Finding the Balance: Performing Femininity in the E-Sports Sphere

Throughout its history, the world of esports (defined for this paper as organized, non-casual competitive play of video and computer games) has been overwhelmingly male. Combining the male-dominated cultures of video games and traditional sport, the representation of women has  been gradually increasing in recent years but is still small and increasingly segregated from the “men’s leagues.” With this gender imbalance comes difficulties for gamers and participants who do not fit into the understood mold of the “hardcore gamer.” While gamers do not always conform to the standards of traditional “jock” masculinity, they still reinforce standards of hegemonic masculinity by confining women to sideline roles and ensuring consequences to female gamers who do not meet the expectations of “good girl gamers.” Ultimately, while some male gamers are able to perform femininity in some capacity without consequence, female gamers face consequences for performing femininity, with even skilled female gamers gaining only conditional acceptance within their respective gaming communities.

In order to systematically examine femininity in the domain of esports, we will look at the basis of the masculine standard in traditional athletics and esports, examine male and female uses and repurposings of performance of femininity, and investigate case studies of  female esports teams and players.

Esports and Masculinity

From its inception, the world of athletics and sports has always been predominantly male. According to Natalie Chen Christiansen:

Sports first began to rise in popularity as a reaction to men’s fear of feminization …Organized sports were used in this time of crisis in order to reaffirm male superiority and male sexuality. Sports allowed men to demonstrate their physical prowess, and it was through this demonstration that sports became a way to establish male bodies as superior (Messner, 1992). Through athletics, aggression and domination became to be equated with physical strength, which in turn naturalized the association with maleness and power. “One of the most salient features in the rise of organized sport was the elevation of the male body, and of male sexuality, as superior to female sexuality” (Messner, 1992, 16). Within homosocial male groups such as athletes and fraternities (Martin and Hummer, 1992), the use of women as sexual conquests becomes a mechanism for gaining status. Commodification of women and discussing these sexual conquests become ways to solidify male relationships without the threat of homosexuality. In contemporary sport, the primary experience of most sports activities is not through participation as an athlete, but rather as a spectator (Sabo and Curry, 1992). The popularity of sports observation has been attributed to patriotism, militarism, violence and meritocracy, with gender as an organizing theme (Messner, 1992). [1]

 The association of maleness with sport has led athletes to be associated with and/or take on a  hegemonic “jock” masculinity. This form of dominant masculinity values strength, heterosexuality, the “ideal” male form, and victory. However, despite the “sports” aspect of “esports” invoking a traditional athletic image, esports are still very much grounded in video games and “geek” culture. According to T.L Taylor, the identity of “geek” or “nerd” revolves around mastery of science, technology, and gaming, and is associated with extreme passion or dedication to a certain specialty. [2]  As technology and the geek culture became the purview of men, a form of geek masculinity arose, presenting a counterpoint to traditional hegemonic masculinity. Geek masculinity revolves not around the ideal male form or strength as much as it does around technicity, passion, and competence. Geek masculinity tends to present itself not at odds with traditional hegemonic masculinity, but instead as the choice to opt out of it. With esports lying at the intersection of sport and gaming, it leads to interactions and overlap of geek masculinity and athletic/jock masculinity. While both of these masculinities differ, their overlap lies in the exclusion, marginalization, and objectification of women as a way to validify masculinity, contributing massively from both sides to the creation of a culture unfriendly to women.

Where do esports participants identify themselves on the spectrum of gaming vs. athletics? The performance of masculinity varies wildly between leagues, sports, and local communities. Some organizations such as Major League Gaming use sports imagery to draw comparisons between esports and traditional sport organizations. In many fighting game and shooter competitions, the use of gendered slurs, trash talking, and homophobic expressions are common performances of heterosexual hegemonic masculinities. Some esports players emphasize the connection to traditional sports, talking in interviews about reflexes and the benefits of having experience in traditional sports such as baseball. [3]

On the other hand, some esports gamers position themselves directly in opposition to the “jock” masculinity. During Emma Wittowski’s visit to a Major League Gaming event in 2010, she interviewed players of Arena Tournament, a gladiatorial-style combat game set within Blizzard’s World of Warcraft. The game required teams of three to coordinate character abilities strategy, movement, and game mechanics.  What differentiated the Arena players from other player communities was that they positioned themselves firmly on the “geek” side of the masculinity divide, emphasizing finesse over all else and embracing the fine details and understanding of minutiae required to play the game well. Additionally, a well-played game (a “gg”) commanded as much respect as a victory.  Interestingly enough, Arena players also often chose female avatars.

Of the many players gender-bending in-game, Popsie explains that he didn’t choose a female character to represent his priest to conform to the gender stereotype made around that role, he chose a female body for the finesse of the animation that it projects back out into the world. He draws from the character those qualities that can fold back into the local significance of their game culture. The fairly stereotypical character designs are thus reinvented locally with different meanings of power–feminine/slender versus crude (perhaps re-emphasizing his stance on Arena as “brains” contra Halo as “brawn”). Even in Popsie’s last act here of “ideological recycling” of gender dichotomies (Laberge and Albert, 2000, p. 212), he steers clear of remaking the choice of finesse as fixed to moral strength (having the courage to gender-bend in the MLG space), or physical prowess (that the high-performance game is only for well-trained esports “athletes”). Gender-bending at Arena’s is at times purposefully employed as a distinct move away from local hegemonic “jock” masculinity. Rather than a reification of women’s bodies as healers, female bodies are chosen to show off the best side of their, the Arena players, masculinity. [4]

Although the male Arena players distance themselves from the Halo players, who they see as embodying the more traditionally masculine “jock” ideal, they are not discarding their own masculinity. Using finesse and skill as the basis of their masculinity, the use of the more graceful female avatars and the mimicry of more feminine movement enhances their performance of masculinity at a local level. While the Arena players’ performance of femininity would undermine their masculinity in most traditionally masculine settings, it instead enhances and secures their status in their own community.

