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The Esports Industry Is Not the Inclusive Space It Thinks

Olivia Richman

Every time the esports industry attempts to be more inclusive and forward-thinking, we ultimately get to see just how truly archaic the scene truly is. Sexism and homophobia are still running rampant in the esports community, a scene that calls itself innovative and young. We get to see this disturbing side of the competitive gaming industry when there are initiatives meant to make the esports scene more welcoming to women and other minorities.

Esports Industry project avarosa

(Photo via SK Gaming)

And we saw this on full display in late December thanks to two different initiatives simultaneously being passionately objected to by members of the esports community.

The first was SK Gaming’s Avarosa project, which was focused on creating a League of Legends team with women and non-binary individuals on the roster, giving them the support they need to “unleash their full potential.” An introduction to the project was posted on YouTube about a month ago.

“The most important part of Project Avarosa for us is actually the journey. It might sound a bit cheesy, but that’s what excites us the most. We’re getting to know 10 players we’ve never met before in our life and we can take them on this journey. They will teach us about themselves and they allow us to teach them about our culture, how we see the game, what it takes to be a professional,” SK Gaming CEO Alexander Muller said.

But the comments section was immediately bombarded with backlash. YouTube comments on the video to this day ask what the point of Avarosa is, warn SK Gaming that the project will fail due to the players’ lack of skill, and even accused the esports organization of discriminating against cis men.

“Backlash against women and diversity-driven projects normally comes from those who lack understanding as to why these projects are necessary in the first place,” SK Gaming’s Head of Content, Lara Lunardi, told Hotspawn. “Esports lacks diversity, and right now we have very few people of color, LGBTQ, and women representatives. With little visibility, it’s hard to educate an audience about why inclusion matters, especially in an industry that comes from gaming, which, let’s be honest, took its sweet time to begin shifting from the white-male status quo.”

Lunardi was part of the planning process that made Avarosa happen and has since helped provide content and workshops for the team. It’s been a meaningful project for Lunardi, who explained that Avarosa helps amplify voices that are often not heard in esports.

Because, while esports likes to think it’s innovative and open-minded, there are surprisingly very few women in the scene. When it comes to being “forward-thinking,” esports seems more focused on crypto and NFTs rather than creating a space where women feel welcomed, safe, and supported. As a result, there are almost no pro female players in the tier 1 esports scene. There are also very few women involved behind the scenes as well. In 2020, it was estimated that women made up about 5% of the industry.

Despite this clear lack of female representation, men within the community wonder why women need any sort of initiative or support. In an ideal world, women would feel invited and excited to be a part of the esports community and would jump right into the already existing ecosystem. But that’s unfortunately not possible due to toxicity, sexism, harassment, and more. Instead, women are often enticed to join esports by providing them with a safe space within the industry.

This was the reason behind Riot Games’ Game Changers initiative, an all-women VALORANT tournament series. Executive Producer of VALORANT Anna Donlon said competing in a video game is a “daunting task” for women, resulting in a competitive disadvantage. Game Changers provides a safe and harassment-free environment for all-female VALORANT teams to have competitive opportunities.

Game Changers was one of the inspirations behind Avarosa. League of Legends has been even further behind when it comes to inclusivity. A major setback was when an all-female team entered the LCL. But Vaevictis Esports was created to purposefully prove that women don’t belong, creating a team full of lower-ranked individuals who were all support mains. They ended up with a 52-2 record.

The esports organization itself stated in 2019: “It’s time to experiment. We would like to check how competitive the women’s team will be on the professional stage and how strong their progress will be.”

Despite their clear disadvantages and lack of support from the organization, the League of Legends community at large still considered this a serious example of how all-female teams are bad. It was referenced in multiple comments on Avarosa’s initial YouTube video, with male commenters warning that this would be the result of any further attempt at an all-female roster.

But Lunardi and the rest of SK Gaming are not deterred.

“I hope more teams focus on diverse teams. We see it in VALORANT, we see it in Counter-Strike, and we see it in WildRift… To make LoL Esports more diverse, we have to start pushing for diverse development, to eventually implement diverse rosters,” she said. “Looking at CBLoL, we often see women join the Academy divisions, and even be subscribed to play CBLoL itself. They have fostered and believed in diverse talent for far longer than EU has, so I truly believe this can be the beginning of something good.”

Prominent voices in the esports industry condemn all-female teams and events

You may be thinking, “Who cares about some trolls in the comments?”

Well, 1. It’s more than just trolling when this is the consistent reaction to women attempting to enter into an already hostile environment by creating a safe approach. And 2. It’s not just random anonymous tools online who hold this view. It’s not just people attempting to get a rise out of women. It’s their true view of the situation — and that’s never okay no matter who is saying it.

But it obviously makes it even worse when a prominent and respected voice in the scene takes on this stance. Is esports truly as inclusive and advanced as it wants to believe when individuals feel comfortable speaking against women in such a way? Is esports truly as inclusive and advanced as it wants to believe when this individual faces no consequences for spewing these points passionately and profusely?

ESL recently launched GGForAll, initiatives aimed at tackling discrimination in esports. It included a women’s circuit with a complete worldwide schedule and an impressive $500,000 prize pool. This was apparently an attack on cis men in the esports scene. You know, the group that consistently has all-male CSGO tournament circuits and events almost daily.

CSGO caster and host Auguste “Semmler” Massonnat tweeted: “If the goal is to get more women to compete with men, isn’t having a league with free money only for women actively working against that goal? Why compete with the men at all if you get a guaranteed payday in a far less competitive environment?”

This critical sentiment already called into question the talent of female players. It also accused all-female events of deterring women from taking part in the “main” CSGO scene. It’s clear from Semmler’s unhinged rant on the topic that he and others in the esports community do not understand the reason there is such a huge talent gap between male and female players. They also don’t understand how difficult it is for women to take part in events that are almost all men, facing backlash, discrimination, and harsh judgment.

Semmler continued his outpouring of tweets, calling GGForAll toxic and discriminatory against the men who make up the esports scene.

Many in the esports community responded with shock and disgust. A lot of tweets jokingly questioned why nobody will think of the men in esports. Others provided actual information as to why all-female leagues and teams are still necessary, pointing to Semmler’s behavior as just part of the reason.

“May god grant all women in esports the strength to not engage with people who think a ‘women’s only’ tournament is the End Of Days stay out of women’s business. The girls are not going to rise up and take your job out from underneath you, you fucking idiots,” said esports writer Meg Kay.

I would say I’m shocked that Semmler has kept up these stupid and embarrassing tweets after the immense backlash he received. But I’m not. Semmler faced no real consequence from voicing this opinion. He lost no opportunities within the esports industry. All he experienced was people making fun of him. And even then, many agreed with Semmler’s point of view. So why bother deleting anything?

The fact that prominent members of the esports ecosystem can proudly tweet such sexist garbage and get away with it is enough to prove how far the industry has to go. Nobody should feel so comfortable and safe writing such filth. But it’s clear that Semmler knew that nobody would care. And he was sadly correct.

And this is why female-only tournaments, events, and teams exist.

“Important to note that this not something SK Gaming can change alone,” Lundardi said. “We need other teams to shift too. So I urge decision-makers to consider making this space more inclusive. We all gotta build each other up here.”