There are around 30 people in this meeting room at the Intel Extreme Masters eSports event in Katowice, Poland. All of them – bar one – are male.
The audience consists mostly of journalists, while the lone female is Hege Botnen, a professional gamer who plays for the all-female Counter-Strike team of LGB eSports (which, to avoid any confusion, isn’t an acronym for lesbian/gay/bisexual).
Earlier that weekend, Intel’s AnyKey diversity stand in the expo – while commendable – drew some confused looks as several vendors’ so-called ‘booth babes’ walked past in tight outfits.
During the press conference that morning, where Intel’s developer relations director Lee Machen spoke about Intel seeing a 5.4 per cent increase in the number of women it employs, one journalist asked him a sexist question: “Do women want to compete with men in eSports? Because women may get disappointed with losing. And as we know, they take disappointment worse than men.”
In the ESL UK League of Legends Premiership, a female player was referred to as ‘he’ by the commentators, because they didn’t know she was female. Not to mention, most top-level eSports teams only consist of men.
We could go on, but these are just a few examples that show there is work to do in growing diversity within eSports. To help with this, Intel and eSports organiser ESL have launched the AnyKey diversity programme ‘to create more opportunities and inclusive spaces’, supporting minorities in eSports such as women and LGBTQ participants.
Back at the press roundtable, female pro Counter-Strike player Hege Botnen explains: “I think that, as it is now, the female player pool in competitive games is so much smaller than the guys’ pool. So to get that talent out in Counter-Strike, you need five talented players to build a team. And it’s very hard to find that talent when you only have so few to pick from. For the guys you can have a million players, but for the women we might have 50,000. So there’s a big difference in where we can get our players from.”
Intel’s Lee Machen adds: “We want to improve diversity in eSports. I hope that by being more proactive about it and sponsoring women’s teams and bringing them to events like this, we’ll be able to spur more interest in this area. By providing role models to girls, they might want to play competitively themselves some day.”
Hege agrees that role models are vital. She says that when a woman joins a Counter-Strike game lobby, male players usually react with excitement, surprise or harassment – and while the latter is more prominent in the lower tier of play, it’s driving some women away.
“When female players come in, they instantly face this wall of harassment and are getting talked down,” she says. “That can be very discouraging and give them the feeling it’s not a fun game to play.
“At the highest level, there’s almost none of it – and I have never received harassment in person.”
To promote female gamers, Intel hosts an all-female Counter-Strike tournament at Intel Extreme Masters, with a $30,000 prize pool. The company also arranges its sponsored female teams to play at other events like DreamHack London, where attendees can meet the teams and play against them.
“We also have a group of people doing surveys and interviews at events like this to try and gather more information. For example, are our sponsorships enough? Why is there such a difference between men and women in eSports at the top level? And so on,” Lee says. “They’ve published a few whitepapers but it’s still early on. My hope is that they’ll uncover some things and we can do something about that.”
Hege adds: “It’s extremely important for us to play in those tournaments, because there are a lot of fans that have never heard of female teams – we’re not so visible in the community and on the news sites. The visitors learn that we’re pretty good and we’re getting better.
“There’s been more mixed gender tournaments recently. Sometimes the female teams get destroyed, but the level of the female teams is increasing. We’re getting closer and closer – and I think very soon we will kick their asses.”