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Women are half the gaming population but represent only a small minority in competitive gaming, an industry that is set to hit $1.1 billion in revenues by 2018. One contributing issue is the sexism that takes place in the otherwise burgeoning industry. With 85 percent of professional gamers male and the number of cases of online harassment and abuse that have left many female players feeling disenfranchised, esports is in trouble of being associated as a “boys club.”

One of the industry’s answers has been to create segregated girls-only teams, leagues, and tournaments, a proposition that doesn’t make sense in a sport where there are none of the physical disadvantages to mixing genders as there are in traditional sports. Sure, it’s a quick remedy that produces immediate results like offering more opportunities to gain experience. But it’s not a long-term solution, but rather a handicap that limits the wider potential of the industry.

It’s like smoking cigarettes at an early age. It threatens to stunt your growth.

Segregation isn’t the right answer and it only perpetuates the underlying issues, particularly when it’s clear that the industry will need to sooner or later consolidate itself by reintegrating the genders back together. This will be way more difficult after a few years pass and the landscape has already matured and broadened into a more mainstream industry.

Quite a few women feel disenfranchised, and that’s just bad business because you’re alienating half of your potential market of gamers and potentially also the wider community of female spectators. Gender parity has to be the aim and competitive gaming deserves it because it is inherently gender blind to begin with. So why is this happening?

It falls under what the industry refers to as toxic chat and behavior.

Reports of online harassment and abuse abound about toxic chats and dialogues that have descended into threats of rape or harm towards female players, and these cases are sometimes quite graphic. It’s only natural that the first knee-jerk reaction for the industry to take is to simplify the situation by establishing what has been done for hundreds and thousands of years when you want to sterilize society: separate the genders into separate insulated communities.

But this only aggravates the situation.

One, women already receive less sponsorship interest and coverage as it is, and segregation will likely only serve to continue this trend down a road where the female players, teams, and leagues will be seen as the “sideshow.” Two, it compromises on the bigger issue at hand: that a subset of the male gamer community hold and share misogynist ideas based on asinine misconceptions like “women aren’t as skilled as men.” Personally, I know this isn’t true for the majority of professional male gamers, but a divisive segment do exist and we need to hone in on them and pay them special attention.

Resolving these misconceptions in those so sorely affected will take a long time and a lot of effort through marketing and the like that aim to dispel toxic ideas. But while that’s the carrot, I think the stick is more important at the moment. The advantage in combating discrimination in esports is that everything happens digitally. Moderation tools can be enhanced in order to ensure that professional players know that poor behavior will be penalized. With AI and machine learning on the rise, this can only become more streamlined and advanced in coming years.

The ill-conceived idea that it’s OK to discriminate must be weeded out and the rules can’t be lax. A penalization system that affects players’ rankings, sponsorships, and cash stakes will sober up quite a few of the bad apples, help them ‘snap out of it’, and set an example to the broader community.

Let’s be clear. I don’t think we can just get rid of toxicity itself. Instead, it has to be built into the system that those that partake in poor behavior are affected by becoming less relevant. That’s the idea that needs to be ingrained.

The moment when sponsorships get into the mix, when tickets are being sold, and when players and teams are being paid, the ante has just gone up and so have the standards. That’s the deal any professional should wholeheartedly agree with when they sign up as contenders to be taken seriously.

Last February, Intel and ESL funded AnyKey, an advocacy group that has been churning out research-driven whitepapers and running workshops to cover these kinds of inclusivity issues. They established an ethics code, coined Keystone Code, which their affiliate organizations are encouraged to support within their own communities.

Yet a lot will depend on not just encouraging but actively promoting and enforcing decency as a rule, not an option.

Either way, esports needs to avoid alienating the female population at this early stage, both as players and spectators. Otherwise it’ll harm its long-run prospects and fall short on its potential. Those that don’t think it’s an important enough topic to take seriously aren’t able to see the big picture.

Amir-Esmaeil Bozorgzadeh is the co-founder at Virtuleap, a sandbox for creative developers to showcase their VR concepts to the world, which is currently running the world’s biggest WebVR Hackathon. He is also the European Partner at Edoramedia, a games publisher and digital agency with its headquarters in Dubai.


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