Shining a Light on Women in eSports

Meg Sunshine is an university student and eSport pro gamer who has set up a Women in eSports Network. Through this network and her Diversity and Inclusion Officer role, Meg hopes to help change the toxic culture in this space as well as provide positive role models for upcoming girls and women who want to get into eSports.

I was joined by Meg Sunshine for my latest diversity and inclusion conversation. I met Meg on LinkedIn, which is where you meet all great people. We got talking about some really interesting things that Meg does on diversity and inclusion in eSports. I started by asking Meg to tell me more about what she does and what brought her to this point in time? 

‘It was all very unexpected and it happened quickly. I played a lot of games when I was younger as a child, but it kind of fizzled out. No one really expects girls to go into professional gaming. At The University of Manchester I got into playing in tournaments, which I now play in for six hours a week. I study English literature and am graduating soon.  I know my subject choice seems very strange for someone going into eSports, but it did just seem like the natural path for me.

I noticed a lot of toxicity in the scene and a lack of female role-models to look up to. As soon as you get into something, you want to see someone who’s more successful than you that you can be inspired by. I didn’t have that. Since then, I’ve been really, really involved in initiatives that get women into eSports because it’s definitely a problem.

I’m the Diversity and Inclusion Officer at The University of Manchester eSports Society. I have recently been elected as president for the remainder of the year which is really exciting. It’s The University of Manchester’s largest society with over 1600 members in our Discord. Being on the committee made me take eSports extremely seriously. Though I started in the Society as a player for The University of Manchester, I actually see it as a viable profession now.

There are these UK-wide tournaments called NEUL and NSE and as I said, I was doing a good six hours a week playing in tournaments and I still do to this day. But when I first joined, I was really, really nervous. I remember drafting a message asking if I could join the team, and I read it over and over again like a million times, because I was just so scared to talk because there are so many members. And there wasn’t a female member I could see at the time. It’s a very male-dominated hobby to have, and gamers have a reputation of being quite toxic so I was scared of being ridiculed. There’s a lot of harmful presumptions about female gamers, which are just horrible to be confronted with.

I didn’t want to have to go through that, but I learned early on that it was quite a toxic community. At the time I got into gaming, I was at a very anxious point in life. I was way too scared to join voice chat on any of my games. I had to stare at my wall and muster up the courage to say… “Hi.” In voice chat, nothing special, literally just “Hi.”

 I was so nervous, I was shaking, but I do feel like the exposure to all this discrimination and forcing myself to get involved despite that and speak up for myself has given me thicker skin and more confidence to speak up for myself. It also inspired me to seriously want to help change the gaming community and eSports industry because I do want it to be more accessible for people.’

Listening to Meg, I’m shocked to hear this kind of culture has emerged within eSports given it’s a fairly new genre. She agreed, adding, ‘I did get involved in a company called HOST Salford in Media City where I was able to go down the Diversity and Inclusion route in eSports. They had just built an eSport studio and alongside it, the CEO, Mo Isap, asked if I would co-found a Women in eSports Network. When they asked me I was just so happy because I was worried. When you see an eSports studio being built and you don’t know where they’re going to be with that. It was so rewarding and successful because I could combine the hobby of eSports and my passion for inclusivity. 

I went from being too nervous to say hi in the voice chat to a team of five strangers to giving this long speech in front of a room full of important people in eSports about diversity and inclusion. It made me realise how far I’ve come through eSports and I want the same for other people.’

There are other diversity aspects that we could consider as part of this conversation as well. When I worked at the BBC, I knew somebody who was involved in gaming. She told me about this organisation called Special Effect, which helps disabled people play games by adapting controllers and things like that.

I asked Meg if she had been involved in disability inclusion in eSports as well? 

‘I haven’t done as much as I would like to, but I follow and I follow Special Effect on LinkedIn and everywhere. I think they’re great. I’ve watched a few documentaries of people who have had the custom set-ups made for them, and it is one of the main things that annoys me because eSports isn’t as diverse as it should be. If you think about it, it should be accessible for everyone. The one thing you need is your brain, you know. People aren’t making the moves that need to be made to make it the community that it really could be.’

For disabled people, eSports is a great way to get involved in a competitive sport. I’ve got a physical disability so I can’t play football, but with the right computer equipment and adaptations, I could get involved in a tournament online or something.

