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College esports are trying to go co-ed, but trolls might ruin everything

With 90 players, Robert Morris University Illinois, in Chicago, has one of the largest collegiate esports teams in the United States. The small, private school, otherwise known for its experiential learning programs, was the first in the country to award scholarships to esports players, in 2014, and there are now 16 paid coaches and staff members running the program. The collegiate tournaments where its players compete, streamed online, regularly draw tens of thousands of viewers.

The school’s professional gamers train like other athletes on campus: They attend class (there are accounting majors, fitness majors, computer science majors), followed by intense practice sessions of video games like League of Legends and Dota 2, at the school’s esports arena, built at an estimated cost of about $110,000. But despite the program’s size and stature in the fast-growing world of collegiate esports, just four of its players are women.

Esports, the broad term for competitive gaming that includes games like League of Legends, StarCraft, Hearthstone, and Counter Strike: Global Offensive, has the distinction of being one of the few sports where men and women can compete against each other at the professional level. There are no men’s teams or women’s teams — at least not officially — and that means amateur competitions, intramural clubs, and official university programs don’t have to define themselves along the gender lines of other sports. “I fully believe that esports can be the first varsity co-ed sport,” Kurt Melcher, the director of RMU’s esports program and the school’s former women’s varsity soccer coach, told me this fall.

Melcher isn’t naive. It’s no secret the current professional esports scene is almost entirely dominated by male players. And the lack of female role models combined with gaming’s documented history of sexual harassment means universities looking to develop esports programs have come up against major roadblocks in attracting and maintaining female talent. While it’s hard to measure just how many women are playing esports at the collegiate level, female players are noticeably absent from major competitions like uLoL, which kicks on Sunday. Among the 300 participating teams and esports clubs, only a handful of women are expected to play.

Esports are representative of the wider gaming culture, where inclusion and diversity remain a problem. But, to Melcher and other advocates of collegiate esports, recruiting women matters. Esports offers huge platforms for players of these games: Last year’s League of Legends championship finals were held at the Staples Center in Los Angeles and the tournament was watched by 43 million people across the world. The latest data suggests the global esports market is expected to hit $1 billion by 2018. Professional players often become role models for other gamers, even casual players who don’t ever aspire to compete professionally. If these role models are all male, the industry will do little to disrupt the already established idea that women have no place in games.

This is both the challenge and the promise for those working to establish collegiate esports programs: Can formalizing esports in educational institutions help improve diversity in gaming on a larger scale?

If students can learn to play League of Legends and other games in a safe environment defined by rules that prevent harassment, the thinking goes, perhaps others will catch on. “We can at least guarantee that we can create a safe environment where female players can play without having to face harassment,” Melcher said.

Melcher’s background is in varsity athletics. He spent 15 years coaching women’s soccer partly because he felt female players were better at organizing themselves on the field and proved better strategists and communicators. “When you get it right, females are a stronger unit in a team environment,” he said.

So when he started RMU’s esports program, he was disappointed to find 95 percent of the interest came from male players. “That was the first time when I thought, ‘Hold on, what’s happening here?’” he said.

After the initial flood of 3,000 emails from local area high school students, existing RMU students, and players across the country, Melcher personally replied to the few female players who’d written in and, after checking each their stats, he offered two players scholarships. (They initially accepted, but left after two years to pursue other activities.)

The problem was that the female players Melcher was looking to recruit weren’t at the same skill level as a lot of the male players who were applying. He couldn’t work out why, until he looked at the professional esports scene and noticed a similar trend. “You always see stats on gaming that say 50 percent of gamers are now women — but that doesn’t translate into esports,” he said.

This is largely because many women are turned off by the idea of playing esports competitively when they see the kind of harassment and negative comments female players receive.

Morgan Romine, founder of AnyKey, a small organization that promotes women and underrepresented minorities in esports, served as the captain of Ubisoft’s all-female professional gaming team, the Frag Dolls, from 2004 to 2011. Back then, she mostly encountered disbelief that girls wanted to play competitively at all, let alone that they could be good.

