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The IeSF’s answer to eSports gender inequality is farcical

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Gender issues have been the hornet’s nest of interactive entertainment for years now, but the hive only recently started swarming, largely due to the increased player interaction that increasingly multiplayer-focused and interconnected hardware and games brought with them. Gamers started playing together in more social and open environments, and that interaction caught fire thanks to social media and sanctioned tournaments for such games as League of Legends, DOTA 2, StarCraft, and more recently, Hearthstone.

Sadly, the growth of competitive gaming has been clumsy. It’s tripped, stumbled and fallen ungracefully upon its face for every victory it’s won, but its most glaring misstep is exemplified by the IeSF’s (International e-Sports Federation) decision to divide its 6th e-Sports World Championship by gender.  

The gist is this: Originally, multiple tournaments within the 6th e-Sports World Championship were divided between male- and female-only leagues. One public uproar later, the IeSF elected to remove male-only leagues, opting for “open for all” and female-only tournaments, the latter category pertaining only to StarCraft 2 and Tekken Tag Tournament 2.

“Our reason for maintaining events for women only is that we acknowledge the importance of providing women with ample opportunities to compete in e-Sports, a currently male-dominated industry,” a statement from the IeSF Facebook page reads. “Without efforts to improve female representation in e-Sports events, we can’t achieve true gender equality.”

A previous statement reads: “The decision to divide male and female competitions was made in accordance with international sports authorities, as part of our effort to promote e-Sports as a legitimate sports.” The federation later added that they hope to promote female gaming on a global scale by hosting female-only competitions, and that in order for eSports to get the recognition they deserve, they must conform to international sports regulations, such as those dividing chess into male and female leagues (a strange comparison since all chess players can compete for the world title).

There’s plenty more PR spiel and questionably worded statements to the story, but for the purposes of this article, I’ll focus only on the federation’s decision to retain female-only tournaments and the defending statements above.

They should be applauded for actually listening and making changes according to public feedback, but the IeSF’s stance on gender equality and its promotion has more holes than Julius Caesar. Well, that tears the veil off my views on the subject, doesn’t it? Then again, the title of this article already did that, so I suppose I’m out of cats to bag.

I’ll start with what I call the most egregious contradiction in the IeSF’s approach: promoting female gaming by belittling women who game. It’s condescending right down to the name. Do women play different games than men? Do they play them differently enough to warrant a separate competitive league? Is victory in Hearthstone or DOTA 2 defined differently depending on who’s holding the mouse?

Hearthstone

Angry Chicken is baffled by this nonsense.

No? Then what is female gaming? Other than another unwanted iteration of the ludicrous message that video games are some sort of boys club—I caught that much. Oh, I see; it’s a way to cordon off women who game lest they buckle under the staggering weight of playing against the opposite sex. Oh, the poor dears. Why not pin a button on all gaming women reading “I’m a delicate flower, so be nice to me” while we’re at it?

Holding separate women-only tournaments does nothing but reinforce the absurd notion that women are somehow beneath men and can’t hack it in main tournaments. As I said in GameZone’s roundtable discussion of the issue, it actively contradicts the competitive spirit of eSports and sends a message that women are only welcome in gaming if they’re content with standing in the corner. It’s an arbitrary division that damages the very party it’s said to enable.

“But wait! What about the sexist thoughts and vitriolic behaviors that continue to plague the male gamer populous? Shouldn’t we hold female-only tournaments in order to protect women from such harassment, or at least allow them to avoid it entirely if they so choose?” some would cry, prompting me to press my face into my palm with enough force to brand my corneas with my thumbprints.

Admittedly, the idea that female-only tournaments protect women from sexism and harassment is not without merit. Our own Matt Liebl appropriately likened it to women-only gyms, a way for women to interact exclusively with other women, thereby avoiding the aforementioned harassment. However, drawing a hard line between the two genders does nothing but dodge the subject, avoiding the bigger issue. It’s not even putting out fires so much as it is just moving to a room that isn’t ablaze yet. The question is not “how can we protect women from sexism?” but “how can we stamp out sexism in the gaming community?” or “why is sexist behavior notoriously prominent in the games industry?”

The obvious solution is to pull the heads of those who cling to sexism out of the early 20th century and into the fantastical, mystical realm known by a select few as today. Of course, if that were possible we’d have picked out the bad apples out long ago. But realistic and proven solutions exist. Policing player interaction has only become more necessary as games and communities have grown more social, and League of Legends’ policies are testament that strict punishment and watch will do away with vitriol quite quickly. You’d be hard-pressed to find a contestant harassing female competitors—or any competitors, for that matter, be they of a different race, height or so forth—knowing that his position is on the line. If that behavior continues regardless, you’d find it far more difficult to find them participating in such an event again.

Disregarding the ethics at play for the moment, saddling eSports with gender-specific leagues is plain counterintuitive. The IsEF claims that female-only leagues are necessary in order to align with international sports regulations. But for what? So they can hang a pretty blue “We’re a real sport!” ribbon on their fridge at the expense of half of the gaming population and the credibility of the very tournaments they want recognized?

Why should eSports be dumbed down to the level of conventional sports—the x-balls of the world with all their bowls and domes? Male and female leagues exist for basketball, soccer and so on due to physiological differences. However, innate physical prowess plays no role in gaming, and as such neither should the gender of its players. Games are a test of strategy, reflex and deductive reasoning, all purely cognitive skills utilized equally by men and women.

ESports create a uniquely level playing field for competitors. That’s a big part of what makes them so promising, exciting and valuable. They create an environment capable of delivering the same nail-biting tension and roaring crowds that make athletics so enjoyable, all without sacrificing accessibility. A “real sport” is the last thing they should become if it means blindly following divisive standards that were not designed with them in mind.

Equality is not equal parts praise derision, and it most certainly isn’t reached by building walls between men and women. It’s the absence of special treatment, of the petty censoring and tip-toeing that only breeds discomfort and hushed comments. In the case of eSports, the two sides of these tournaments are just men and women who happen to share the same passion. They aren’t opposing factions in some war, nor are they some isolated group so fragile that they need to be shielded from the occasional asshole. People are people, and if the IsEF wants to engender true equality, they shouldn’t sanction multiple leagues. They shouldn’t make tournaments for genders, they should make them for people. ESports only need one league, bearing the exact message that competitive gaming, and indeed gaming as a whole, should strive to meet: open for all.

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Austin Wood
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