Women in eSports: What’s Happened, What’s Happening, and Who’s Leading the Way

Gaming, especially at the professional level, is bigger now than it’s ever been. Arenas are jam packed full of people from across the world, from countries like South Korea to the United States. Heroes are made from ordinary people, as more and more individuals within the competitive gaming world become household names. Gamers are getting thrust into the public eye, and with it comes questions on how they are treated. Stereotypically, the standard gamer is male, and the competitive demographic tends to reflect that. As a result, there tends to be a less than fantastic reaction when an anomaly such as prominent women in the competitive gaming world come into the light. However, this is slowly but surely beginning to fade away as the number of prominent women in professional gaming is starting to grow.

One of the areas that harbors such growth is in a seemingly unlikely place: the world of competitive Super Smash Bros. A game that was initially never intended by its creator, Masahiro Sakurai, to be competitive now fosters one of the only female-exclusive entry points into the competitive scene, with the Smash Sisters side event beginning at the fourth iteration of the Smash tournament known as Genesis. While Smash is not the only eSport to promote female-exclusive competitions or teams, as professional gaming organizations such as Team Dignitas field an all-female Counter Strike roster, the unorthodox fighting game can largely be credited to directly helping women enter the competitive scene. Team Dignitas Smash player Joey Aldama, also known by his alias, “Lucky”, is a veteran of the Smash Bros. scene, having been competing in its second iteration, Super Smash Bros: Melee since 2007. Aldama explains that, “When you think about it, the Melee community has been around for a long time. Obviously, women in eSports have been unfortunately a little halted with progression due to the nature of their surroundings, but Smash in general has been trying to take a big step forward into making a lot more of a better environment.”

The female veterans of the Smash community have witnessed this growth, but remember a time when it was virtually impossible to make a start in competitive gaming. Pacific Northwest-based competitor Charlie “LadyC” Morrow looks back on the early days of the competitive Smash community remembering the difficulties that women had in the scene, saying that, “I’ve been competing in Melee on and off since about 2009…[the early Smash community] has its charm, but it was just bad for women.” Morrow continued to note the growth in the mindset of the community, saying that, “I heard a lot of [harassment] when I first started, but I haven’t really gotten that in the last couple years that I’ve been competing. We’re definitely getting better and I hope that this trend continues, but we still have a long ways to go.”

Fellow Smash veteran Sesh Evans notes where progress in the mindset of the community still needs to be made, noting that, “That’s the progress that needs to be made still, is abolishing that idiotic mindset. That’s definitely a minority of people…it’s really just a matter of us getting better to where that’s not a normal mindset.”

That progress has reflected most significantly in a piece of recent history for the Super Smash Bros. community: for the first time in Melee’s competitive history, the list of the top 100 players in the world include a non-male player. Sasha Sullivan, better known as “Magi,” is the first non-male player in the Melee community player to crack the list of elite players that are touted as the best in the world. This can be seen as the first of many new prominent non-male competitors in the world of both Smash and eSports as a whole, and the community echoes the sentiment the Sullivan is the first in an inevitable wave of top non-male competitors in the realm of eSports. “As more and more women join the community, I feel that it’s only a matter of time,” says Pacific student and top-level smasher Zaid Ali ‘20, “With newly ranked Magi defeating Mang0, #5 in the world, here at Genesis, I think that more women will find inspiration, and hopefully less intimidation, in pursuing Smash.”

Other top players, such as Tempo Storm’s Jeffrey “Axe” Williamson, share Ali’s view, as he explains that, “That’s a big deal, there haven’t been any female players for Melee to make it to the top 100, it just makes a big statement and it’s just really nice to see.”

With those beginning signs of progress, however, come forms of pushback in various gaming communities. Popular team-based first-person-shooter Overwatch, published by Blizzard Entertainment in 2016, is currently one of the biggest games being played at a competitive level today. With hundreds of thousands of viewers tuning in to watch competitors in the still new and improving Overwatch League, some of the best gaming talent in the world is showcased on a weekly basis. One of the players in said league is Se-Yeon Kim, also known as Geguri, the first female to play competitive Overwatch professionally. Kim’s career is not without controversy, as her rise to prominence was marked with large amounts of harassment and skepticism. Her skill was doubted to the point where various professional players in the South Korean scene insisted that her play was a result of cheating. The young player, then 16 years old, endured harassment that went so far as death threats, simply because she was good at playing a competitive game. Thanks to efforts from Blizzard Korea, Kim was successfully able to prove her skills on a live stream, and is now among the ranks of the best professional Overwatch players in the world.

“It’s going to become a lot more rare, and that’s really the only goal anyone can have, is for it to be an oddity when that happens,” explains Evans, “I honestly don’t think people are good enough overall for it to go away completely. It takes awhile to see these changes, but I really do think we’re making progress.”

Smash commentator and long time face of the community Terrence “TKBreezy” Kershaw notes that, with eSports like Overwatch that are on a much larger stage, there exists a need for organizing companies to stop toxic behavior. “I don’t know about Smash being able to affect bigger eSports, I think that has to come down from the top. I think that the companies that run [those eSports] need to take a firm stand on some of these issues, like harassment against women…because we’re way smaller than them,” Kershaw explains, “So yeah, there’s going to be some overlap, but not enough overlap to matter, and that’s why when you have a backing company such as Blizzard or Riot, they need to say something or do something to take measure to make their communities a better place.”

The eSports community, despite the existence of harassment, is now learning to police and come down on problematic behavior. Allegations of assault and online harassment have been coming to light in the gaming community, and Smash is no exception, whether the individuals are members of regional communities or members of professional organizations. The fact that they are brought to light and punished within the communities that they harm is yet another sign of a push for positive progress. “The fact that they’re speaking out [about harrassment] now and not keeping it to themselves…I think that’s correct,” says Williamson, “I think people that are sexually harassing people in the Smash community shouldn’t be here.”

Despite the faults that still exist in the gaming community, there is still a sense of hope for its growing levels of inclusion. “I think a lot of it kind of depends on the eSport itself. Hearthstone, for example, and the equality there is unparalleled compared to how it is in Smash or Overwatch,” explains Morrow, “We can take a lesson from that, and that gives me hope that not only Smash will improve in that aspect, but other eSports will follow suit. There are examples out there of open, supportive communities for women, nonbinary and trans folks, so fingers crossed that it just gets better in general.”

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