For China’s All-Female Professional Gaming Teams, Looks Count
Makeup. Power up.
Ning Haiyao, a member of Twin Flower Girls, applies makeup before gaming practice. All photos by Aurélien Foucault
Li Min answers the door of her 13th floor west Beijing apartment clad in minuscule black shorts and a hoodie.
"Sorry, the kitchen is a bit messy," yawns the 21-year-old.
Through a bedroom door behind her, one of Li's housemates sleepily rustles underneath a duvet. A third housemate, Yi Xi wanders into the living room past unpacked boxes and laundry piles. Yi, 23, has silver-blue streaked hair and printed on the front of her t-shirt is a snarling Rottweiler.
It's 11 AM on a Tuesday but work for the Twin Flower Girls, one of Beijing's most promising all-female professional gaming teams, does not begin for another hour. With ten hours of near-solid gaming training ahead of them, they're afforded a lie-in.
Kim Shine, a 26-year-old from South Korea and the only non-Chinese team member of Twin Flower Girls, emerges from under the duvet and dresses while Li and Yi brush their teeth. The trio comes across like an off-duty pop band, confident yet casual with a rolled-out-of-bed-into-Urban-Outfitters style. It's an image in stark contrast to the pimple-faced, socially malfunctioning stereotypical male pro gamer.
According to the Chinese gaming news and reviews site 17173.com, 27 percent of online gamers in China are female, compared to 37 percent in South Korea, 66 percent in Japan, and around 48 percent in the US.
Male gaming teams have been around since the early 2000s in China, which has an estimated 408 million online gamers, over half of which regularly watch competitions, mainly through online platforms. Although China's first all-female gaming competition for individual players took place in 2007, no all-female teams formed until 2014. Since then the number of teams has grown from a handful to approximately 50, including around ten stable, competitive teams, including Twin Flower Girls, which formed in June 2015 and exclusively play League of Legends.
Revenue streams for male teams are fairly straightforward, with the best earning huge prize pots. In 2014, for example, China's NewBee team won over $5 million in prize money at a Dota 2 tournament in Seattle. For women, though, being really good at League Of Legends isn't enough to get you a comparable career.
There is an established gaming tournament circuit for men in China, but female team competitions are held sporadically, with the industry yet to settle on a regular calendar. Women can enter all competitions though very few do because they tend to all be overwhelmingly male dominated. Twin Flower Girls last competed in November 2015, at a Shanghai event watched online by around 300,000 people—a modest figure compared to audiences for the big male competitions.
The priority for most managers of female teams, then, is making money through sponsorships, promotion deals, and self-broadcast websites rather than tournaments. The Twin Flower Girls explain that their most common clients are computer equipment manufacturers that hire them for demonstration matches to show off their products.
"Professional female players should be good-looking," she says with a shrug.
The result is that being considered conventionally attractive is often more important for team members than being able to plough through a load of digital minions. Some teams go as far as to simply recruit models then train them up as gamers.
Yu Hao, a former professional competitive gamer and Twin Flower Girls' current manager, tells me he requires a balance of good looks and gaming skills.
"People are people, and impressions matter for investors, audiences and the media," Yu says. "If there are two CVs in front of an investor, with one showing a girl with good appearance and the other with good skills but who is ugly, the investor will definitely choose the first. We have two line-ups: members with good skills will participate in the hardest competitions. Others with good images will do more marketing and promotion."
Are the women who comprise team Twin Flower Girls onside with this business model?
It's a short walk from the apartment Li, Yi, and Kim share to White Night, the neighborhood internet café. This is where Twin Flower Girls hone their League of Legends skills, and we're tagging along to watch them play.
The White Night is a cavernous, garishly-decorated space. It resembles a Bond villain's lair as designed by a 12-year-old, with rows of monitors and cartoonish colouring. The clientele here are almost all young men but they don't unplug their eyes from their screens when the Twin Flower Girls skip by, arms linked.
