Being a fan of esports’ pioneering women is complicated

Crowd

It’s two o’clock in the morning and I’m watching the Overwatch League stadium erupt for Kim “Geguri” Se-yeon.

As the camera pans down the line-up of her team, the Shanghai Dragons, it’s always her that gets the loudest cheer, and by a wide margin. Because she’s a fantastic off-tank and because she’s one of the new additions that have so greatly improved the (admittedly still winless) Dragons. But also, unavoidably, because she’s the first and only woman in the League.

“Being looked up to because I’m female… that’s not how I want to be known,” Geguri told ESPN shortly after arriving in the US to compete. It’s a sentiment often echoed by women who break through esports’ glass ceiling. Wang “BaiZe” XinYu, the first woman to compete in the Hearthstone seasonal championship finals told interviewers: “I don’t want to go out there and have people say to me that I’m just the best woman they’ve seen play the game.” “I have always tried to make it a complete non-issue,” said Sasha “Scarlett” Hostyn, the only female player to have won a major international Starcraft II tournament, of the fact that she’s a transgender woman.

2018-05-04 / Photo: Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment

Photo: Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment

It’s understandable. These women are immensely talented and hardworking, and their talent and dedication deserves recognition. And being the sole woman means that they cannot just represent themselves or their teams. As unfair as it may be, there’ll always be a perception that they represent us all.

It’s a perception that feeds misogynists who now see the Dragons’ failings as women’s failings or any mistakes that Geguri makes as a product of her gender. But it also leads to additional pressure from female fans who have no one else to pin those specific hopes on.

It’s unlikely any of Geguri’s fans want to be the source of additional stress for her, especially when she has explicitly said she doesn’t want people to look up to her for her gender. And yet I’m awake at 2am and the crowd is screaming because it matters to us.

On a surface level, it looks like ignoring Geguri’s wishes. But it’s more complicated than that. Fans who look up to women who make it to the top flights of esports aren’t only celebrating their gender, they’re acknowledging that these women have faced obstacles that their male counterparts have not. Countless social factors discourage their participation, not least the harassment they face for their gender. Geguri herself famously received a barrage of abuse after being accused of cheating in an earlier competitive Overwatch tournament. “I may visit Geguri’s house with a knife in hand, I am not joking,” threatened Strobe, another professional player.

2018-05-05 / Photo: Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment

Photo: Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment

Gendered harassment is something that’s unfortunately relatable to many women who play games and watch esports. In cheering Geguri, they’re less cheering for her identity than for her fortitude, and for the hope that she inspires.

Nevertheless, there’s a thin line between support and idolisation. Putting Geguri on an impossibly high pedestal ignores the fact that, as inspirational as she is, she’s still only human. Her presence does not single-handedly fix the League’s many problems, and remaining critical of those issues is crucial to being a responsible fan. After all, the best way for her wish of not being known for her gender to come true is for more women to be hired into the League, so, ultimately, part of celebrating her respectfully is to not forget that she is alone in a pool of over 130 competitors.

Moreover, the League remains marred by constantly having to punish players, including for bigoted behaviour, and while we may support Geguri because she has overcome more than the men in the League, her success does not erase those barriers. She competes despite the abuse she once received, but so does Jaemo “Xepher” Koo, who was once dropped from a team within hours of being signed when they realised his “irresponsible” behaviour. In an apology, he stated that he had agreed with his former team members that Geguri might be hacking, and was reflecting on how that may have caused her harm.

SHD

Now he plays for the League’s Seoul Dynasty. Moreover, he played specifically against Geguri when their two teams clashed recently. In the current meta, both usually play the same character, D.Va (ironically a female pro-gamer herself). Early in the first game, Geguri’s trademark accuracy – that which had been the root of the cheating accusations in the first place – allowed her to get the upper hand over Xepher. “Must be some venom behind that kill,” one of the casters noted.

The moment was a microcosm of what it meant to be her fan: though her mechanical skill was wonderful, it was lent additional significance by her gender.

The crowd cheered, not because Geguri is a woman but because for many women, myself included, it felt like a vindication thanks to the sexism that came before it. Yet when asked about it on stream, Geguri clarified that she has no hard feelings towards Xepher, saying she received no “direct damage” from him. She explained that the Dragons and the Dynasty ate together recently, and the two talked. “I hope we can all get along,” she said. “I’m really okay.”

SHD1

Her statement indicates an admirable forgiveness, as well as a strong desire to avoid drama. It again complicated the question of how fans balance her wishes – the understandable attempts to avoid being the topic of conversation for past harassment – with the gendered issues that nonetheless centre on the League’s only woman.

It’s a question for which there are no easy answers. But that she is the sole female competitor isn’t the fault of the fans who cheer her; it’s the fault of the culture that keeps most women out. So we can and should celebrate Geguri, both because she’s a likeable and skilled professional and because it’s important that, as a woman, she overcame the odds to be here.

But we must do so responsibly. We cannot talk about gendered harassment at the professional level without talking about Geguri, but we can question that initial instinct to see her as some kind of avenging angel, as good as it may feel in the moment.