‘Yes. I used to be a proper gym goer. And then I kind of only really got into eSports when I got randomly diagnosed with adolescent idiopathic scoliosis, but quite severely. I got way too scared to play any sports because I was worried about making it worse and everything got painful. So I kind of stopped that altogether and I missed the community and the social aspect.

I went from having this routine where I felt like I belonged somewhere and I had something to do every day, to feeling like I had no purpose. So when I discovered gaming and eSports, I kind of felt like I got that part of my life back without having to be in physical pain and force myself to limits that I couldn’t go to. But as it does mirror sports I love eSports for that.’

It seems to me that with the right conditions, eSports could create a real sense of belonging for people that get involved in the community. I asked Meg why she thinks that these inclusion issues have occurred within the eSports community? 

‘I do feel like it’s a largely self-fulfilling prophecy. There’s this presumption that women aren’t as good as gamers. Some people even say it’s biological, which has been disproven and has no basis to it. But it’s like it impacts performance. When it’s in your head that you’re bad, or your teammates are constantly telling you you’re bad, it is going to affect you. The only problem is that women don’t perform as well all the time, but that’s only because they don’t play as much as men do. I don’t think that this is a coincidence.

There’s obviously a reason they’re not playing as much because there’s constant harassment. The anonymity of eSports is also a big problem because if it was real sports, the face-to-face confrontation would dial it back a bit. Because of the anonymity, they do say anything. It is horrible. Also the way it’s structured, with the big tournaments, it is still gender divided. That doesn’t make much sense to me because there are women at the top in every game.

But at the same time, there are no women in the top 300 earners for pro players either. It is annoying to see because there are so many great female gamers, but they’re just not given the support to break into the industry, or encouraged by anyone.’

I might be perpetuating a stereotype here because I’m assuming that a lot of the eSports is played by younger people.  I was hoping that younger people would be a bit more on it when it comes to inclusion and creating fairness within eSports. I asked Meg, ‘Is that an incorrect assumption to have?’

‘It depends on the game, I suppose. At the top, it does tend to be older people. So I’d say between the ages of 17 and 23 or something like that. But again, it’s not even just the people who are toxic, it’s also the fact that when they are, no one else stands up to it. 

They’re like, “It’s not my problem. Why should I say anything?” That’s always worse because you just feel so unsupported, and then you want to stop playing because you’re logging in for a hobby, and you’re getting harassed.

Then that makes you worse than your male counterparts, and then people just say that you’re only bad because you’re a girl. But why would you be putting the practice in when it can be so damaging to your mental health to log in and do that? Also it’s difficult to see the end goal because there are so few female role models there.

A lot of people in the industry compare it to the four-minute mile being broken. No female pro players can feel like they can do it because no one has paved the way for them. Then with the tournaments being gender divided, whatever reason they’ve done that for, it means for the female tournaments there’s a lot less viewership, so financially, there’s less incentive to go into it. It’s much more of a turbulent thing to give up your day job to go pro, which takes anywhere from eight to 14 hours of practice a day when you will still be making dramatically less money than the male pros, even if you’re at the same level.

It’s not harmless either the things that people say in voice chats and stuff, because it goes deeper. It’s created this domino effect of all these issues in the eSports community. I feel like these kids are playing games and being toxic because no one’s stopping them. There’s not much parental or external control because it’s quite a personal thing, playing games, and people aren’t going to hear what you’re saying apart from other people in the game. Then when they’re suddenly pro, these players at a very young age, and this is a stereotype, but I know from my experience that a lot of the gamers do tend to be shyer and less sociable.

Then suddenly they’re being praised, they’ve got this god-like status in the community. There have been a lot of instances I’ve seen in the community where the pro players don’t know how to deal with this new fame, and they’re taking advantage of female fans. 

There have been lots of instances of sexual harassment and sexual assault just because they get this god-like status that nothing can harm them, and they’re not given support in how to navigate this, and it leads to some really bad things.’

As Meg describes the situation, when some eSports players find themselves rising to a certain level of fame they don’t know how to deal with that. It reminded me of  stories of Love Island contestants not knowing how to deal with their newfound fame and not knowing how to respond on social media and then getting themselves into all sorts of trouble afterwards. It seems like the same thing is happening online in the digital world as well.

