Now is the time for women to lead esports

Now is the time for women to lead esports

Adam McGowan
7 min read | 7 Dec 2020

Melissa Bachman-Wood, VP Studio at Jagex, writes this guest post on women in esports and video games.

When Western video games were ‘born,’ the gender focus around it was generally male skewed: it was mostly designed by guys, for guys. Mostly.

This was enforced by tech/game industry giants of the time who marketed products for decades almost exclusively to teen males: strategy and fighting games for the boys, with high-powered gear to go with it.

Barbie, cooking, or educational games for the girls were added as an afterthought, and often only if you were a mainstream company.

When I was starting out in the games industry, ‘core’ gaming still wasn’t much of a highlight in the daily routine for most girls.

‘Girl games’ like Mattel’s Barbie Fashion Designer published for Microsoft Windows and Mac OS in 1996 proved successful enough to prompt the development of a whole raft of new ‘girl games’ and the addition of playable, female characters to existing IPs.

And while there had been many women and girls playing games already, it finally started to get talked about and visible in business. So began a whole new set of discussions about ‘pink’ marketing and creative development, which has done video games and esports harm as much as good.

Then we started to see essentially an admission from games makers that yes, women, just like men, do enjoy participating in and playing games (shocking, no?!)

Female characters began to appear in more character creation systems, and more women began to enter the dev teams as well as the games marketplace, making the sector talk about being more inclusive. The video games sector learned, albeit quite slowly, that ignoring women was bad for their bottom line, and that paying attention meant reaching a massive untapped audience.

However, one very new sector in the world of gaming that needs to learn this lesson much faster, and it still lags behind when it comes to female representation: esports. The UK esports sector contributed £111.5m to UK GDP in 2019, and will continue to boom in coming years as the public appetite for organised play grows and broadcasters air coverage of major esports tournaments on a regular basis, on linear channels, online and on social media.

Furthermore, what is clear based on multiple reports is that women love gaming: according to Ukie, 45% of all European video game players are female which rises to a full 50% if we’re just looking at UK gamers. Within esports specifically, 30% of esports viewership and 35% of esports gamers are women, with these figures growing each year.

So why aren’t there more women at the top of this nascent but booming industry, given that the player base is so powerfully female? Why aren’t more women gamers like Scarlet from StarCraft II showcased and sponsored to help drive that massive market? And why aren’t all companies focused on making their esports showings and sponsorship in-clusive and welcoming, rather than toxic and abusive?

There are multiple reasons for this, but one problem lies in a lack of education/ awareness both for the industry and for kids at home. Put simply, young women are unaware of the many career opportunities available to them in the esports world, which are exciting, varied and often extremely lucrative.

Unfortunately, esports – within many quarters of the industry – is currently perceived as a nice-to-have; something to touch on from time to time. The priority of getting more women in other disciplines at big games developers needs to include all things esports at the same time.

Women are human beings too – they need to be incentivised to join organisations who need them. Secondly, companies need to make sure that women feel welcomed, respected, and most of all set up for success in esports roles at their companies. That particularly means tackling their strategy for toxicity and abuse, which data show is often particularly bad for marginalized groups on streams, events and more.

Seeing more women in leadership roles in general is exciting for our industry overall. In esports, having more leaders like Amy Morhaime, former Head of Esports at Blizzard, will take time, as in other areas of game development and marketing.

Some argue that we need to allow for the maturation of women in top jobs at traditional games developers first. Currently, the senior roles in esports at traditional game companies are often occupied by men simply because ‘time served’ in the industry is perceived as being of the highest importance and women have not been a significant, high-ranking part of the gaming workforce for enough years.

Like every part of the games industry, tenure can’t ever be your only criteria (unless you want to keep failing to solve your problems or grow your sector for years on end).

Whew… after that meaty section, I need to share some GOOD news. Happily, what is becoming more broadly accepted is esports doesn’t necessarily require the same linear games-only career path or background in order for someone to perform excellently in an esports role – which means that gender should be less of an issue for companies who are typically hung up on tenure as their main candidate qualification! We might be able to learn this one much faster than the traditional game dev companies did.

Put it this way – within games companies, the business development person focuses on one thing: business development. The many roles that fall under the umbrella of ‘games dev’ are often highly specialised too. But in esports you’re doing marketing, partnerships, development, brands, and more – which makes skills developed outside of this industry highly transferable.

Realistically, with the right enthusiasm, base skill sets, and drive you can start anywhere and learn as you go while generating results and success for your company!

This is why I see women as the future of the esports industry. In esports, we have to be good at all of the disciplines, not just some (or most). And while this makes for a uniquely demanding role, it also paves the way for women and girls from different backgrounds, such as marketing, advertising, team management and ownership, HR, business development, branding, and other disciplines, to pivot successfully to esports.

If we want esports to flourish, both commercially and as spectacle, it must become an inclusive and welcoming arena. Full stop. But to be explicit, that means it needs to be free from toxicity and machismo, and truly welcome ALL players, including women. And I would argue esports can only reach its full potential when this is realised – and that the only way to create that environment is to have more women in leadership roles.

I’m optimistic that this will happen. Within five or 10 years we will see an influx of experienced, talented, driven female leaders enter the upper echelons of esports as Millennials and Gen Zs come up through the ranks having served their time in gaming. I’m so excited for that to continue and gain momentum, I can’t even describe it.

But the question we have to ask ourselves: is 5-10 years quick enough for the most dynamic, fastest-moving entertainment industry on the planet? Your move, Batman.Melissa Bachman-Wood questions why there aren’t there more women at the top of esports, like StarCraft II player Scarlett (pictured)

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