Moreover, her gender cannot mean that we treat her as an unimpeachable fix for the League’s problems, nor for those of gaming and esports more generally. For as long as women face greater barriers than men to succeed, in esports and wider society, our focus must always be more complex than only applauding the women who break through them.

36 Comments

  1. Hoot says:

    For many people it isn’t complicated at all.

    I honestly couldn’t give a blue shit if a good player in a game I like is a man, woman, alien, anime character or a person who identifies as an inanimate object.

    What matters is their ability and if they are fun to watch.

  2. Premium User Badge

    Drib says:

    “I may visit Geguri’s house with a knife in hand, I am not joking,” threatened Strobe, another professional player.

    Gendered harassment is something that’s unfortunately relatable to many women who play games and watch esports.

    Maybe I’m missing something, but was threatening to stab someone ‘gendered’ in any way? I mean sure it could be inspired by her being a woman, but nothing about that quote was ‘gendered harassment’ that I can see. Terrible, and he should definitely have been outright banned from playing, but I don’t know that it’s inherently gendered. Just a weird line to follow the previous.

    That said, I agree with Geguri’s wishes here. It makes sense. Her gender shouldn’t matter, especially for something like esports, where natural body type differences and all that don’t matter as much / at all. But it’s also unavoidable until/unless the competition reaches at least something vaguely resembling parity.

    In short, she should just be a competitor. Not a woman-who-broke-through-all-this-opposition-and-omg-she’s-so-brave, but just another competitor, win or lose.

    • mitrovarr says:

      I don’t understand how a threat like that doesn’t get someone arrested.

      • Premium User Badge

        Drib says:

        I know. He can’t even play the “it was just a joke” card, as he stated right there that it wasn’t.

        Even if it’s not enough for an arrest, which is probably isn’t, it’s certainly enough that he shouldn’t be allowed to compete anymore. Threats of violence against anyone, especially other competitors, should definitely disqualify someone forever.

        • mitrovarr says:

          He made a plausible threat under his own name, against a person he knows, and specifically said it wasn’t a joke. That’s totally enough for an arrest!

          And yeah, he should be banned for life for the threat. You dont get to make plausible threats of violence against your competitors. You just don’t.

          • Hoot says:

            I agree with everything said above, but how cool would it have been if she’d heard this goon and came back with “If you come to my house, son, you better be fucking Chuck Norris because if you aren’t I’ll put your teeth in.”

            I guarantee his arse would have fell out.

        • Excors says:

          As far as I’m aware the player who made that threat chose to quit Overwatch and has never tried to come back, so there has been no need to explicitly ban him. If he tried to join OWL today then I expect Blizzard would react strongly, given that they are trying to create a professional family-friendly image and players have had substantial suspensions for much lesser offences.

          • mac4 says:

            The article rather suggests he is still playing, and against the woman in question, too:

            Now he plays for the League’s Seoul Dynasty. Moreover, he played specifically against Geguri when their two teams clashed recently.

          • Crane says:

            No, it does not. Read more carefully.

            “I may visit Geguri’s house with a knife in hand, I am not joking,” threatened Strobe, another professional player.

            Strobe was the man who made murder threats.

            Jaemo “Xepher” Koo, who was once dropped from a team within hours of being signed when they realised his “irresponsible” behaviour. In an apology, he stated that he had agreed with his former team members that Geguri might be hacking, and was reflecting on how that may have caused her harm. Now he plays for the League’s Seoul Dynasty.

            Xepher is the man now playing for Dynasty.

          • mac4 says:

            Ah. I do stand corrected, Crane.

      • MajorLag says:

        Mike Tyson used to talk about eating his opponent’s children. This sort of thing is kinda just part of sports and comes along with the competitive mindset a lot of times. It is rarely taken seriously.

    • MiniMatt says:

      I kinda suspect it’s the sheer quantity that makes it gendered.

      Threats of violence to men are absolutely as serious as threats of violence to women but when women receive an order of magnitude more than men then it’s a problem which needs to be viewed through a gendered lense.

      And as already noted, how this particular example hasn’t resulted in a criminal record is beyond me. We’ve seen all too many examples now of people with a history of making threats on the internet going on to do exactly what they said they were going to. They weren’t joking.

      • Someoldguy says:

        IANAL but from my understanding the victim would have to be the one reporting it to the police normally for any one-off to be investigated. Usually for action to result greater than a verbal warning they have to show an escalating pattern rather than a single remark that could be explained away as a temporary loss of temper. For public figures, reporting it often results in a much larger barrage of abuse so it can be counter-productive.

        It’s easier for managing bodies that have strict codes of conduct to step in and ban the individual temporarily or permanently. They don’t need to meet legal thresholds of cause and they can act without the victim needing to initiate the process.

      • Cederic says:

        But do women get an order of magnitude more abuse than men? Men get more abuse than women online, so are you saying that gaming bucks that trend?

        I really don’t believe that. At a broader level misogyny comes more from women than men, so a gaming demographic that’s primarily male will have correspondingly less misogyny.