“We got plenty of flak, and the ‘fake geek girl’ accusation came up frequently,” Romine said. She and her team saw the most direct harassment while playing on online platforms like Xbox Live, where teams use voice chat to communicate during competitive games. Commentators and anonymous community members insisted on talking about members of the Frag Dolls in terms of the players’ physical appearance, rather than their gaming skills.

As it has grown, competitive gaming culture has become more hostile to women. Indiana “Froskurinn” Black, a 25-year-old from Portland, Oregon, was a high-ranking League of Legends player who played in semi-professional teams for several years. In 2014, she joined RMU as an esports coach for one of the university’s League of Legends teams. Black said the share of negative comments she received because of her gender eventually led her to change her player name and play in secret. “[I was called a] dyke, cow, and bitch,” she told me. “I’d get comments like, ‘I hope you get breast cancer’; ‘How many STDs do you have?’; and, ‘How much dick do you have to suck to get your job?’”

In esports, this culture of harassment has been allowed to flourish on live-streaming platforms like Twitch, where text-based chat rooms mean that there can be up to 50,000 people commenting in real time. “Those centralized spaces for community engagement provide a lot of great opportunity for esports fans to share their passion for games, but they are also the spaces where we see some of the most prevalent patterns of harassment related to women in gaming,” Romine said.

This is different from trash talk, usually. During a game, one minority player might get harassed by one or two other players. In a Twitch chat (or YouTube stream, for that matter, or even on Twitter), it can be one minority player being harassed by dozens, sometimes hundreds, of anonymous commentators at once.

“There is far less visibility for women in the first place, and then when we finally do see women competing, the audience reaction is full of awful harassment on a large scale, which both emboldens others to say awful things and discourages other women from wanting to even watch the streams, let alone play on those stages themselves,” Romine said.

Without role models, younger female players are simply discouraged from pursuing esports to the professional level. “Female players should be better than male players, but they’re not given the opportunity,” Melcher said. “Imagine you’re a 13-year-old girl who loves League of Legends. But whenever you go online to play, you are immediately identified as a female player — by your voice, your avatar, your on-screen name — and the abuse begins. And it’s going to deter you, naturally. So you’re going to find other ways to engage with games.”

Even female players who make it to the top level of professional esports don’t want the burden of being advocates. Black left RMU after one year to coach a professional esports team in China, where she worked with a professional League of Legends female player. “My player’s number one concern was that she didn’t want to be on camera,” Black said. “She never wanted to talk about gender, she wanted zero attention and spotlight because she didn’t want to deal with the community commentary on any feature, no matter how positive.”

“What makes it more damaging at the professional level is that women want to be taken seriously and fear that they won’t be,” said Alexis Mariah Rodriguez, a 21-year-old RMU student and League of Legends player on one of Melcher’s teams. Rodriguez is the only one the school’s female players who agreed to talk to me; like the player Black coached, the others simply didn’t want the attention.

The public nature of the harassment female esports players are subjected to differs from the instances of misogyny we hear about in other sports, particularly varsity athletics, where it’s often contained to team members or students at a given university or school. Last year, for example, three Ivy League schools were forced to suspend men’s athletic teams from competition following the discovery of misogynistic emails, texts, and other materials. Esports program directors like Melcher say this makes their aim to build a culture free of harassment both familiar and important.

Earlier this year, AnyKey invited people working in college athletics to discuss the challenges and opportunities for diversity in the esports field. The resulting white paper presents a compelling blueprint for schools who want to build esports programs, including a thorough rundown of Title IX, the federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity. “If there’s structure where female players feel safe, where they can feel they have a voice, be respected, and have an input and can compete without being harassed — that’s what’s going to matter in the long run,” Melcher said.

UC Irvine’s esports director, Mark Deppe, started the school’s program in 2015 with support from the campus gaming club, which, with some 500 members, is one of the country’s largest. It’s also diverse: About 30 percent of its members are women. Deppe knew he’d have a hard time matching that diversity on the university’s first collegiate esports team, which was recruited last fall. (The UCI team currently has no female players.)

