Thought Bubble: No League of Their Own


Well, I had originally planned to write an article arguing that the International e-Sports Federation (IeSF) should make its top tournaments accessible to women. But then it went ahead and did exactly that – and said all the right things while doing it – which preempted much of what I had to say.

But I still want to discuss the controversy because it highlights one of the crucial differences between eSports and physical sports. So let’s explore why the IeSF did the right thing and why other eSports organizers would do well to heed the IeSF’s example.

If you missed it, the controversy began with a Finnish Hearthstone tournament/IeSF qualifier that drew Internet ire for excluding women. As the sanctioning body, the IeSF defended itself with a two-point mandate: it wants to “promote eSports as legitimate sports” and it wants to encourage women to participate in the same.

With regarded to the latter, I have nothing to add to the IeSF’s excellent statement and its laudable decision to continue running events for women. Smaller events don’t carry the same prestige, but events designed to increase representation in no way reduce the legitimacy of eSports as long as the top-level championship events remain open to anyone qualified to compete. Everyone needs an opportunity to practice and to gain the experience needed to climb the ladder. Events that make women feel safe and welcome are therefore well worth pursuing.


The other question, however, is far more nebulous. What makes for “legitimate” competition?


The IeSF’s original position seemed to be a nod to infrastructure. Most athletic regulatory bodies places men and women into separate divisions, and the IeSF hoped that following a familiar template would make it easier for the sports establishment to accept the IeSF mandate. If existing agencies recognize eSports as sanctioned competition, then it would confer a degree of legitimacy to the broader public that already recognizes the authority of the IOC, FIFA, and etc.

The logic is sound, but it’s a bureaucratic argument that assumes athletic competitions gain legitimacy solely via press release. In the process, it ignores the emotional appeal that infuses athletics so much of its symbolic power.

Specifically, sports passion does not come from marketing. People do not care about the World Cup simply because FIFA publishes the rulebook. Rather, athletic events gain significance when audiences believe the outcomes are authentic. Competition is legitimate when the best team wins.


The caveat, of course, is that the best team also has to be playing, an issue which has plagued professional sports in the past. The major sporting leagues in the US – the NBA, MLB, NCAA football, etc. – were forced to desegregate at least partly because too many of the world’s best players were left on the sidelines.

Fans and front offices both knew it, and in the sporting world, what’s ethically right is often less compelling than wins and losses. Jackie Robinson was signed because he could help the Brooklyn Dodgers.

The fact that desegregation was a moral imperative is comforting in retrospect, but the point remains that desegregation improved the on-field product at the time. With segregated sports leagues, no team could plausibly claim to be the best in the world. The whole sporting endeavor – the literal and metaphorical drama, the uniquely human struggle to achieve – becomes pointless if the prize is hollow.

That’s why the (gradual) trend in sports has always been towards greater inclusivity, seen most recently with openly gay athletes like Jason Collins and Michael Sam gaining acceptance in professional locker rooms. Players are welcome as long as they can play.


That could also extend to women, but it seldom comes up in professional sports because – for the most part – men tend to be bigger and stronger than women. Yes, many women are more athletic than many men, but at the elite level, following a global search for talent, those tendencies do start to matter. Without separate leagues, women would have far fewer professional athletic opportunities, even if we might not like to admit it.

But the same is not true of an intellectual game like Hearthstone, where the goal is to outthink the opponent, not outmuscle the opponent. There are no inherent physical advantages on a digital battlefield. So why create barriers that prevent perfectly capable individuals from entering the competition?

If the IeSF wants eSports to generate the same respect as physical sports, then it was imperative that it desegregate and open the doors to women. A broader player base makes the quality of the competition better, and that in turn makes it more legitimate. The skill needed to reach the top is greater in a deeper talent pool, and fans are more likely to appreciate a more difficult accomplishment.

So while the IeSF’s emulation of sports infrastructure makes sense from a paperwork perspective, it doesn’t speak to the concerns unique to digital events. As with the NCAA, most athletic governing bodies are ancient, patriarchal institutions. Appeals to tradition are usually attempts to forestall progress in a way that unfairly excludes and punishes the creativity of outsiders.


eSports don’t have the same entrenched heritage, which means it should be easier to establish new, more equitable standards for competition. We don’t have to do what everyone else does. That’s an excuse, a meager justification to avoid dealing with an issue just because it sounds tricky, or because someone is afraid to lose to a girl.

As a spectator, I only want to see the best battle the best. Just as the Olympics highlights the world’s fastest sprinters, eSports should be a showcase for the quickest thinkers, people who can make sound tactical decisions and translate them into digital actions in less than a second. That trait exists regardless of gender, and we’ll be better off the sooner we acknowledge everyone’s abilities.

I don’t know if eSports will ever enjoy the popularity of physical sports, and it ultimately doesn’t matter. The IeSF needs to cultivate the events it actually oversees, and adding women will only improve the competition.

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