By Sean Collins
The Dallas Morning News
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) As Sean Collins reports, many female e-sports professionals say “equal opportunity means being subjected to hate. The women who make it have to weather verbal abuse and deconstructive evaluations that their male counterparts often aren’t subject to.”
Anna Iorio doesn’t like to turn on her mic when playing games. Doing so opens her up to vitriol that only half the world’s population has to deal with.
Iorio is the esports club president at SMU. She is in charge of a 300-member group, which has become a safe space for all comers.
The group meets biweekly for 90 minutes. She’s the Overwatch team captain, tasked with leading discussions, organizing meetings and setting up matches. But when she leaves the welcoming atmosphere of the group to play online in her apartment, she’s exposed to toxic comments from anonymous players:
“Is your PC setup in the kitchen?”
“This is why women are abused.”
“Why would you say that?” asked Iorio, a 20-year-old junior from Missouri.
“I just don’t really understand the mental process.”
Iorio isn’t alone in questioning the derogatory nature of anonymity toward women in esports. Some of the most successful women in the business have shared similar stories.
The esports community, both competitive and casual, is growing at a rapid pace across the country and in North Texas. It’s a $1 billion industry that is becoming more mainstream by the day, attracting new consumers, personalities and competitors.
The grind to compete or get involved at the highest level makes it both challenging and incredibly rewarding.
But it isn’t always inviting — especially for women.
The road can be disheartening, and professionals say equal opportunity means being subjected to hate. The women who make it have to weather verbal abuse and deconstructive evaluations that their male counterparts often aren’t subject to.
“I think women are scared to join the club because they don’t think that it’s for them, which is kind of heartbreaking because it’s sad to play games by yourself,” Iorio said. “They think people would be like, ‘Oh, well I don’t want to play with you because you’re a girl.’”
Amateur and professional organizations in North Texas recognize the problem. Solving it is another issue.
Waves of criticism
Maddynf is a rising star in Texas. She has over 450,000 YouTube subscribers and represents Complexity Gaming, which is headquartered at The Star in Frisco across from the Dallas Cowboys practice stadium.
Specializing in the wildly popular battle-royale title Fortnite, she’s made a career out of her passion.
Like Iorio, she faces challenges. Maddynf has to be careful about what she reveals on stream, never saying too much about her personal life.
Complexity teammate Electra, a North Texas native who has over 235,000 followers on Twitch, took her father’s advice early in her gaming career, removing any reference to her gender in her identity. Both Maddynf and Electra, signed by Complexity earlier this year, have different hurdles than men.
They’re successful women in esports, opening them up to waves of criticism. They are sometimes worried about doxxing from those who think they don’t belong. The Dallas Morning News agreed not to publish their full names.
“I think there’s a misconception that women don’t have to work as hard,” said Maddynf, who played in a women-only Fortnite tournament in August. “They don’t have to have the same skill and a work ethic, or have as much value to their content.
“A lot of people think women will just be successful simply because they’re women in a male-dominated community.”
One of the faces of the Overwatch League has heard that before. Soe Gschwind, one of the league’s most well-regarded broadcasters, speaks candidly about the work she put in to make it.
She said she started commenting on video game competitions as a teenager, traveling through Europe, before they were even called esports.
Gschwind said she used to sleep on the floor after working at events where she wasn’t paid, especially in the early stages of her 13-year career in esports. She put in the hours needed to reach the top. But sometimes people only saw her gender or background and not her skill.
She said she was often brought onto events as a diversity hire at the start of her career.
Though she has climbed the ranks and boasts over 130,000 Twitter followers, that never stopped being devastating.
“That’s soul crushing,” Gschwind said. “You would hope that your hiring was based on merits, like being a cool, quirky personality on screen and able to sell the product. But every once in a while, especially back in the day for me, it’s just been more of a, ‘Oh, and we also need a woman.’”
Online gaming offers anonymity. Sometimes that’s a good thing. Sometimes it’s bad. But once competitors start to reach the highest levels, it becomes impossible to hide your identity.
