There are many ways to go about legitimizing a sport. Cleaning up your broadcast, treating players well and ensuring they have good post-pro-career options, maybe referring to players by real names instead of handles like "Balls," etc. I would say, then, that the Finnish Assembly eSports Tournament was on The Wrong Track. They decided to prohibit women from competing against men in games like Hearthstone and Street Fighter, and women pros only had two options (StarCraft 2 and Tekken Tag 2) instead of men's four (Dota 2, Starcraft 2, Hearthstone, Ultra Street Fighter IV). They did it in the name of making the sport "legitimate."
All this in a sport where traditional physical prowess - the kind that's necessitated men and women's divisions in other sports - doesn't factor. However, after a day of fielding confused and incensed responses from fans, pros, media, and Blizzard itself, the larger league that Finnish Assembly is a part of, IeSF, decided to rethink its policy.
The extremely arbitrary divisions were baffling on their own, but the Finnish Assembly eSports Tournament is only a qualifier for a much bigger show, the IeSF World Championship. IeSF's explanation for all this was especially troubling. They wrote on Facebook:
"The decision to divide male and female competitions was made in accordance with international sports authorities, as part of our effort to promote e-Sports as a legitimate sports."
That viewpoint is about as archaic as it gets, but it's indicative of a broken system, a series of busted, nonsensical gears that badly need replacing. These are eSports. To be good at them, you only need quick wits and reflexes. Bone structures, musculature, etc are out the window. The division IeSF proposed, then, was simply arbitrary, rooted in sporting tradition that has no place here.
In the wake of an outpouring of outrage, IeSF responded with further explanations for their choices, neither of which really made a whole ton of sense.
"1 - promoting female players. 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."
"2 - International standards. IeSF is very close to get e-Sports recognized as a true sports like it should be. Part of that efforts is to comply with the international sports regulations. For example, chess is also divided into male / female leagues."
As to one, why not offer a women's Hearthstone tournament, then? Or Dota 2, for that matter? Why restrict which games they can compete in? The goal was admirable, but the method made about as much sense as robbing a homeless person after they politely ask if you can spare some change. Two, meanwhile, also got a red mark since, as PC Gamer pointed out, women can enter the World Chess Championship and compete against men.
It was all a really big mess, in other words. So, after a day's deliberation on requests by everybody from fans to Blizzard itself, IeSF decided to change its policy. Now the previously male-only competitions will be open to all, and previously women-only tracks will remain that way to "improve representation." IeSF explained in a statement:
"The IeSF Board addressed its reason for maintaining events for women, citing the importance of providing female gamers with ample opportunities to compete in e-Sports - currently a male-dominated industry. Female gamers make up half of the world’s gaming population, but only a small percentage of e-Sports competitors are women. The IeSF’s female-only competitions aim to bring more diversity to competitive play by improving the representation of women at these events. Without efforts to improve representation, e-Sports can’t achieve true gender equality."
However, there will also be open-to-all competitions in every game, so anyone can compete in, say, Tekken Tag.
All of which seems like a pretty decent outcome, all things considered. IeSF started in a miserable place, listened to people who were very legitimately upset, learned from its mistakes, and acted on that knowledge. That said, it will be interesting to see how the remaining women's only competitions turn out, as that setup strikes me as a little clunky (not to mention potentially patronizing) given how things have changed.
However, I do not disagree in the slightest that representation of women in eSports is abysmal (and the community can be incredibly toxic about it), so I'm glad IeSF is trying something. I think heaps upon heaps upon heaps more still needs to be done, but starting guns are important too. They draw attention. Now the real work begins.