The scene for the League of Legends Season 2 World Championship finals in 2012. Image: artubr/Flickr
Despite stubborn stereotypes about video games being an overwhelmingly male indulgence, women make up a significant chunk of the gaming public. Almost half, in fact, according to a 2013 report from the Entertainment Software Association. But what about esports specifically?
Games like StarCraft 2 and League of Legends have exploded in recent years thanks in part to the ascent of online services like Twitch that have helped turn all manners of gameplay into a spectator sport. And while it's hard to find solid demographic data on the burgeoning community, the bits and pieces of information that can be found don't paint a pretty picture.
First reported by The Daily Dot, the esports production company WellPlayed recently posted the results of a survey about its viewers on Team Liquid, a popular online hub for all things esports-related. The study was conducted over the course of 2013, and covered three major competitive events in StarCraft 2 and League of Legends. Of the 2,040 respondents, just 69 listed themselves as female (an additional 33 put themselves down as "other").
At any given event of the three that were measured, therefore, between 90 and 94 percent of the people watching were men. A Twitch representative told me that the company doesn't share this kind of information about either its broadcasters or viewers, but a quick glance at Quantcast puts its livestreaming demographics in a similar range.
There are qualifications to consider. This is only a survey of the people who watched these games as they were streamed; it doesn't make definitive conclusions about the esports gaming community at large. (The esports community, and not just livestream audiences, could still be 90+ percent men, but confirming that would require a broader survey.) WellPlayed is a relatively small and young video production company that doesn't have the resources of an organization like, say, the ESA or Twitch, so these findings aren't comprehensive. And they only apply to three events, none of which approached anything like the audience for something like the League of Legends world championship, which drew 32 million viewers last October according to League's owner, Riot Games.
For a point of comparison, Andrew Quan, the chief operating officer of WellPlayed, told me that the number of concurrent viewers peaked anywhere between 18,000 and 50,000 across the three events. He didn't have numbers on the total number of viewers readily available, but he estimated around 4 million people ended up watching one of the matches in question.
And, of course, these games don't sum up the esports community as a whole, the nature of which varies dramatically from game to game. A recent story on the video game site Polygon, for instance, shows how the fighting game community is particularly inclusive when it comes to things like race.
Still, casual esports fans that we are over here at Motherboard, it's hard not to be taken aback by just how male-centric the virtual audience for these events was. But what was even more shocking for me to realize was just how normal the findings were to everyone involved in the esports community I consulted for this story. Quan said that he thinks "the gender ratio would be much more balanced if our events were more broadly appealing to people interested in either game, rather than the competitive scene."
But when it comes to the competitive arena, none of this surprised him. "The large majority of online gaming communities are predominately male with a significant margin," he said.
Matt Weber, the director of operations at Team Liquid, seemed to agree with this general assessment when I asked him about the new survey over email. "It holds water in the sense that it's true," he wrote, "but I don't know if there's much to be said about it."
Like gaming culture more generally, Weber said that esports still have a reputation as a "boys-only clubhouse." The major difference between a team of top-tier League or StarCraft players and a standard group of Call of Duty bros, then, is that the former consists of a bunch of teenage boys who are treated like celebrities. And we all know what fame has done to Justin Bieber.
"It's a tough issue because it's ingrained in the culture at this point," Weber said. "The community has a hard time taking women seriously because historically the ones who make themselves known generally have been people who truly are seeking attention from desperate men (basically groupies) and since the SC2/League/Dota demographic has a huge component of unsocialized dudes it's easy for them to get it. It then makes it really difficult for actual legitimate people who are women to be a part of the scene because they're treated differently and in some ways worse."
Still, Weber said that there obviously is a strong female presence in esports at this point, both from the spectator and competitor side. The picture at the top of this article, for instance, was taken last year during the StarCraft 2 competition at the Hammerstein Ballroom, and it shows a bunch of fans cheering madly for Sasha "Scarlett" Hostyn, who had just handily defeated her opponent.
Part of the problem, then, is the continued appearance of a united front of male voices that are openly hostile to any message of inclusivity. He personally knows "a handful of women that post on TeamLiquid," for instance, "who don't let on their gender because of the connotations that it carries."
None of this is exclusive to esports, of course. Or even video games. There's a strong current of institutionalized sexism that carries across the entire Internet and the tech industry at large. But the gender gap seems particularly glaring here when one considers how egalitarian video games are often thought to be.
"In general, I think people—fans, players, industry workers—like to view esports as a meritocracy where everyone is on a level playing field and people are recognized purely for their in game ability," Weber said. "The idea of women in some ways upsets that, but it's sort of stupid because esports isn't a meritocracy and there are tons of outside factors that contribute to someone's status in the grand scheme of things."