How Asian Women are Challenging the Digital Ceiling in Esports
Professional online gaming – or esports - has become a global industry and culture which has grown exponentially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Reflecting its phenomenal popularity in Asia this competitive video gaming will be an official medal event at the 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou, China, and was already featured as a medal event at the 2019 Southeast Asian Games. The International Olympic Committee has also been discussing integrating the activity into the Olympics. Unlike traditional sports, physical differences such as body build and muscle mass do not directly affect performance in esports and, thus, it can include both females and males. Nevertheless, so far esports remains a largely male-dominated sphere, much like traditional sports normalising males as the majority players. Yet while males outnumber females in many gaming genres and tournaments, female gamers are on the rise, especially in Asia.
As a leading region for the birth and growth of esports, Asia has the largest number of players and fans in the world. Occupying more than 54 per cent of the global esports market, Asia is expected to account for 50 per cent of all esports viewers by 2025. Recently, the growth rate of female gamers in Asia has far exceeded the average growth rate. Representing 38 per cent of the total 1.33 billion Asian gaming population, approximately 494 million female gamers live in major Asian countries, including China, India, Japan, and South Korea. Female representation is rapidly becoming one of the important features of the activity in Asia and is leading its industrial growth and game profits. In fact, much of the income in the Asian game market comes from female gamers, as they are becoming key consumers of the industry. The rise in female esports players in the region attracts even more female fans and viewers, leading to larger sponsorship and endorsement returns. For instance, in 2019 and 2020, MAC China partnered with the popular Tencent mobile game Honor of Kings, one of the highest-grossing mobile games. The campaign included a collection of products, such as lipsticks, that sold out in a day. In addition, the growth and expansion of women’s esports led to the rise of women’s teams and tournaments throughout the region.
When female gamers are too good
Despite these developments, sexism and gender imbalance are still widespread in esports. Female gamers frequently encounter negative—often sarcastic and violent—reactions and comments in gaming communities. South Korea’s Kim “Geguri” Se-yeon, who became the first and only female Overwatch professional gamer in 2016, is a prime example. As a member of the amateur Overwatch team UW Artisan from South Korea, she competed in the Nexus Cup qualifying games. After the match, multiple male players from the opposing team accused Geguri of using aim-assist software during the game, and she had to prove her innocence through a live demonstration soon after. The incident was actually neither new nor surprising because such doubt of female gamers is common. When a woman is good at gaming, others often suspect that a man, such as her boyfriend or male sibling, is playing instead of her. Such an accusation stems from the sexist prejudice that women lag behind men in their gaming skills. Geguri previously said that she had considered using a modulator to alter her voice so that male players would team up with her. Even if a handful of women manage to break through the glass ceiling and become professional players, they are often confined within the limited perception that they are good players “for a girl”. Indeed, what happened to Geguri was not because she was too good at playing games, but because she was a woman. Women in esports are frequently evaluated based on their appearance. By streaming herself playing Overwatch in a monitored studio, Gaguri demonstrated her gaming prowess to fans and other players, but at the same time, the sexual objectification of her appearance was rampant in the comments. Scrutinized by a male-dominated gaze, Geguri’s unconventional femininity was denigrated and ridiculed, concluding that she was an inauthentic woman.
Women’s struggles in and out of the gaming space
Research has shown that women—whether casual gamers, professional esports players, or high-profile streamers—experience online harassment much more often than men within the game space. In order to protect themselves from sexual abuse, bullying, and even rape and death threats by trolls and misogynists, many female players conceal their gender by changing their profiles, disguising their voices, or simply turning off their microphones while gaming. Wealth inequality is another struggle that female gamers confront in their gaming experience. In such an androcentric environment, female gamers get paid far less than male gamers. According to a study of the highest-earning esports players, no woman has ranked in the top 300 earners. Canada’s Sasha “Scarlett” Hostyn is the world’s highest-earning female player, but she is ranked 367 with career earnings totaling US$415,691. The stunning gender pay gap becomes explicit in proximity to Johan “N0tail” Sundstein, a Danish male gamer whose income surpasses US$7 million as the highest-earning esports player in the world. When narrowed down to Asia, Chinese Li “Liooon” Xiao Meng is the highest-earning Asian female player with US$240,510. In contrast, the highest-earning Asian male gamer, Syed Sumail “SumaiL” Hassan from Pakistan, has earned about US$3.8 million.
