The rise of women in esports

This article is part of a collaboration with iQ by Intel.

We tend to talk about the boys when we talk about esports. Competitive gaming is driven by talented young men whose skills at videogames are second to none. They are incredible with a keyboard and mouse, and they have XY chromosomes—or at least, the vast majority of them do. Until recently, the voice of women has been no louder than a whisper in the conversation. Slowly but surely, though, the gender gap among whiz-kid gamers is steadily evening out.

These days there are simply more and more women players competing. One of them is Stephanie “missharvey” Harvey, the 29-year old founder of the five-woman esport team CLG Red, which sits under the Counter Logic Gaming umbrella along with several other high-caliber but all-male teams. Before that, she was on a team called UBINITED, took home the gold in the 2011 and 2012 World Championships in female competition for Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. These victories established Harvey’s crew as one of the the finest groups of video game gunmen in the world, and they’ve placed highly in tournaments ever since.

a unity of the sexes sends the signal that esports are for women too

Their level of play is consistently amazing, but overall women are missing in action on the frontline of esports. “[Female esports] is still a little baby in America, but it’s getting bigger and bigger,” Harvey told me over the phone between a photoshoot and a grueling week of practice. Several surveys back her up on this: the audience for esports was between 70 to 96 percent male last year. There was not a single female League of Legends pro on the continent as of 2014, according to an article from the gaming site Polygon.

When I spoke to her, she and the team were bunkering down for a gaming boot camp leading up to the 2015 World Championship. The upcoming practice schedule was intense. They would run 12-hour a day training sessions, which included playing the game, smoothing out any strategical kinks, and scouting the play styles of the opponents from Europe, where far more women play the game, she told me. By the second weekend in July, they were anxious to get to the Société des Arts Technologiques in Montreal, where they would face off against seven other top female qualifiers.

It’s not always women pitted against women. Often CLG Red squares off against men. The previous month at the Fragadelphia 5 tournament in Philadelphia, for instance, they struggled to find their game against teams of mostly men. By now the guys they play against are used to playing against them, but it isn’t always easy to be a woman in the cutthroat and occasionally virulent world of esports, especially when it comes to dealing with trolls over the internet. “A girl must have really thick skin to handle all the hate and not get emotional about it,” Harvey said, explaining how insults and toxic online behavior are more than enough to kill the motivation of any newbie.

That’s why it is important for women to band together in all-female teams, Harvey believes, rather than disseminating in intramural teams. “We could all play with male teams, but we want to make a difference,” she insisted. Instead of having female players peppered across the huge global landscape, a unity of the sexes sends the signal that esports are for women too. “For now, continuing to have strong role models for women who want to play and compete [will draw more women into the sport,]” she said. “That’s how I started and that’s how most of us started. And that’s why we still play.”