At this year’s gamescom from 23-27 August, 320,000 video gaming enthusiasts flocked to the exhibition halls of Cologne, Germany. For developers, publishers and all other stakeholders in the gaming industry, the world's largest gaming fair is an ideal opportunity to present new products and developments to a broad audience. Time to take a closer look at the role of women in the competitive pinnacle of gaming: esports.

The esports industry's global market revenue has been subject to constant and significant growth in recent years. A continuous development of the industry is expected in the future with media rights and advertisement being the main drivers.[1] It is forecasted to grow to USD1.62 billion in 2024 from close to USD1.38 billion in 2022.[2] The increase in revenue goes hand in hand with more and more viewers watching their favourite games being played on a professional level. The global esports audience comprising enthusiasts and occasional viewers passed the half-a-billion mark in 2022 and is expected to grow beyond 575 million viewers in 2024.[3]

These figures show that esports has developed significant economic and cultural weight. Also due to its great future potential, esports constitutes an investment opportunity of increasing importance for rights holder, sponsors and brands.

Esports – A distinctive field

In order to carve out the situation of women in esports, it must be differentiated from video gaming on a grassroot level and game-related live streaming by individuals (i.e. streamers) via platforms such as Twitch. Gaming on a grassroot level concerns video gaming for people’s own entertainment purposes across all gaming platforms. The share of women gamers on this basic level is almost equal to the share of men gamers. In Germany, for example, in 2022 48% percent of gamers were women and 52% were men.[4] The same figures emerge when looking at the distribution of video gamers by gender in the USA.[5]

Game-related live streaming concerns gameplay of video games being streamed to an audience by individual streamers. The focus is not on professional competition but on entertainment for viewers. Game-related live streaming is largely personality- and community-based. Revenue of streamers is not driven by price money but mainly by sponsored advertisement and merchandising. In this sector, there are numerous female gaming influencers and personalities running successful game-related streams, as Pokimane and AriGameplays on Twitch.

The term “esports”, in contrast, represents the professional side of video gaming in which individual players and/or teams compete against each other on a regional, national or international level. The degree of professionalization in esports should not be underestimated. It can be compared to professional athletes and teams in traditional sports. Behind the esports players and teams are professional organizations facilitating and maximizing player performance, including nutritional advice and physical training. The German First League Football Club “RB Leipzig” for example has its own esports League “RBLZ Gaming” competing successful in virtual football tournaments and has a woman in its team.

Players and teams in esports compete in organized competitions and earn considerable sums through price money and sponsoring. Amongst the biggest and most lucrative games in esports are DOTA 2, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and League of Legends (LoL). Their tournaments fill entire arenas and are broadcasted to a global audience. The highest-profile esports tournament so far has been DOTA 2’s “The International 2021” with a price pool of USD40 million.

The situation of women in esports

In theory, esports has no angle that would speak against equal pay and mixed competition between men and women. Traditional sports are mostly characterized by gender segregation. In esports, physical attributes such as height, endurance or power have no notable relevance that would cause differences in men’s and women’s performances or prospects of success. From a biological standpoint, there are no differences between the sexes in the reaction times or the fine motor skills which are the most important physical attributes in esports. A core argument used to explain the gender pay gap in traditional sports has no merit in the realm of esports: the supposed higher attractiveness of men's sports due to higher physical performance that in turn would lead to increased revenue from media rights, sponsoring and merchandising and thus justify inequal pay-outs.

Despite the biologically equal prerequisites, there is a striking lack of female professionals in esports. It is vividly reflected in the female share in esports earnings. DOTA 2 currently is the most lucrative game for esports players. According to the BBC, only 0.002% (USD6,300) of the USD235 million awarded in DOTA 2 competitions up to 2021 has been won by women.[6] This is to remain largely unchanged as, at the time of writing, none of the teams that according to current standings are likely to compete in this year’s DOTA 2 World Championship ("The International 2023") include a woman.[7] Based on data gathered by esportsearnings.com, Sasha “Scarlett” Hoystin, a Canadian playing Star Craft II, is currently the top female player who won the most price money in esports overall (USD453,507.57).[8] In the list of players with the highest overall earnings, she is ranked 487.[9] The next woman Li Xiao Meng (“Liooon”) on the list with earnings of USD241.510,00 does not rank among the top 1000 overall. So currently there is only one woman in the top 1000 of esports players with the highest overall earnings in the world. Apart from this marginal female share in esports’ price money distribution, the female underrepresentation at the highest level also makes it difficult for female players to acquire additional revenue through sponsoring and other brand partnerships. Currently, they largely miss out on a chance of capitalizing on esports’ rapid growth.