Gender-based discrimination is also evident in the available game characters, where the proportion of female characters has been very low. According to a recent study analysing more than 100 games, nearly 80 per cent of lead characters in games are male. Even among the small number of female characters, most of them are often represented in a hypersexualized way. Whereas men are typically portrayed as gigantic muscular heroes with broad shoulders, women are shown with a slim figure but large breasts and buttocks with exposed arms and legs. Such bifurcated, unrealistic gender representation—based on the industry’s marketing, which appeals to the male fantasy—reinforces gender stereotypes and the sexual objectification of women.
Creating new gaming femininity
Although it is hard to ignore the ongoing damaging representation of women in games, some strong, independent, girl-crush-causing female characters do exist within the androcentric culture, such as Chun-Li in The Street Fighter, Lara Croft in Tomb Raider, and Ellie and Abby in The Last of Us. Yet female fans are not still satisfied with the female characters in games, especially as the last two characters, Chun-Li and Lara Croft, are often understood as hypersexualized women. Zarya in Overwatch is a new strong woman character who is storied as “one of the world’s strongest women, a celebrated athlete who sacrificed personal glory to protect her family, friends, and country in a time of war”. Her unique femininity, with short pink hair and a muscular body, has the potential to redefine gaming femininity, disrupting the hegemony of the gender binary in online gaming communities and more. In order to continue to diversify female characters and construct a safer place for women, it is also essential to have more female game developers. According to a 2021 survey, 30 per cent of game developers were women compared to 61 per cent being men. From 2014 through 2019, the numbers have barely shifted from approximately 20 per cent, so the recent rise to 30 per cent could be seen as a stride. However, in addition to game developers, the current game industry needs more women, people of color, and LGBTQ people as professional gamers, hosts, managers, designers, animators, virtual reality specialists, and so on in order to change the status quo in which toxic geek masculinity runs rampant.
Asian women disrupting androcentrism
Envisioning a more inclusive and diverse gaming environment, Asian female players have been making meaningful moves. In addition to the previously mentioned Geguri and Liooon, players like Xia “Axx” Bi, the world’s first female Dota 2 player to compete in the Dota Pro Circuit (DPC) system for a major qualifier, and Li “ViVi” Wei, the first woman to compete in the World Cyber Arena, have contributed to securing and expanding women’s space in the game community while inspiring future generations. In addition to the professional players, Asian game companies are making efforts to create an inclusive industry. For example, the Singapore-based first female esports organization Callisto Gaming garnered US$500,000 in seed funding in 2019 to establish a ground for female gamers in Southeast Asia, where its own gaming boom is occurring. In the same year, dating app Bumble partnered with Gen.G, an esports organization founded in South Korea, to sponsor Team Bumble, an all-female Fortnite team. Last year, Female Esports League (FSL) organized all-female Valorant tournaments, Southeast Asia’s first ever Valorant tournaments for women. FSL is Southeast Asia’s premier female gaming circuit; it provides a sustainable platform for female gamers and is considered one of the most prominent female esports organizations in Asia. Although there are some negative opinions that all-female tournaments could be limited to fighting against gender inequality in esports as women lose the opportunity to perform at the highest levels alongside men while the prize pool for all-female events is frequently far smaller than those in ungendered tournaments, such a formation undoubtedly serves to spotlight talented female gamers. In response to a concern about the isolation of female gamers, hosting a mixed-gender tournament could be another route to reach out to more female gamers who want to compete, just as Bandi Namco Entertainment’s “Bonnie and Clyde” tournament aimed to do. The Japanese multinational video game publisher created a mixed-gender tournament where esports teams consist of one man and one woman.
I have named only a few of the efforts in Asia to create a welcome gaming environment for women. Far more exist. Encouraging females to get into esports not only makes women visible in this male-dominated arena, but also lets the world know that esports is for everyone. As new female role models emerge in the digital era, women in the gaming industry could play a significant role in inspiring other girls and women to be more empowered, motivated, and confident. Not surprisingly, Geguri was named one of Time Magazine’s “Next Generation Leaders” in 2019. The increased representation of Asian women, in particular, could help invite other minorities into new social spaces that have been difficult to enter, including gaming communities. In building meaningful initiatives to create an equal and inclusive environment, Asian women are at the forefront.
Yeomi Choi, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education at the University of Lethbridge.