The Overwatch League’s successful launch left Twitter buzzing. Everyone had opinions to share on the Dallas Fuel versus Seoul Dynasty match, or the pizzazz of the Blizzard Arena... or the absence of female players in any Overwatch League line up. The conversation has been heated on Twitter, with two sides quickly forming: those who thought that the overwhelming male ratio represented a failure of the pro scene to reflect the inclusive values of the game, and others who insisted that talent and players should be a meritocracy, with few other outside factors considered.
Soe Gschwind-Penski was, of course, prominently in front of the camera all night. There were also women working behind the scenes, diligently handling press and operations to ensure everything ran smoothly. Still, viewers who were hoping to open their Twitch broadcast and see a range of talent who reflected the diverse audience Blizzard has courted since Overwatch’s launch were disappointed.
This particular conversation will likely rage on in years to come, both in Overwatch’s professional scene, and in every other game in the esports sphere, but I find myself looking past the current day question of the pool of talent available and focusing on the roots of the issue: have we been preparing the next generation of esports talent?
Growing up, I was a weird girl who wasn’t interested in the stuff my female peers were fascinated with. I had grown up on Mario on the NES, I had conquered Ocarina of Time when I was 8, and later in the year I fell in love with Starcraft and began grinding daily to try to get the elusive positive W/L ratio. Across the continent, at around the same time, Dennis “Thresh” Fong was winning John Carmack’s Ferrari in a Quake tournament.
At this point, there have been countless testimonials about what it is like to be a woman and online at the same time, and I grew up in the middle of that turmoil. When my family dealt with strife, I worked on my strafe in Deathmatch. When I was isolated at school, I focused on my Zerg Rush. My hobby was misunderstood, maligned and rarely encouraged. It was difficult for the adults in my life to encourage, because they couldn’t understand basics like the fact that an online game can’t be paused. How could they understand the depth of esports?
Things have drastically improved since then. Mobile gaming has become extremely popular with women, potentially acting as a launchpad to the rest of gaming and more competitive experiences. The Wii launched in 2006 and spread like wildfire, entering homes and getting a whole new generation of uninitiated gamers to pick up a controller. There are countless women in North America who had a Wii in their home when they were 8. Ten years later, they are 18, and of an age to enter the Overwatch League.
So, where are they? When critics ask where the female Overwatch pros are, the answer is often “Well, name three capable female players”. A lack of response is not a checkmate; it’s a sign that there are systemic issues preventing women from entering the scene.
The gaming industry has mastered picking up women and getting them focused in gaming. The esports industry has female writers, press agents, support staff, and other roles. The field of gaming as a whole has never been more accessible; why isn’t that necessarily translating into top tier talent? If esports is a staircase, and the lowest step is “interested in gaming” and the highest plateau is “pro player”, why aren’t more women climbing to the top? Where are the missing stairs?
It’s no secret that harassment in Overwatch—and gaming as a whole—is a major problem. Even the developers have acknowledged it and are trying to vanquish it via the Play Nice, Play Fair initiative. How many women with the potential to go pro queued up for competitive, used voice comms, and got a wave of toxicity in return? How many of those women decided that the climb wasn’t worth the trouble?
How many women have been interested in video games since they were kids, but have been told that the hobby isn’t for them? The talent pool of women who are interested in chasing this challenging, niche career path has likely been shaved down continuously by the culture we live in.
I reject the idea that women are just somehow biologically incapable of being into esports. László Polgár had three daughters, and he raised them to be the best they could be in chess. All three women became Grandmasters. Chess and esports aren’t quite the same, but they’re far more similar than esports and traditional sports, and there’s enough overlap to draw the conclusion that women can (and will) compete. Esports will probably never have a Polgár family, but we shouldn’t need one.
That’s why I have hope: I think the Overwatch community has the ability to nurture that talent, uncover the women who want to play, and get new women into the scene. We just need to exercise that ability.
Women are in the Overwatch scene, and more are coming in every day. When I was at the Blizzard Arena for the opening day, I was impressed at how many women were in the crowd. More importantly, I saw young girls—kids my age. Where I had hung out in a dark basement and queued up for games in isolation, these kids were going to a major media esports experience aimed at them. There are no words for how important that is.
We need to reinforce this, as a community, at every level. If I hear a dude scoff that there’s no problem in esports and women pros will show up any day now, I want him to call out sexism in comms in his quick play games. I want writers and editors and content creators to help new people in the field out, and help them find their footing. I want female pros to get support from big orgs, and to feel like they have a chance of building a career and an arena to earn skills in. I want this at every level of Overwatch, from casual play to the very top.
Ultimately, the scene is dominantly male at the moment. I have hope that we’re going to see that change. It already is changing.
Seeing a Little D.Va pose with a female host may not change the numerical statistics of the scene or build the infrastructure that we will need in the coming days, but its given me faith. I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and do the work, and you should be, too — let’s create the Overwatch community we want to see.