives towards embracing diversity and inclusion in both esports and live sports as stated above, we should admit that diversification is currently our most powerful weapon against gender skews and the elimination of stereotypes. Diversity, for better or worse, online or offline, in a live, or virtual setting, is here to stay (because that is the nature of demographics in Canada), all we must do is accept and learn to progress with it as a society.

The world of online sports and live sports is not going to be harassment-free unless society comes together and does something about it. There’s always going to be that certain someone who has something to complain about and will spread hate online or offline. However, if the right types of tools, interventions and resources are used or designed to educate these people, I believe, a difference can surely be made.

A lot of people ask themselves what can be done to address the problem of the lack of true inclusion or player safety in esports and live sports. Truth is, a lot, if people are willing to do what it takes to improve the state of gaming and sports. Efforts such as creating a plan for inclusion, enforcing a code of conduct, and developing more programs and support networks that are aimed towards a diverse audience will pay off in the long run.

In Ottawa, it has been announced that a portion of the government’s funds (over $200K) will be invested in developing a national code of conduct and the creation of a Gender Equity Secretariat that will be responsible for the development of gender equity, followed by a series of regional workshops that will demonstrate the importance of safety in sports and education. Women, minorities and others must feel welcome in esports and must not be afraid to speak up especially when they are being judged or experiencing any kind of harassment.

Gamers must be educated and taught about the consequences that come with being aggressive and racist. In order to achieve positive change, there has to be a commitment from all parties involved, and not just one group (for example just the victims or just the government). Developing programs that address the needs of various groups which includes those who prefer a different style of gaming, a different platform or are experiencing a lack of representation is what will drive true progress in this field.  

Andreea Hanko has a BA in Management from York University and lives in Toronto.

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