Slowly but surely, the boys club of competitive gaming is breaking down.
We tend to talk about the boys when we talk about esports.
Competitive gaming is driven by talented young men whose skills at video games are second to none. They are incredible with a keyboard and mouse, and they have XY chromosomes — or at least, the vast majority of them do.
The voice of women is a whisper in the conversation, but the gender gap among whiz-kid gamers is slowly starting to even out.
These days, there are simply more and more women players competing.
One of them is Stephanie “missharvey” Harvey, the 29-year old founder of the five-woman esport team CLG Red, which sits under the Counter Logic Gaming umbrella along with several other high-caliber but all-male teams.
Before that, she was on a team called UBINITED that took home the gold in the 2011 and 2012 World Championships in female competition for Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.
These victories established Harvey’s crew as one of the finest groups of video game gunwomen in the world, and they’ve placed highly in tournaments ever since.
Even though their level of play is consistently amazing, women are missing in action on the frontline of esports.
“[Female esports] is still a little baby in America, but it’s getting bigger and bigger,” Harvey said between a photo shoot and a grueling week of practice.
Several surveys back up her claim.
The audience for esports was between 70 to 96 percent male last year. There was not a single female League of Legends pro on the continent as of 2014, according to an article from the gaming site Polygon.
Recently, Harvey and team were hunkering down for a gaming boot camp leading up to the 2015 World Championship. Their practice schedule was intense.
They would run 12-hour a day training sessions, which included playing the game, smoothing out any strategic kinks and scouting the play styles of the opponents from Europe, where far more women play the game, she said.
By the second weekend in July, they were anxious to get to the Société des Arts Technologiques in Montreal, where they would face off against seven other top female qualifiers.
It’s not always women pitted against women. Often CLG Red squares off against men. The previous month at the Fragadelphia 5 tournament in Philadelphia, for instance, Harvey and her team struggled to find their game against teams of mostly men.
By now, the guys are used to playing against them, but it isn’t always easy to be a woman in the cutthroat and occasionally virulent world of esports.
“A girl must have really thick skin to handle all the hate and not get emotional about it,” Harvey said, explaining how insults and toxic online behavior are more than enough to kill the motivation of any newbie.
A new study shows that the male gamers who harass their female counterparts tend to be those who perform poorly in competitions. These same men act more submissively around their more skilled male counterparts, indicating that losing to another male is less threatening than losing to a female player.
That’s why it is important for women to band together in all-female teams, Harvey explained, rather than disseminating in intramural teams.
“We could all play with male teams, but we want to make a difference,” she said.
Instead of having female players peppered across the huge global landscape, a unity of the sexes sends the signal that esports are for women, too.
“For now, continuing to have strong role models for women who want to play and compete [will draw more women into the sport],” she said.
“That’s how I started, and that’s how most of us started. And that’s why we still play.”
Editor’s note: Counter-Strike: The Rise of Female eSports Players in Europe was published on iQ in late October 2015, appearing in over a dozen languages across Europe. For the story, iQ EMEA editor Kurt De Buck interviewed Team LGB eSports and Team Property at the recent DreamHack London. These two videos are from the original story.