The best esports competitors make millions, and the industry prides itself on meritocracy. So why are there so few women among the top earners?
According to independent site esportsearnings.com, the highest-paid esports player has accumulated more than $7m (£5.2m) in winnings across his career. Johan “N0tail” Sundstein is a Danish Dota 2 player and has competed in more than 100 tournaments to amass his fortune.
Below him in the rankings, the next 30 highest earners are all male Dota 2 players. But even where other games like Fortnite, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Call of Duty begin to appear, the list is still dominated by men. The first woman appears at #367: the Starcraft II champion Sasha “Scarlett” Hostyn. Hostyn has made about $400,000 (£300,000) in prize money during her career since 2011; a far cry from the millions of men above her.
Hostyn is joined by only two other women to have made six figures in winnings. Xiao Meng “Liooon” Li won the Hearthstone grandmasters global finals in 2019, and Katherine “Mystik” Gunn has competed in various games. They are ranked #760 and #1,478, respectively.
Prize winnings aren’t the only way for esports players to make money, but the disparity extends to other areas of pro-gaming careers. Very few women are in a salaried player position; for example, the only woman to have played in the Overwatch League, Kim “Geguri” Se-yeon, did not compete in the most recent season, returning the league to a fully male player base. Many competitors turn to Twitch to supplement their incomes by livestreaming when they’re not competing, but a recent leak of the company’s financial data revealed that only three of the top 100 paid creators were women.
Unlike traditional sports, esports is, theoretically, an equal playing field regardless of gender. So why is there such a distinctive pay gap?
To put it plainly, the esports industry struggles with misogyny. In an interview with Polygon, the Overwatch League’s first female coach. Molly “Avalla” Kim, stated that she had once been accepted on to a team as a player, before she “gave up quickly because of the difficulties of joining a team house with other [male] players”. Elsewhere, she said that one team had also rejected her as a coach because “our players don’t want female coaches”.
Kim has also spoken about the hurtful comments she has received online about her appearance. Another Overwatch League staff member, Kate Mitchell, general manager of esports team Washington Justice, retired after reporting that her mental health declined after receiving “toxicity and casual cruelty from strangers” over the internet. “I wanted nothing more than to ‘power through’ and succeed in the face of adversity and blaze a trail for other LGBT women to follow me in this space,” she wrote in her announcement, “but [it] turned out to be a bigger challenge than I was able to take on.”
This misogyny is related to and compounded by the sexism of wider gaming culture. Studies have shown that voices perceived as female in game chats are many times more likely to receive harassment. Being able to use these features freely is often important to team unity, meaning it can be difficult for women to reach top ranks at all if their team becomes uncooperative or abusive. Others simply prefer not to speak to avoid any negativity, which in turn hampers their ability to play well, as well as their general enjoyment.
Where women are discouraged, gatekept or retire early from positions in esports, they are far less likely to compete in and win the major tournaments that make their winners millionaires. This simple fact belies the idea that esports is a meritocracy just because it doesn’t rely on physical strength.
The only real cure for the sexism within the culture of esports is to tackle misogyny more widely, alongside related issues such as racism and transphobia. However, in the shorter term, several groups have been trying to open up opportunities for women and non-binary people within esports.
These typically focus on getting non-male teams or tournaments together. Earlier this year Dota Valkyries launched to support players at all levels in Dota 2. Given that most of the top-earning esports players achieve this by winning the International, Dota’s biggest tournament, which pays much more than most esports competitions, a Valkyrie alum may well be the first woman to break into the highest earners.
Girl Gamer esports festival has been running since 2017, aiming to give female players experience in competitive games including League of Legends and Valorant. Organiser Fernando Pereira told the Verge that the event hopes to make itself obsolete once enough women are playing in major tournaments, but that that might be “quite a long time” away.
But these aren’t ideal solutions. In her paper Esports and its Reinforcement of Gender Divides, published last year, the lawyer, visual artist and gender in sports specialist Kruthika NS questioned whether these were “quick fixes for a larger systemic problem in the esports industry”.
Fixing those systemic problems is no easy task. First, says Kruthika, the industry has to acknowledge that they even exist. One 2018 study found that responses to the announcement of an all-female team were hostile, in part because fans professed the belief that esports was already meritocratic, despite evidence to the contrary.
Kruthika explains that sexist attacks are simply seen as a normal happening in the community. “If the industry continues to stay silent, it will be an active participant in such normalisation leading to no real action,” she says.
Any move to tackle the current unwelcoming atmosphere has to start by improving the communities of the games involved. “There’s an urgent need to come up with a code of conduct that includes rules countering sexism, homophobia, casteism and racism,” says Kruthika. “And it is essential that such codes must be drafted in consultation with vulnerable social groups – women, racial minorities, persons belonging to the LGBTQIA+ community, and people at the intersections of two or more marginalised identities.”
Implementing and enforcing these codes of conduct is its own struggle. Creating effective moderation is difficult, particularly where conversations are spoken, fast-moving and potentially in any language. However, developers have been working on solutions for some time, and, with proper prioritisation, could significantly improve their games’ cultures.
“Finally, the players really need to do better,” says Kruthika. “Any woman can attest to how little bystanders help in situations of violence even in the offline world. Fellow teammates, especially cisgender, heterosexual men, need to step in and call sexist comments out. After all, a community is what a group makes of it.”