        Maybe the real misogynists are those that demand Geguri be a victim, instead of just celebrating her good play.

    • causticnl says:

      oh male and female players get these threats, the big difference is though that male get threats because they are bad, or maybe misbehaved. Female pro players get these threats because for the sole reason they are female.

      • LennyLeonardo says:

        Do people in other sports get threats to the same degree? I’m genuinely curious: I don’t know anything about any other sports.

        • Amstrad says:

          Yes, baseball/football/soccer/etc players often have threats made against them. Not generally from the opposing players however. Though you will see players occasionally getting into one another’s faces on the field (American Football in particular has this.) But if you were to sit in a bar or a stadium or listen to sports talk radio, you’ll hear a lot of fans making a lot of threatening or disparaging remarks about players.

          • LennyLeonardo says:

            Oh. Well that’s pretty rubbish. Why are people such jerkwads? Oldmangrumble.

      • Premium User Badge

        Drib says:

        In this case it sounds like she was getting threats due to accusations of cheating, not due to her gender. I could have misread it or something.

        Of course the accusations of cheating might well have amounted to “but girls can’t aim that well!” or something, I don’t really follow it.

        • Phasma Felis says:

          It’s the way everyone was so quick to assume that her fantastic aim was cheating.

          • MajorLag says:

            It’s been my experience that this is pretty much a universal reaction to encountering a significantly superior player in any online multiplayer game. People’s ego’s are defensive like that.

    • left1000 says:

      Yeah, I’m not entirely sure what’s gendered about some of these threats. Men are often accused of hacking or cheating and often threatened with real world violence. A lot of gamers are rude jerks, but that doesn’t mean they all hate women, a lot of them harass everyone equally.

  3. Excors says:

    Moreover, the League remains marred by constantly having to punish players, including for bigoted behaviour

    As far as I remember, only three players have been punished for using bigoted language or gestures, and those were mainly stupidity rather than malice. That doesn’t seem too bad out of 130ish people, many of whom broadcast their stream of consciousness on Twitch – the vast majority have behaved professionally and positively.

    (Several others were punished for account boosting (being paid to artificially inflate someone’s competitive rank) before they joined OWL, account sharing, flipping the bird directly at the camera during a live broadcast, etc. And one was terminated (and referred to the appropriate authorities) for having highly inappropriate (potentially illegal) interactions with a 14-year-old girl. And some coaches have got in trouble. And one team announced they were going to punish a player who had been caught playing Brigitte in deathmatch. But none of those are about players harassing each other. Admittedly that is still quite a lot of punishments…)

    I don’t think gender representation is a problem that OWL can solve by itself – the problem starts in the lower tiers. It appears there are zero female players in Overwatch Contenders, which is where a lot of OWL teams will find new players from (because they want people who have demonstrated both skill and experience in an organised team). There are some in Open Division teams, and plenty at decent ranks in the competitive ladder, but there’s a long road from there to OWL. Hopefully Geguri’s presence in OWL (where her individual performance has looked pretty good) will encourage more good players to follow that route, by showing the obstacles aren’t insurmountable, and will change the minds of men who believe it’s biologically impossible for women to be good at anything but Mercy; but even if that happens, it seems inevitable that it will take years for the effects to reach OWL.

  4. Ppadoin says:

    From reading this it is very clear that you dont actually watch overwatch league, nor do you properly research what you write about. Geguri is not only widely celebrated as the first female ol player but also is one of the top player on the dragons and one of the best off tanks in the whole league. They will always be toll comments but everyone gets them. It always appears worse when all you read is articles like this. Shes a good player and she made it to the top because of that and anyone that actually pays attention to overwatch would know this. Stop wrtiting these articles because you make it worse and hype up all the wrong things.

    • Jay Castello says:

      “[We cheer her] Because she’s a fantastic off-tank and because she’s one of the new additions that have so greatly improved the (admittedly still winless) Dragons” is literally the third sentence of the article, try again.

  5. Ham Solo says:

    ““I may visit Geguri’s house with a knife in hand, I am not joking,” threatened Strobe, another professional player.
    Gendered harassment is something that’s unfortunately relatable to many women who play games and watch esports.”

    That is not gendered. You are acting like the now infamous “BullyHunters”, implying the very same shittalking gamers get is somehow worse because of their sex. You are implying that women can’t handle the nature of competetive/online gaming, and that is very sad to read, because I do not believe a single word of it.

    • GunnerMcCaffrey says:

      Come now. There’s roughly a 0% chance that someone who reads a site like RPS has somehow missed a few years’ worth of discussion in games media about how women absolutely do receive tonnes more harassment just for visibly being women in games.

  6. latedave says:

    Whilst I don’t think she’s picked the best example for outright sexism (although clearly as a threat it’s horrific) I think the rest of the article is quite insightful for the pressures placed on someone who’s in such a small minority. Most of my female friends who play games stick to single player (Witcher 3 is pretty popular) because they find playing online to be a toxic environment and I can’t say I blame them.

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