Last weekend at the Overwatch World Cup, Team France played Team Russia almost to a standstill, taking the first round and pushing them to a narrow tiebreaker. Though they lost, France went further in the tournament than anyone expected. “Initially, when our team was announced, we got a lot of, well, criticism from the community,” said Alphacast, a shoutcaster who was voted into the role of team captain, in France’s introductory video. “We have a very unusual team comp for a World Cup team. In the French team, there are only two pro players, and one semi-pro…we’re always the underdogs, which makes us fun to watch.” What they didn’t mention was that Team France was the only team in the Overwatch World Cup to have a female player. Kitty Kathee, who plays Team France’s Ana, was brought into the team with 35% of the community vote.
“I just want to be another player in the professional scene”
Kitty’s gender went mostly unmentioned at the analysis desk or in the running commentary from the casters, but it was certainly not lost on viewers. As we’ve seen before on matters of race, encountering players who don’t fit the common demographic (read: white or asian males) can provoke vile feedback loops of bigotry and hate in the live chat of esports events. It was no different this time around: when Kitty appeared on stream during the group stages leading up to BlizzCon, Twitch chat erupted into a misogynistic fervor which moderators seemed unwilling or simply unable to curtail. If Team France was aware of it, they didn’t seem bothered: against expectations, they battled their way out of groups and upset Team China in the process, thanks in no small part to Kitty.
Kitty downplayed her role as the one woman at the tournament, when asked for comment. “It’s a bit unfortunate, but at the end of the day no one’s actively stopping women from entering the scene. We need to grab the opportunities that come our way and work for it. Although I wasn’t there to represent women, hopefully my presence at the event will motivate more to take that step.” What she was there to do, said Kitty, was play: nothing more, nothing less. “I don’t want to be objectified as some kind of symbol for feminism or LGBT+. I don’t have anything against either, but I just want to be another player in the professional scene.”
Image via Youtube
It isn’t breaking news to say that esports has a massive issue surrounding gender. Early in the 2016 League of Legends season, Maria “Remi” Creveling became the first female player to appear on a team in the LCS. Despite a strong showing on the field, Remi left the LA Renegades, citing anxiety and self-esteem issues. From the moment Remi became a highly visible player, she was subject to a near-constant deluge of abuse and harassment for no reason outside of her gender. Remi has since deleted her Twitch channel, Twitter account and almost all other social media connecting her to League of Legends—the game lost its first female pro player after only six matches. In one of her last public posts, which has since been removed from Reddit, Remi asked people not to think of her as some sort of icon or symbol; like Kitty, she just wanted to be another player.
I have never seen more women in the crowd of an esports event than I saw at the Overwatch World Cup
“We want Overwatch to be this bright, positive universe, where everybody feels like they could be a hero,” said Jeff Kaplan, Overwatch’s director, in an interview with Time magazine. An inclusive mindset, according to Kaplan, was fundamental to the creation of the game. “Early on we talked about that in terms of the gameplay, like we don’t have two rocket launcher heroes, for example. But it started to permeated every decision we made, how these characters look, what gender, what body type and how they associate themselves.” That visible diversity in roster seems to be paying off. While Blizzard hasn’t released any numbers on the gender ratio of the Overwatch player base, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that higher numbers of women are playing and enjoying the game than is typical in the world of competitive gaming. From my own experience, I have never seen more women in the crowd of an esports event than I saw at the Overwatch World Cup. If Blizzard wanted to, Overwatch could change the landscape of the esports world in a major way.
T.L. Taylor, a sociologist and writer on the culture of esports, said that steps towards creating a more diverse competitive environment could take many forms. “There is no single path and much of the work we are doing at AnyKey.org is trying to tackle this issue from a number of angles,” said Taylor, when asked for comment. In many ways, she echoed Kitty’s point: “There are women out there who are already involved in esports, and others who would likely want to be if paths to participation were more viable. Much like how women’s sports participation exploded after Title IX, once we see equity in esports as not only possible but something we must act on, exciting things are sure to follow.” Title IX, for reference, was the landmark legislation that changed, among many other things, the way collegiate athletic programs were allowed to allocate money between male and female teams.
Later in the tournament, after Team France had been eliminated, I watched South Korea’s roster beat Team Russia insensate. Next to me was a woman who stood up in her seat and cheered the few times Russia got a kill. She shook her head and grumbled about the European composition, asking “What the hell they’re doing” under her breath. I asked her why, out of the two teams, she was rooting for Russia. “At first, I was neutral,” she said. “But then I saw how smug South Korea looked coming in. I wanted to see them get beat.”