Spectators are seated watching eSports competitors on a stage. A large screen above the competitors displays the game they are playing.
Women who participate in eSports online frequently receive sexualized comments. (photo by Philippe Wojazer / Reuters)

Electronic sports, also known as eSports or competitive video gaming, may be a subject of laughter or mockery for some traditional sports enthusiasts, but for a growing number of fans they are a serious and lucrative matter. The eSports game “League of Legends,” for example, garnered a peak viewership of 200 million during the November 2018 broadcast of the World Championships. Despite this growth, anecdotal accounts and emerging research regarding the experiences of women in eSports point to troubling issues, as women report being harassed, threatened, and isolated within the realm of eSports. In light of such issues, we conducted a two-part study (read the full study here) to understand the nature of feedback women receive in the eSports community. The results of our first study suggest that women and men eSports participants do not perceive gender differences with respect to the criticism they receive. A follow up study, however, suggests that women who play eSports receive a substantial number of sexualized comments.

To better understand the findings of our research, some additional background on eSports is necessary. eSports is broadly defined as competitive forms of video gameplay, including competition against other players in-person or online, playing for points and trophies, and competing for the best in-game accomplishment (e.g., beating Super Mario in record time). The types of games that are commonly played in eSports are strategy, first-person shooters, and fighting games. Larger video game companies, such as Riot games and Electronic Sports League, hold tournaments which offer individual and team players hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money. Players may not only earn a living by playing in tournaments, but many also live-stream their play from home and receive subscription payments from followers.

Disparities in prize money have emerged as a concern regarding gender equity. As of September 2019, Johan Sundstein, a Swedish eAthlete who uses the tag N0tail, has earned a total of $6.8 million. However, by contrast, the highest women earners do not break the top 300 in rankings at https://www.esportsearnings.com/players. In addition, reports by women eAthletes point to poor efforts by larger companies to form competitive women eSport teams. This includes poor training and questionable recruitment practices.

Regarding our first study, we asked students from a state university about their experiences in gaming online by administering a quantitative survey with questions about the ways in which they received praise or criticism from other players of a particular gender. We relied on participants to determine the gender the other players using cues such as names, voice on microphone chat, and profile. The 92 participants (61 women and 31 men) reported no gender differences in the likelihood of receiving criticism from men compared to women. These findings were somewhat surprising given the anecdotal accounts of vitriol and abuse directed toward women in eSports. Given this unexpected finding, our research team conducted a follow-up study by directly observing online gaming.

In the second study, we randomly observed selected players on Twitch.Tv, which is a live streaming platform that allows people to spectate and interact with players as well as provide monetary support in the form of subscriptions. We collected 170 lines of chat messages from each of 87 randomly selected twitch streams from the top watched list and assessed the content of each message. Our analysis indicated that women streamers received a greater number of positive comments than men. A closer look at these positive comments, however, revealed that most focused on physical appearance and often objectified women’s bodies. Further, women received 11 times more sexual comments than men. In fact, women streamers received an average of one sexual comment every two minutes.

As indicated by our findings, women who participate in eSports receive substantially more sexualized comments and body focused comments in comparison to men. As an emerging sport, eSports has the potential to address gender issues that have become rooted in other sports. Harassment faced by women online may be pervasive and influence offline attitudes and behaviors such as negative changes to self-esteem, self-objectification, and passive engagement (e.g., offline or silent) or disengagement from eSports. These effects have been observed within a misogynistic workplace. We can say confidentially that the effect of gender harassment, as observed in this study and our ongoing research, influences women’s decisions to participate in eSports. As long as behaviors related to sex and gender are not discussed and harassment discouraged, eSports may continue to prove unwelcoming for women eAthletes.

Jeffrey I. Shulze is a Ph.D. Candidate at Saint Louis University in St. Louis, Missouri. His research interests involve the intersection of clinical and sport psychology. His particular focus involves intervention effectiveness, athlete coping, and career transition. He is also a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu competitor and has medaled in region, national, and the world championships.

Omar Ruvalcaba is an assistant professor of the psychology department at California State University, Northridge. His research focuses on ethnic and gender disparities in video game culture and computer science and technology careers. The complete version of the study discussed in this article can be found in the Journal of Sport and Social Issues.