Esports — organized, competitive video gaming — is booming. Games like “Dota,” “League of Legends” and newcomer “Overwatch” are driving a competitive scene that is truly the Wild West of both sports and video games.
Lil Chen jumped into that world at a very young age. She became a competitive “Super Smash Brothers” player at just 16 years old and toured the country playing at tournaments.
“At the time, there weren’t that many women in ‘Smash,’ and because I was allowed to travel at such a young age, I began becoming known as ‘that girl who plays Smash,’” Chen said, speaking at a panel on women in esports at this weekend’s GeekGirlCon.
At first, she liked the attention.
“Then you get a little bit older and you’re like ‘what’s really happening right now? Things feel off.’ Eventually, I grew resentful of my community,” because of the double-standard that she was held to as a female player, she said. It caused her to drop out of competitive gaming.
But in the years since, Chen has realized that what happened to her wasn’t an isolated issue — when she first talked publicly about her experience, dozens of other women and girls said they encountered the same problems in esports.
Chen is now a UX designer at YouTube gaming, and she is working to support other women in competitive gaming. She’s a co-founder of Smash Sisters, an advocacy group for women who play “Super Smash Brothers” competitively.
Chen and other women in esports shared their experiences in the industry at the 2017 GeekGirlCon, an annual Seattle convention that “celebrates the female geek” and supports women, girls and other minorities in spaces like gaming, comics, science and technology.
In Chen’s case, finding a support group of other women with similar experiences helped her come back to the competitive gaming scene, although she doesn’t play in pro tournaments anymore.
Emily Sun, another Smash Sisters co-founder, said at the event that taking initiative and working towards things you want to see done is a huge part of making it in esports.
“A lot of it is grassroots. If you want to see something done, if you want to see a really cool event, if you want to see something happen, you have to make it happen for yourself,” she said.
“Especially for women. We want to see a lot more women in gaming, so we created Smash Sisters to help bring them out and give them a competitive space,” she said.
That kind of persistence and drive was something all the gamers and organizers had in common.
Morgan Romine, a professional esports community organizer and cultural anthropologist, said she spent years working in esports before she got her first official position.
She was a guild leader for Ever Quest during college, and after graduating, she spent a year doing contracting and volunteer work for game maker Ubisoft.
She eventually became a full-time community organizer for Ubisoft and helped found and lead the Frag Dolls, one of the first professional women’s teams.
“I first got into the game industry by being a very persistent person,” she said, and then “I got to manage my all-women competitive team for 10 years.”
Romine is also a co-founder and the director of initiatives for AnyKey, an advocacy group that researches and supports minority groups in the esports world. The group offers resources for game makers and esports organizations that want to create inclusive spaces and broaden their player and user bases to include more minorities.
The group was also co-founded by T.L. Taylor, an MIT professor who specializes in researching esports. Taylor pointed out during the event that women like Romine have been involved with esports since its inception.
“Women have always been a part of esports, from the very beginning. It’s not a new thing — they’ve always been there, they’ve always been growing it, and I think it’s so important to remember that history,” she said.
The overwhelming takeaway from the panel was that the esports industry and communities around it are growing astronomically, but often those places are so unfriendly or toxic towards women and girls that they are pushed out.
Professional leagues, companies that offer professional streaming or betting and game makers all have a chance to implement changes from the ground up that will help make the industry more inclusive.
“When you’re creating new structures, make sure you have good representation there,” Taylor said.
“It’s not just diversity for the sake of diversity, it’s diversity of opinions that lead to a more informed opinion,” Chen said.
As for women and girls who want to be a part of esports, there were three big takeaways: find a game you’re passionate about, keep good people around you, and persist.