Given the (biologically) equal starting position for men and women, the question arises as to what reasons prevent female players to reach the professional side of gaming. Upon pursuing this question, one quickly notices that there is a lack of robust and qualitative research on this matter. We therefore can only touch upon possible reasons that are frequently put forward but can hardly be validated.

A simple answer to the above question would be a general lack of female interest in esports. This, however, cannot be ascertained. The female interest appears to be profound as the female audience share already is significant. In Europe, for example, 37% of the esports audience in 2022 was female.[10] Given the high share of women engaging in video games, the number of female viewers can be expected to grow. The reasons thus seem to lie deeper. In relevant articles and on platforms it is often claimed that a hostile environment for women is created in gaming and esports. The field would be embossed by sexism, harassment, bullying and cultural bias. This is seen to be coupled with the unfounded belief that women perform worse than men in esports. This would lead to a reduced likelihood of entering the path of becoming professional esports players and breaking through as competitive players in comparison to men. Another reason could be that the tendency for women to become more and more engaged in gaming and esports is a development of rather recent years that goes hand in hand with the general societal development towards gender-neutrality. (Male) players who are now successful in esports likely started playing at a young age at a time when gaming was still seen as an activity mainly reserved to boys. They thus may have had a head start on the way to becoming a professional player. It is therefore quite possible that the situation of women will change in the years to come, when female players who have grown up with gaming reach a higher age. And finally, due to the current underrepresentation of women in esports, role models that encourage more women to pursue esports are lacking.

Measures to promote women in esports

The lack of female representation in professional gaming has not gone unnoticed by the stakeholders in the industry. There are measures in place which aim at increasing female participation. An answer has been the establishment of female-only esports teams, tournaments and leagues. ESL Gaming, one of the largest esports companies in the world, for example, launched a separate “Counter Strike: Global Offensive” women’s league in 2021. In Germany, the Deutsche Telekom, SK Gaming and the not-for-profit esports player foundation (epf) have founded the “Equal esports Initiative” that introduced this year the “Equal Esports Cup”, a LoL Tournament Series for women and non-binary persons with the final this September in Cologne. While such approaches are welcomed, they are also criticized for emphasizing gender segregation, while the actual goal is seen in a coexistence of women and men in esports. In any case, such offerings promote the recognition of female players and give them a platform to showcase their skills on a (semi-)professional level. They can provide a basis for attracting more women to esports and also enable them to participate financially in future growth.

As an alternative to parallel tournament structures for women, female players or female teams could be guaranteed spots in high-profile tournaments via wildcards or sponsor exemptions. Such direct interference in competitions, however, would bear the risk of causing serious backlash in the relevant gaming communities. From the perspective of many viewers, the focus would no longer be on performance but on artificially diversifying competition. A lack of acceptance could potentially harm the goal of promoting female players instead of doing it any good. Stakeholders will also be wary of such repercussions and reluctant to implement measures making participation of female players or teams mandatory.

A more sustainable way to increase female representation therefore would be to facilitate their entry into competitive gaming and esports competitions. Formula 1, for example, introduced a female-only qualification route (“women’s wildcard”) for the F1 Esports Series Pro Exhibition in 2021 where F1 esports teams were scouting talent to add to their rosters for the next season of the Pro Championship.[11] This gave female players an opportunity to be noticed and selected without being guaranteed participation in the actual esports competition. Similar qualification routes dedicated to female players or female teams could be implemented for other major esports competitions. They would constitute a mitigating approach which would enable women to prevail due to their performance and skill set.

Desirable changes

Stakeholders in the esports industry should ensure that women have a real chance to assert themselves in mixed competitions based on their performance and skill set. This requires more actively promoting entry and advancement opportunities for women in esports. The more role models are available the better for a further advancement of women in esports. Finally, the esports community should tackle any prejudices against participating women and society in general should be more open to foster interested girls and women in gaming, including male dominated games like first-person shooters. Another way to encourage more women participation in esports tournaments could be to run more prominent tournaments for games that are known to be more attractive to women, for example Speedruns could be considered for esports tournaments. The overall goal should be to give women a perspective to equally participate in the boom of esports and to prevent a development of “esports” and “women’s esports” as segregated worlds with different economic outlooks.