We are soon joined by two more team members: Ning Haiyao, 21, and Zhou Jing, 24. The women sit down at computers and begin using the reflective monitors as mirrors to help them apply makeup. It becomes clear which of Yu's two line-ups—"performance" and "image"—we are meeting.
Six days a week, five members of the eight-strong team practice League of Legends under the guidance of two male trainers here at the café. They practice from midday to around 10 PM, with three members training at home due to space restrictions in their practice room. Each member of Twin Flower Girls earns a monthly salary between 6,000 and 10,000 Yuan ($930 to $1,540) as well as rents paid for shared apartments they're provided. With the average graduate salary in major Chinese cities currently 6,070 Yuan per month, it's not a bad wage.
Many team members of Twin Flower Girls were recruited through university gaming societies or recommendations from established pro gamers. Zhou says she won her spot after beating off competition from a dozen shortlisted interviewees in a gaming face-off in the internet café.
"The first time I played League of Legends, about three years ago, I played for 12 hours," says Zhou, who wears a top with "Get the fuck off" written on the front. "Most amateur players are envious because we make money while playing games. They spend an equal amount of time on these games but don't get paid."
Zhou says she gave up a promising job as a scriptwriter for a film production company working with Hark Tsui, an influential Chinese director, to join Twin Flower Girls. "My parents didn't show much support when I made the move," she says, adding that her current salary is higher than the one she was getting in the film industry. "But I've been here a while now and they think it's OK. They haven't said anything more."
All the women of Twin Flowers Girls adopt a business-like, pragmatic but sincere tone when asked about their job requirements. Many male Chinese pro gamers do become heartthrob icons, but always after they have achieved success purely through gaming feats. "It's unfair, but it can be a good thing," says Zhou. "Girls with both good appearance and gaming skills will attract more eyes."
"We want to be a team with both skills and good appearance," echoes Ning, wearing a t-shirt with Chinese characters on the chest that translate as "pervert."
Li, her teammate, says that she helps cultivate her profile by posting selfies to her thousands of followers on Weibo, China's version of Twitter. "Professional female players should be good-looking," she says with a shrug. "Otherwise you won't receive attention, however well you play."
Such declarations could be toxic for both managers and team members in more liberal Western countries, where gender equality is often a far more prominent issue than it is in China. Yet full-time members of all-girl gaming teams like Twin Flower Girls seemingly view these sorts of declarations as honest acknowledgements of the reality of their business.
In the meantime, around half of the team members are finishing off college degrees, so are taking home gaming salaries while still on the books at universities.
"I see these teams as an extension of the 'booth babes' that surround competitive gaming not just in China but throughout the world."
But the practices of China's all-female professional gaming teams like Twin Flower Girls are grossly at odds with the fact that nearly a third of Chinese gamers are women, according to Marcella Szablewicz, an assistant professor of communications studies at New York's Pace University.
Szablewicz has spent time in China studying the gaming industry and says the all-female teams feed into a "misperception that games are played predominantly by teenage boys, and that's just not true anymore. I see these teams as an extension of the 'booth babes' that surround competitive gaming not just in China but throughout the world. They [female gamers] feel alienated by this sexist culture."
The use of self-broadcast sites like Douyu.com and Longzhu.com among the female pro gaming community isn't exactly helping quash the perception that women gamers exist to be ogled rather than respected as players. Many make money live-streaming video of themselves playing games, garnering gift donations from captivated male viewers. (For what it's worth, there are men who also get donations doing the same thing.)
A similar scenario exists on video streaming platform Twitch, which is hugely popular among the international gaming community. On one hand, there are women on Twitch who play games and dance for the camera, capitalizing on cleavage. On the other, there are women on Twitch who are simply there to play games like everyone else. A subset of Twitch's audience often dismisses both groups for not being "real gamers," regardless of their level of skill or genuine love of the hobby.
