In this article by Assistant Professor of Sport Management, Lindsey Darvin, the complex question, why college esports teams in the United States are dominated by men, is portrayed under a lens of toxicity only. I think the complex issue of lacking gender diversity, should be viewed taking all factors into consideration, to be able to tackle the problem properly.

These are the factors that contribute to the phenomenon of there being fewer women esports professional players compared to men. 

Historical barriers: Esports has traditionally been a space dominated by men, and this has created barriers for women who want to get involved. This is an issue we see in many other industries and solving this issue in esports, may help those industries as well.

Lack of representation: Women are underrepresented in the esports scene. The lack of role models makes it more difficult for women to envision themselves as professional gamers. Having role models will impact the next generation of gamers, so it may take time to see an effect here.

Lack of in-game representation: Video games were made by men, and the change has only yet begun, with game developers hiring more women as (lead-) developers. In CS:GO, players have to pay if they do not wish to play a CIS white male. For the most time in history, there were no women characters in CS:GO at all. In Overwatch and Valorant, adding women characters and playing with different sexual orientations in the design of in-game characters has led to more women players.

Differences in participation: Men tend to play (currently) more frequently and for longer periods (the reasons are unknown, but other studies show that women have more obligations at a younger age in families, compared to the male offspring). This aspect is often neglected in the discussion, but will have a strong impact on the performance as with every professional environment, people need to spend a lot of time and at an early age to master it. If men are playing more than women at an early age, they will have a significant competitive advantage.

Cultural factors: In some parts of the world, cultural attitudes discourage women from playing video games, which is also limiting the pool of women talent. Women start playing later. Some studies say, women are more reasonable and try to juggle both, their esports career as well as their performance in school, while some boys tend to risk everything for their esports career. A professional esports career is not foreseeable and comes with a hefty price: you need to be successful at a young age which means that talented players often have to postpone their education if they can not juggle both. 

The “wrong kind” of gender talk: I was only 19-years-old when a journalist asked me what it felt like to be the only woman playing in the World Cyber Games. The question left me a bit puzzled, because I wanted to speak about the tournament, the pressure on stage, a couple of well-timed in-game moments that I was proud of and that took months to prepare. People asking me about my gender made me realize that I was the only woman on that stage and them asking made me start wondering whether I belonged there with the men. Friends noticed and advised me against focusing on these questions and to focus on the next match instead.
We should, each and every one of us, uplift marginalized groups (it helps if you help one of your friends, a colleague or a fellow player), but we should stop asking them 99% of the time, what it feels like to be e.g. a woman or a transgender in the esports space. Confronting them all the time, is taking away time for training and focus. It is victimizing them, making them feel weak (in the words of Taina Myöhänen: “bad, unheard, underestimated”). In a nutshell: help them, do not make them ponder on a problem that they are not responsible for. Empower them, by asking them something that makes them outstanding as a player, helps them build their brand and therefore, their career.
If you want to help women and LGBTQ+ players succeed, as a general rule of thumb, before you interview a marginalized group: Ask yourself, whether you would ask a cisgender, white man the same question. I know it can be complicated, but we need to think these thoughts. And if we make mistakes, we can always say we are sorry. Mistakes will be made, and that’s okay, as long as we make an honest effort to walk in each other’s shoes. 

It is a complex issue with many factors at play. Toxicity is a huge issue, but it is by far not the only problem. We need to address the issue of lacking gender diversity in esports from a holistic perspective and we also should not expect a change overnight. A change in gender diversity in esports requires a paradigm shift in which we should all engage, in order to make it a reality. Our goal needs to be a world, where mixed teams are simply normal. However, there are initiatives such as ESL Impact underway to promote gender diversity.

Dr. Julia Hiltscher, Director Corporate Responsibility, manages the CSR projects and Change Management including the non-Financial reporting at ESL Faceit Group. She played Unreal Tournament in the World Cyber Games in 2004, has been a working at the Electronic Sports League since Feb. 2006 and established the world’s first global esports research annual in 2009. Hiltscher achieved her PhD about Esports Culture in 2021, and in 2020, became a founding member of the Esports Research Network. (Twitter, LinkedIn)