Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft is a free-to-play digital card game, released back in March by Blizzard. It’s a card battling game similar to Magic: The Gathering, heavily simplified for the casual gaming market while still maintaining strategic depth for the more tactical-minded. After word of a Hearthstone tournament banning female entrants made the online rounds, though, who exactly qualifies as “tactical-minded” has been in heavy debate.
The reasoning behind the ban pointed back to the International eSports Federation (IeSF) Championship, a competitive gaming event which will take place in Baku later this year. Because the IeSF championships had raised a big “no girls allowed” sign up for Hearthstone, it wouldn’t make sense for the qualifier tournament to let them in either.
The IeSF attempted to justify this discrimination by explaining it as an “effort to promote eSports as a legitimate sports (sic).” The IeSF, based in South Korea and composed of various other eSports associations, has been working towards this legitimacy for quite some time. That’s great and everything, but when the qualification for being a Real Sport means perpetuating antiquated gender traditions, it becomes a little less exciting.
After a long day of critical feedback from angry gamers and general proponents of equality alike, the IeSF eventually turned its discriminatory regulations around. But now the arguments have changed. While the day of the controversy produced such riveting arguments as, “Women should probably just realize they aren’t as good as men and get over it,” and several debates about which biological sex excels in hand-eye coordination (something you totally need to play a turn-based card game), now the discussion has turned to what’s ultimately “best” for women.
Certain men on the internet (experts on women, as always), have made the assertion that excluding women from general eSports events actually helps, rather than harms them. Before taking back the male-only regulation, the IeSF made a similar claim on Facebook: “We know that e-Sports is largely dominated by male players and females players are actually a portion of the overall player base. By hosting a female-only competition, we strive to promote female gaming on a global scale.”
Using the word generously, the “logic” is that women who compete in women-only events get to reap the benefits of competitive gaming without being obscured by the oversaturation of men in the sport; that by having a women-only league, more attention can be drawn to the fact that women have a place in competitive gaming. In reality, this kind of isolation is precisely what causes the public to underestimate women in games in the first place. While separate events might give certain women the extra boost needed to feel comfortable in games, excluding them from the primary ones does nothing to legitimize them in the public eye. Quite the opposite, actually.
Main and Women
The belief is that limiting women’s participation in eSports to women-only events helps promote women in games, implication being that letting them compete alongside men will not do the same.
This is wrong, first and foremost, based on the actual structure of this upcoming tournament pre-change. It wasn’t divided into two men’s and women’s leagues, with men and women playing equally, but separate from each other – first, there was the main tournament, and then there was the girl’s tournament. The official Facebook page may have called them the “male competition” and the “female competition,” but when the men are listed for Dota 2, StarCraft 2, Hearthstone, and Ultra Street Fighter IV, and the women get a pity handout of StarCraft 2 and Tekken Tag Tournament 2, it’s obvious where the folks running things have placed their priorities. Main tourney and women’s tourney.
It does nothing to promote women or prove that they have a place in eSports when that place is a small corner of the room, or when they’re denied half a roster of games during a world championship. This isn’t saying to the world, “Look, women can participate in competitive gaming and deserve respect,” it’s saying, “Look, we have some girls over there, they think they can play, we let them have Tekken, it’s cute.”
This deflates women’s legitimacy and confines them to a lower tier than the proposed primary players, which is exactly the opposite of promotion. It’s degradation. You can be a Girl Gamer, but never just a Gamer.
No Boys Allowed?
Another controversial point in all this is the fact that the IeSF has chosen to keep the original women-only tournaments intact, alongside the now gender neutral primary. Opponents of the decision have started asking why it’s okay to have a women-only tournament, but not a men-only tournament, as it was structured originally.
People have never challenged the right of men to participate in video games on the basis of their gender – not in the same way that women have been systematically degraded over the years. Women-only spaces, whether a party at a convention or an eSports team, can be a good thing… when it’s just one option next to vastly more equal ones.
Maintaining women-only tournaments at events help provide a welcoming first step into the intimidating world of games, and can allow a woman to hone her skills in a setting where she might otherwise be discouraged or harassed by men. While certain, more well-known competitive gaming events like EVO do allow women to play alongside men, occurrences like this don’t exactly help make gaming a welcoming place for them.
But the existence of women-only tournaments or the currently small number of female pro gamers doesn’t mean a larger championship tournament should bar women from participating at all. While women’s only tournaments can have a pay off on a personal level, in the long run their prominence can become restrictive to women’s overall visibility and legitimacy in the competitive gaming sphere. It’s, yet again, confining women to second-rate opportunities, capping their careers and telling the world that it’s all in the name of promotion.
United and Equal
In an article on NPR about the gender divide in the chess world, chess grandmaster Judit Polgár blamed the rarity of top female chess players on exactly this kind of segregation, stating,
“I always say that women should have the self-confidence that they are as good as male players, but only if they are willing to work and take it seriously as much as male players. If they would have a higher goal, they would also reach higher.”
In the above quote, the skill of men is not being used as a standard by which we judge general skill based on a suggested superiority men have to women. This is a social, not biological advantage that we’re talking about. If women are to excel in the world of competitive gaming, they need to be given the same opportunities that men are. They need to be allowed to play the same games, and not have to take to the internet to fight for their rights. The playing field must be leveled. Women-only tournaments will naturally fade as necessary over time. Only when women are seen, visible and equal among their male competitors rather than exclusively in the periphery, will the mainstream consciousness begin to value them as legitimate opponents.