But just because the members of Twin Flower Girls are women and streaming themselves playing games, similar to those on Twitch, should not delegitimize their approach. For their part, the Twin Flower Girls started using Longzhu.com earlier this month and say they keep broadcasts simple: just them sitting down, playing games. They are not flaunting themselves brazenly, yet they are still vulnerable to association with more shameless self-broadcasters.
"There are lots of female gamers who will play games, do sexy dances and collect money from people while also playing League of Legends badly," says Szablewicz. "There's even three women known as sansao. The name roughly translates as, like, three sluts. Three sexy girls who play games and sing songs."
VG Girls, a Shanghai-based team, have a partnership with Douyu.com, on which they broadcast themselves singing and dancing as well as playing games. The team is one of China's most successful female pro gaming groups, with over 60,000 followers on Weibo. Their manager, Zhang Hao, is open about the fact that attractiveness for team members is paramount, but says that being a prominent team means that gaming standards have to be kept on par with beauty levels.
"The fans have high expectations," Zhang says. "I wouldn't define our team as existing to just get publicity because everyone plays well and we are the best. If a girl can't play a game at all I won't choose her, no matter how beautiful she is. But if two girls are neck and neck at gaming, of course I'll choose the good-looking girl."
The Twin Flower Girls continue honing their League of Legends skills as afternoon wears on at the White Night internet café in Beijing. To keep match sharp they take part in three daily head-to-head games against similarly-skilled teams online. They shove aside disposable food containers and clamp on headphones as they gear up for the first battle of the day.
Li is the most vocal. "Fuck!" she curses, maneuvering wizards and minions around on screen. Her teammates shout instructions to each other as the male trainers peer over their shoulders. Kim, from South Korea, is quieter, relaying simple location instructions in English while her teammates chatter in Chinese.
As the game reaches its climax, Yi flings her arms in the air. "Holy crap!" she yells. Her character dies and her screen turns grey. After much digital sword-swiping and dragon fire-breathing, things end with a loss for the Twin Flower Girls.
The game was an uncompetitive training match against unknown players, but most of the team members admit that they feel pressure to perform despite the industry focus on their looks.
"Since our team is new we need to work hard, it takes time and effort," says scriptwriter-turned-pro-gamer Zhou. "Otherwise the team will be in danger of being dismantled."
Manager Yu says that because the phenomenon of Chinese all-female pro gaming teams is so new there is no precedence for long-term funding. Twin Flower Girls is one of the few female teams owned by a company, E-gaming Era, which was set up to run the team.
A more common business structure is for teams to be owned by young lone investors who use them as vanity projects. Shanghai-based Invictus Gaming has both male and female teams and is owned by 28-year-old Wang Sicong, the son of Wang Jianlin, the richest man in China. (Wang Sicong is infamous for his declarations of wealth: Last year, he posted photos of his dog wearing two gold Apple Watches on its paws.)
"Investment from these rich people can be irrational, impulsive and personal," says Yu. "For example, if one wants to buy a Ferrari tomorrow or his father is involved in a political scandal, then his team fails to win a tournament, he might suddenly stop investment."
Invictus Gaming could not be reached for comment.
Other teams are closely linked to technology firms, acting mainly as promotional tools. Hong Kong-based Girls HK, for example, was formed by the Swiss tech company Logitech. "These teams are not stable either," says Yu. "A change of marketing director can lead to their disappearance."
For now, being a female professional gamer is still a somewhat unstable job propped up in part by lonely men paying to watch young women play games online. But the Twin Flower Girls are apparently getting exactly what they want from their roles. It's a cushy gig to briefly saunter into during the post-university comedown before they dive into the cutthroat Chinese graduate job market.
"I'm happy about everything here, everyone gets on well," Ning says, as her colleagues reapply their makeup. "Sometimes I'm upset, but only when we have a bad result. It's all about the game."
Silicon Divide is a series about gender inequality in tech and science. Follow along here.