Beyond potential: the structural issue of gender diversity in esports
Based on his fieldwork in Berlin, Tom Legierse cautions that although esports are heralded as potentially gender inclusive spaces, in reality gender discrimination is still deeply ingrained in their structures. Aspiring Dutch esports capitals have to take care not to reproduce gendered inequality.
Esports are a relatively new phenomenon that have started to become mainstream in the past ten to fifteen years. Still, a lot of people are unaware of how big the esports industry actually is. When explaining my research to colleagues, friends and family, I often have to explain what exactly are ‘esports’? The answer is quite simple: a videogame becomes an esport when it is played competitively, it comprises the act of competitive videogaming. Internationally, esports have grown into a billion dollar industry. In the Netherlands, cities like The Hague, Rotterdam and Utrecht have recently indicated they would like to become ‘esports capital of the Netherlands’. Anthropologists, however, have so far paid little attention to videogaming and its competitive sub-practice.
The few existing anthropological studies on this practice, characterize esports by its potential to be much more inclusive than other social spaces in our society, and therefore to be a vehicle for cultural change. While the potential may be there, the current lack of diversity in competitive participants indicates that this space is still far from inclusive. Tune in to any random esports tournament on Twitch.tv and you will immediately see what I mean. The vast majority of competitors, commentators and other visible professionals are men. That there is a potential to be diverse, does not mean this potential is or will ever be met. During my fieldwork, some participants would try to explain this by pointing out that women tend to play games less often than men or that they play other (read: more casual) games, but previous studies on the subject have found that this is certainly not the case. Women and men play the same games, but do they have an equal playing field?
Freedom to reproduce
To gain legitimacy as a mainstream social activity, esports have mimicked the competitive and social structures of traditional sports. We see this in the way tournaments are organized, but also in the adoption of certain ‘common sense’ notions present in traditional sports. For example, my participants who are working in esports indicated that in most teams, the idea of having a ‘mixed team’ is off the books because of the supposed incompatibility of men and women. Notions of male (athletic) superiority on the basis of biology are expressed by fans, but also reflected in the way some professional (male) teams refuse to play against women. Although these notions are actively contested by some of my participants, they at the same time appear to be deeply ingrained in the organizational structures of professional teams and their surrounding social fabric.
From what I have observed amongst esports fans, men often argue that men are better at becoming technologically literate and have a more competitive mindset or even better reflexes. The absence of women as competitors in most esports competition reinforces these notions. In reality, men are keeping women and others outside of the gate by disproportionally questioning their skills and meeting them with sexist comments. Women are not seen as legitimate actors in the competitive gaming environment, resonating with the position of women in traditional sports. This means we have to ask ourselves whether the potential that esports are said to have is actually attainable. Instead of applauding esports for its potential inclusivity, we should start critically examining exactly how gendered discrimination is ingrained in esports’ social structures.
Capitals for men
If we tie this back to cities in the Netherlands striving to become ‘esports capital of the Netherlands’, we see that these cities seek to do this through traditional sports. They promote esports either by highlighting the connection between gaming and physical activity or through traditional sports associations, mostly including young children and teenagers. However, I would like to argue that if Dutch cities want to become esport capitals, in order to not become capitals for men exclusively, they have to look critically at what audience they address as they seek legitimacy of esports through means of traditional sports or physical activity. These cities should be careful to promote esports (and all sports) as inclusive spaces, rather than reinforcing current exclusionary practices.
If local governments really believe that esports are the future and that we should invest in building structures for people to practice, train and compete in this field, then we should ask ourselves whose future this really is. Here lies an important role for anthropology, as the discipline is perfectly equipped to critically examine the social effects of something that is presented as a logical, unproblematic and strategic decision - in this case the mimicking of the structures of traditional sports. Anthropologists can help to start asking and addressing the questions that will allow moving esports towards having a future for men, women and others alike. Not because esports should have the potential to be inclusive, but because we would really like it to be.