In-person esports events are growing exponentially. Before this year’s pandemic, both the Overwatch League and Call of Duty League planned in-person events for all its competitions, exposing their professionals to new fanbases in markets across the world. Last year’s OWL grand final drew 11,000 fans to Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center.
There is just one woman in the Overwatch League, Kim “Geguri” Se-yeon of the Shanghai Dragons. In 2016, two years before OWL began, she was accused of cheating, and had to prove her innocence by playing while being watched.
Ricki Ortiz, 37, has won over $81,000 competing in fighting games. Signed on with gaming org Evil Geniuses, she’s seen firsthand how people treat men and women differently at live competitions.
She transitioned from male to female in 2014. She said people immediately questioned how good she would be.
It was as if simply being a woman was going to take her from elite to non-competitive.
“Before I transitioned I was leading life as a gay male and people would just talk about my gameplay with Street Fighter,” Ortiz said. “As soon as I transitioned the focus kind of shifted and people were wondering if I was still going to be good because women aren’t good at games.”
That kind of behavior could keep women out, she said, adding that she is proud of the scene she has helped cultivate.
Iorio has tried to tackle that problem as the president of SMU’s esports club. She wants anyone to feel welcomed, battling the toxic mindset that may fill beginners with doubt.
North Texas is already home to powerhouse organizations like Envy and Complexity, along with an ever-growing college and high school scene. To continue growth as a global hub, beginners have to feel welcomed.
‘Never two women’
Interpret, a media site taking a look into audience and person statistics, found that 35% of players on games that are considered esports are female.
The University of North Texas has a 1-to-12 male-to-female ratio in its esports program, with that gap slowly decreasing over time, UNT Recreational Program Specialist and Esports Coordinator Dylan Wray told The News.
Approximately 16% of Dallas Fuel fans and 12% of Envy fans identify as female, according to a breakdown of social accounts, a team representative told The News.
While the number doesn’t scream diversity, it’s clear there is interest in esports outside of just men.
Organizations know they can’t cater to an only-male audience. Hiring women is becoming more important.
Envy recently promoted former intern Lindsay Caudill to Social Media Manager, as well as hiring Team Operations Coordinator Jaclyn Basiley.
This was a momentous deal for Caudill, 25, who had played games since she was a kid and strives to “climb the ladder” in esports. She was a former Envy intern and recently graduated from UT-Dallas, where she was an Overwatch analyst.
She felt, in regards to North Texas esports, that she could pave a path for other women.
“I felt that I could be one of the, maybe, the first females (in esports), at least that I know in my area, and I could break through,” Caudill said. “I could give other females a voice that they didn’t have, or maybe the confidence that they didn’t have to step up.”
Often the only female faces that might be seen in high-level esports are the broadcasters. But even then, it’s rarely more than one, according to industry leaders.
Gschwind said she didn’t work her way to the top to stand out as the only woman on screen. She wants more women to work side-by-side.
“Never two women,” Gschwind said. “Always one.”
It’s a problem that permeates traditional athletics, too. Most broadcast teams will be two males. The NFL has been around for a century, but it wasn’t until 2018 that Hannah Storm and Andrea Kremer became the first female announcing duo to cover a game together.
Nancy Vo, a caster for the University of North Texas Esports program, also believes having multiple women on screen could be a remedy.
It was intimidating for her to get into the production side of esports because she worried people would question her knowledge as a woman.
“I think it takes a lot of mental integrity to get into esports,” Vo said. “Yeah, maybe it’s because you are a woman. But maybe you can have that kind of self confidence that, even though you’re a woman, you know what you’re doing. I’m sure everyone else will respect you for that.”
But the mere act of being female on screen opens the door for criticism.
The needed voice
Frankie Ward is an award-winning esports talent who has thrived as an interviewer, sideline reporter and host at events in her career. She’ll be filling in as the Overwatch League desk host while Gschwind handles a family matter at home, anchoring the league as it concludes the 2020 season with the playoffs.