Still, he tried to make the program more appealing for female players, and he saw an opportunity to set an example for other universities looking to start their own esports programs. He enlisted Romine and AnyKey to help draft the program’s code of conduct and arena rules, which prohibit harassment of any kind. (These rules are part of the scholarship players’ contracts.) He also recruited the former president of the campus gaming club, Kathy Chiang, to serve as his new esports arena coordinator.

UCI’s arena rules are as much to protect female players (when UCI eventually gets some) as they are to educate the male players. “We keep an eye out for any inappropriate behavior among our players or in the arena and work on both educating and punishing perpetrators,” Chiang said. “Once we recruit our first female scholarship player, I’m sure we’ll be able to get a lot more direct feedback on what works, what doesn’t, and what improvements we should make.” Deppe added: “While it’s tempting to say the toxic male behavior we observe is a problem in gaming [and] esports, it’s mistaking correlation with causation. I believe it takes a village.”

In contrast to professional esports, which takes place almost entirely online and can prove isolating for underrepresented players, colleges can get people together in the same room to play. So Chiang and Deppe also encourage their players to become role models on campus and integrate themselves with the rest of the school’s gaming population. “Sharing space with the people you play competitive games with, getting to know them as people and friends instead of just as online opponents, makes a difference in how welcoming and inclusive communities tend to be,” Romine said.

One wrinkle, of course, is that collegiate esports teams, like other sporting teams, have to recruit based on skill. More so because everyone in the esports world — be it players, teams, coaches, game publishers, and tournament organizers — are in many ways still struggling to prove that esports are a legitimate and serious form of competition. The number one goal for collegiate esports teams is to compete and win, and that means recruiting the best players, which usually means male players. Rodriguez, the RMU student, will not be playing in the upcoming uLoL tournament because only one team per school is allowed to enter, and she is on the varsity reserve team.

“Diversity is important to me, but it’s not my number one concern,” Melcher said. “I hire coaches, and I want them to get the best team they can, and I want them to do that because we want to have a successful team.”

This is where Title IX comes in. The law has played a crucial role in fostering gender equality in varsity sports, and could help improve retention of women in esports by mandating spaces for female players to develop. Since the law passed in 1972, the number of women participating in traditional collegiate sports has grown by more than 600 percent at last count. And the gains at the college level have worked to push forward professional women’s sports.

Victoria L. Jackson, a sports historian at Arizona State University specializing in college sports and women, argues that university esports programs should get on board with Title IX sooner rather than later.

“Esports is incredibly popular, and has the potential to become a scholarship-granting and revenue-generating enterprise,” Jackson said. “[Universities should] consider this question: Do you want to become a leader and develop inclusive policies for other institutions to emulate, or do you want to fall behind others possessing the foresight you lacked?”

It’s everyone’s hope that the growth of collegiate esports will eventually trickle down to high schools, creating what Melcher calls an “eight- to ten-year pipeline” for young esports players to grow and develop their skills in a regulated environment where they’re less likely to be harassed. “I think that is what will really allow the blossoming of the female esports athlete,” Melcher said.

Several campus gaming clubs around the country now actively work with high school gaming groups. Crimson Gaming at the University of Utah, for example, runs a regular “Girls’ Gaming Night” that brings together high school girls, college women, and professional women in tech to play games. Last fall, UCI announced an all-female esports summer camp opening later this year to local high school students.

“As an eighth-grade girl who likes to play League of Legends, imagine coming into your freshman year with this safety net already in place,” Melcher said, “where you can be guided by a coach in an organized program that will teach you not just how to grow professionally but also personally: how to communicate with your teammates in a positive way, how to react to negative attention, and, perhaps best of all, how to show that it’s OK to be a female player and beat male players without fear of retribution.”

Laura Parker is a freelance writer based in New York.

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