I was keen to hear what Meg thinks needs to happen to improve diversity and inclusion within eSports? 

‘There is some positive change happening recently as more people in the community have been speaking up. There was a big scandal recently with Activision Blizzard, which is one of the main game developers, they own a lot of the big games. Staff are speaking up about inequalities there sexual harassment and stuff, which then trickled down into the community when women were opening up more about their experiences gaming. 

There’s been a good example of a ground-breaking positive change in the industry, this big organisation called Cloud9 signed an extremely talented all-female Valorant team called Cloud9 White, who they’ve assigned  real funding and performance coaches with the aim of success as opposed to having a token female team, which creates the illusion of diversity, which is what a lot of organisations have done. So they kind of sign these female teams and then push them to the side and it’s disheartening because it’s like they’re just there to look pretty and sell merchandise and stuff.

Instead Cloud9 White are encouraged to compete and they’ve been given a platform alongside the male team, Cloud9 Blue. Cloud9 White and Cloud9 Blue are seen as two sides of the same coin as opposed to two completely separate entities that shouldn’t be given the same respect. So the team has been a huge inspiration for others in the community as well. I see people grinding to get good at games to get into it. They have none of the female modesty and apologetic attitudes that I feel like are kind of socialised into from birth. It is nice to see the girls on the team are saying, “We’re good and we want competition and we want to play other male teams.”

Everyone has to take responsibility. Even if you’re not a pro in eSports. Even the daily players. You’ve got to speak up for other people who are being harassed. Organisations have to make sure they are being fair about who they hire because another thing that’s been said by a lot of people in the industry is that they don’t want to hire women because it would be a distraction for the male players. They don’t want co-ed teams because they feel like the women would be too distracting and they don’t want romances and stuff, which is ridiculous. Especially when in video games, it’s so easy to compare skill levels because it’s usually done by rank to the exact number, and if you watch the game I play, you have a four-digit number, it’s so precise so you can see women performing as well as men, so why aren’t there these platforms for them?’

I asked Meg what she thinks needs to happen to tackle this toxic behavior when people don’t call out misogynistic or homophobic remarks and behaviour? 

‘The organisations in the games really need to care more and assign more funding into actually looking at report requests. You can report the other players, but not a lot happens a lot of the time if you do.  

A lot of the players who have gone pro now, who didn’t know they were going to go pro, well they’ve said a lot of things and it’s then resurfaced. But the organisations don’t care at all because as long as they’re getting their money, they can push that to the side. 

I feel like it should be way more strict. They have so much money. It’s such a growing industry projected to be $1.8 billion in 2022 and they’re not allocating that funding to get more women involved or to punish those who are excluding them from the community and from achieving what they’re capable of.’

I asked Meg what she would say to these companies?  What would be her number one reason  why they need to make improvements and why we all need to make eSports more inclusive? 

‘These companies put a lot of emphasis on how fun it is to play the game and how you get the sense of community and how that’s important to them. But they’re not living up to what they say and they are missing out on a lot of players, because a lot of women are deterred from playing the games when it’s such a toxic environment. 

They’re kind of playing themselves because I know and others know that these women can perform amazingly and be pro players. But the organisations are stuck in their ways, it’s quite archaic and sad to see. I think they’re just not emphasising diversity and inclusion enough, and that they don’t seem to care about it too much.’

We finished with the question that I ask everybody when they come on this show. ‘Meg, what does inclusive growth mean to you and particularly growth within the eSports community?’

‘I would say inclusive growth would be the deliberate inclusion of a wide range of people, but with actually good intentions as opposed to, as I said before, using minorities, for example, we see a lot of people using marginalised groups for their own growth, which is definitely not inclusive growth.

So you see as a corporation, token people to tick their diversity quota, and once that’s done, they kind of push them to the side, whereas it has to be a genuine collective growth with the genuine intention of equality, no matter how different everyone’s abilities are.

So having hope in people and how they’re going to perform and integrating them into a team rather than kind of exploiting that for your growth. I feel like there’s a facade of inclusive growth definitely in the eSports community, when it’s all personal and financial growth with no real want for change.’

To reach out and talk to Meg about diversity and inclusion within eSports or find out more about eSports in general visit her LinkedIn page.

Shining a Light on Women in eSports - Mildon