On Thursday, the first day of the OWL postseason, she took to the broadcast. Toxic comments soon followed.
All it took was a brief scan of the official match chat to find over a dozen comments focused on her appearance, pitting her vs. Gschwind.
With the hours of on-screen time that Ward has recorded in her career, she’s faced plenty of doubt. She vividly remembers the empty feeling of walking off the DreamHack stage in Dallas in 2019 and reading a tweet saying she belonged behind the scenes instead of on-stage.
“I literally gave my soul those seven days,” Ward said. “I saw the tweet, and it was just one tweet, but it gutted me.
“I think that’s probably not unique to being women. I think that’s just being on screen. But we aren’t bulletproof.”
Gschwind’s days of sleeping on the floor at events humbled her; she never expected to be a face of a franchise league. The only thing Gschwind focused on was what was in front of her.
“I didn’t really aim high,” she said. “I didn’t like dreaming up to become a mega famous face of a league or something. I wanted to do this for the rest of my life, however I could achieve this goal. Whatever that was, I tried it.
“So for me, it was more of, maybe one day I can get a hotel room.”
Gschwind said she didn’t have positive reinforcement growing up. Her upbringing happened in a children’s home in Switzerland, lacking the kind and loving nurturing of true family. She’s dealt with harsh criticism, but too often it is on her appearance — not her work.
While male counterparts might be critiqued by viewers — and praised — for the quality of their interviews, that doesn’t always happen for Ward and Gschwind.
“People would say nice things about my look or whether or not I’m cute,” Gschwind. “All of those things are irrelevant to my job, so it’s really more of an insult.”
Gschwind spends countless hours reviewing her own broadcasts. Ward would spend hours playing the games featured at upcoming events she would work.
If they weren’t their own toughest critics, the assessments of their work wouldn’t be consistently helpful.
Ward actively combats doubters with her own words on Twitter. She felt it was important that women stand up for each other — to be the needed voice — because this wasn’t a problem that money could ever fix.
The online trolls thrive in the depths of Twitch and YouTube chat channels. They have anonymity and can unleash unwarranted criticism, spew sexist comments and make hollow remarks.
CNN reported that online toxicity can come from anyone, and can be triggered by something as minor as a bad day at work or school. Cristian Danescu-Niculsescu-Mizil, of Cornell University’s Department of Information science, told CNN that this could be due to society’s lack of online experience. Humans have had 20,000 years to build in-person tendencies, but only a couple decades to learn how to behave in an online environment.
Ward believes that shouldn’t fly.
Building a path
Maddynf has a similar outlook on handling internet trolls. She’s developed a healthy community of her own on Twitch. Depending on the month, 60% of her viewers can be women, she said.
But the hateful comments still seep in: Viewers doubt her abilities as a player and assume her success was given, not earned.
She’ll use those moments as examples, talking about it with her viewers. Women can be the difference. Maddynf also suggested developing communities for women to get into esports would be impactful, whether that’s Discord servers or all-female tournaments.
Maddynf recruited and competed in eFuse’s Women of the eRena tournament in August. It allowed for women like Maddynf and Electra to compete against other well-known women creators, as well as give an opportunity for lesser-known women to make a name for themselves.
“All women tournaments are really great to help women feel included and have a safe space where they can learn the competitive part of the game and kind of avoid that harassment that comes with gaming sometimes,” Maddynf said.
A smooth entry could be the difference in getting more women into esports. Iorio doesn’t plan on pursuing a career in the industry, but if a scene that can be toxic can still attract her attention, that must mean there is room for women that seek a permanent place in esports.
Vo would love a career in esports after school, especially if she were able to get into the marketing side. The thought of promoting other women excited her.
Ward believes in that mindset, and support from female colleagues was already present — and making a difference. Ward said women in esports are instantly visible to other women.
“I have no qualms in terms of reaching out to another woman, even if I’ve never met her before,” Ward said. “Because if we’re both on camera, it feels like we really know each other.”
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.