I woke up on this cold February morning to several Twitter notifications, all replies to my comment about an FPS (first-person shooter) player whom I didn’t think was the greatest of all time. The night before, I had written on Twitter “not that impressive to me,” before heading to sleep. When the sun rose, I grabbed my phone before tapping the bell icon to see exactly what the overall response was, but I had a feeling already that it wasn’t going to be pleasant. As a gamer and woman in esports, I expect trollish remarks.
“Cry more” and “Get a grip” were the first comments. Although these are pretty common phrases in flame wars, I couldn’t help but feel I was being dismissed as hysterical. The next ones, after I had blocked the people who first commented, called me a ‘ho” and another one called me a “fraud." All of this stirred a burning feeling in my stomach. I felt the familiar spiral of anxiety begin, wondering if I had just picked a battle I shouldn’t have. I vented into the Twitter void: “Got called a ‘ho’ for blocking a troll.” I told my parents, and they were shocked, but I played it off as kind of funny so they wouldn’t worry. I have been gaming since I was five years-old, but this was my rude awakening to toxicity on social media.
First, I blocked those Twitter accounts, which mostly boasted profile pics of men on vacation, with blank bios and minimal followers. That signaled to me that they were only on Twitter to argue. Their lack of communication skills frustrated me, but the feeling that I deserved the stings of their name-calling crept in. After all, I had expressed an opinion that was as bold as it was unpopular. I started to think maybe I was the one trolling.
Feeling that some of these comments had to do with my gender, I opened up a new app: if anyone would support me in this social media mini crisis, I hoped it would be the community “Made By Women, For Women.” However, all I really received were consolations about my experience like “sorry,” leaving my string of public Tweets explaining my thoughts and actions in this situation with no engagement, as just a random speech to a nonexistent (or uncaring) audience.
While the first people I had turned to declined to show up on the Twitter battlefield, my esports team’s leader, who fittingly goes by the name Ares (the Greek god of war), silenced these trolls with unflinching insults. It must have been a surprise to them that a man came to my defense instead of adding to their consensus. Rather than feeling like a rescued damsel in distress, I felt reassured and empowered knowing that I had an ally who would happily fight fire with fire.
My boss Tweeted back to the troll “You're a misogynistic bum. Speaking of which, send my best to your sis." He referred to them as “small-minded trolls” holding back “an industry that is advancing everyday." He added: “Disrespect my family and I’ll meet you on the frontline myself.” Our team’s hashtag was #BlueShield; this experience helped me build my own shield.
After leaving the team to pursue paid writing opportunities and joining another team to complete an internship, I found that my new boss was also an advocate for women’s rights to thrive in gaming and esports. He says that the equality initiatives from his experiences in the military help in this business.
Still, I was facing a glass ceiling when it came to the uneven numbers of men and women around me. Although nearly half of gamers are women according to Statista, far more pro gamers are men. Amongst the 30-or-so people at my first ever in-person esports event this summer in Metairie, only four among my teammates and other guests were women.
Women’s Esports Leagues
There are some leagues and teams that are for women and marginalized genders only. For example, the esports organization Cloud9 has a female division known as C9 White. Valorant player Katja “Katsumi” Pfahnl has told dot.LA in regards to Cloud9, “"They made it clear to us that we weren't going to be a token” and "They really wanted us to accomplish what we wanted to accomplish and they were willing to give us the resources.”
Despite the success this team has garnered in “Game Changers” (GC), measures like this women’s-only league and others will ideally become unnecessary in the future. Player Melanie “meL” Capone has said via TwitLonger, “The endgame was never GC,” alluding to her intention of competing with the best in the world. My thought: whether men or woman or any gender, the best players will hopefully all share the same stage one day.
Given the sexism throughout the young history of esports, pipelines like GC are currently needed to level the playing field. As MeL explained to dot.LA, "It's definitely hard to be on the come up if you're a new player and you're female,” adding, “There's a lot of harassment and definitely some discrimination either consciously or even unconsciously.”
Kastumi summarizes on Twitter the benefits and current necessity in saying, "womens leagues allow me to compete full time and dedicate 100% of myself to the goal of playing in t1,” with T1 referring to “Tier 1’ of competitive esports, currently male-dominated. However, times are changing, and Cloud9 White is leading the surge.
In games like Valorant, characters are pre-made, and players choose theirs based on abilities rather than appearance or gender. In this way, the hero-shooter genre has alleviated my fear of creating a female character, whom I feel obligated should resemble me, but which I also fear will give trolls on my team or against the ammunition to insult me based on my gender.
Still, I don’t unmute myself much anymore when playing online. When I streamed my gameplay on Twitch for small audiences last year, the chat always read, “Your voice is so soft” and “How old are you?” I assumed my lack of a camera would prevent weird inquiries, but my voice gave me away.
Thankfully, hero-shooters like Apex Legends allow me to stay muted if I so choose. While communications is key in gaming, there are now ways to communicate things like enemy location, resource needs, and intentions via “pings,” little visual and audio markers that appear to teammates at the click of a button.
More importantly, Apex Legends has added multiple characters of different races, genders, and orientations. Most players appreciate the lore of each character and thoughtfully make use of their varying tactical strengths and weaknesses. The backlash to these additions hardly ceases, but the developers and the majority of the community persevere in the face of sexism and other prejudices.
Now when I wake up in the morning to a pile of Twitter notifications, I feel less anxiety. I’m hopeful for the future, but I know it will take time. I can only imagine the obstacles women before me have faced on their journey as pro gamers, or any professional field. In in my chosen field of communications, there are more women journalists today but even with the progress, there is regression. When I looked up “women sportscaster” on Google, I was met with half a dozen posts like “Top 10 Hottest Female Sportscasters.” That makes me wonder if and when the playing field in sports of all kinds, including esports, will ever be leveled. I now I know that I am not the problem... I am part of the solution.