Women in esports

As we have established, the culture of esports is overwhelmingly one of masculinity. So where do women fit in in the esports sphere?

The gendering of public game spaces is consistent with preliminary ethnographic research conducted by the authors at the UK Console Championships (UKCC) and various UK LAN parties. The UKCC was undeniably a male event in both organisation and competitor membership. The majority of females who did attend appeared to fit into acceptable nongamer roles. They were mothers who brought their sons to the competition (sometimes across a large part of the country) and who sat in the hotel foyers looking bored but offering support, encouragement or sympathy when necessary. They played the role of girlfriends who, like mothers, were there to provide support and a listening ear but were displayed to enhance the cultural capital of the gamer (see also [19]). Even female competitors appeared marginalised regardless of the gaming aptitude. As with the playground proximics alluded to above, at the UKCC female competitors appeared to be relegated to the periphery of the events and often stood sideon to the consoles while watching others play rather than the face-on stance of the male gamers intent on watching play. [5]

This concept of women as passive support for male achievement very much echoes the culture of traditional sport. Nicholas Taylor notices the relegation of most women at North American esports events (cheerleaders) as well, but also tackles the sexualization and objectification of women attending and working esports events. The presence of booth babes and the idea that female players and attendees are only there to be “Halo hoes” that fake a love of gaming in order to get male attention.[6] The idea that women in non-supportive positions are “faking it” or have ulterior motives suggests that the presence of active women presents a threat to the hegemonic masculinities, both geek and jock, of the esports world. When the “correct” role of women is one of support, female players who try to take on the more active role of competitor are committing a gender transgression, stepping out of their box and invading a male space. Since femininity as performed by active female participants can be construed as threatening to the status quo of gaming, performing femininity has consequences that have led to the current isolation of female gamers.

 

Team Siren: A Case Study

To examine some of the consequences of performing femininity in an esports context, we can examine the rise and fall of Team Siren, an all-female professional League of Legends team. League of Legends is an extremely popular MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) with over 12 million daily active players, over 90% of whom are male. The game has a thriving competitive esports scene, and features a tiered ranking system for both individuals and teams to keep matchups fair and balanced. The team competitive scene was (and still is) almost entirely male, with no woman having played for a professional team in competitive history.

Team Siren was founded in October 2012 as a team of five relatively high-ranked (Platinum & Diamond level) Solo Queue women on the North American League of Legends  server: A Little Jenny (Mid), Christina (AD Carry), ilysuiteheart (Jungle), Solvanas (Support), and Yoonie (Top).  The team played and practiced together for 5 months before moving into a gaming house together and announcing themselves as new professional team. The creation of new professional teams and establishment of gaming houses is not uncommon in the League scene, but teams had historically been all-male. To introduce the team, their sponsor  released the “Introducing Team Siren” video on YouTube on May 30, 2013.[7]

The video not only positions them as explicitly female, it sets their femininity as directly in opposition with the culture of League of Legends. The Sirens are presenting as breaking barriers and attempting to change the paradigm of the all-male professional scene. While the gender of the Sirens is undoubtedly a focus of the video, their skills as gamers are also emphasized;each player’s stats are displayed, establishing them as “real” League of Legends players, not just “fake geek girls.” The presentation of abilities serves as a way of mitigating the “threat” of “fake” female players, playing not for male attention but instead for the love of the game. The Sirens also engage in trash talk (the phrase “beat you and outsmart you” quickly became a meme within the LoL community), a traditionally masculine performance, positioning themselves as aggressive and competitive. Aside from the explicit mentions of gender in the video and the actual composition of the team, the Sirens’ video was not unlike existing  “cheesy” or over-the-top introduction or hype videos made by male teams. However, the immediate response the the video was overwhelmingly negative.

The link above is an album of comments on the video on both YouTube and reddit’s r/leagueoflegends, an online community around the game. While observing these comments to gauge opinions of and response to Team Siren does not necessarily convey the full range of the League of Legends community and is biased heavily towards those who have strong enough opinions to voice them, they still reveal some of the heavily gendered bias within the gaming community. Overwhelmingly, two sentiments are commonly echoed: first, that Team Siren is doing something wrong by calling attention to themselves and/or their gender, and second, that an all-female team is incapable of succeeding. Additionally, some of the comments reflect purely non-gaming-related misogyny. These comments, especially those about “blowjobs” and “sexual assault” reflect a repeated theme of geek misogyny: a fear of women using their sexuality to control men. The negative reaction to both the video and the team was not limited to comments and forums, however. Parodies of the video made by members of the League of Legends community began to pop up relatively quickly in the week after its release.

Within the parody video, the creator (videogamedunkey) positions the Sirens as “feminazis,” a caricature of the man-hating feminist looking to destroy the masculine culture of League of Legends. [8]  While in this video the concept of the “feminazi” out to destroy men is played for humor, it reflects non-ironically held misogynistic views that can be seen in the comments and forums. It also manages to hit multiple stereotypes of female gamers; not only does the video position the Sirens’ femininity as a “monstrous feminine” seeking to destroy men/masculinity, it also portrays female gamers as male-attention-seeking, focusing on one of the team members having visible cleavage during a Twitch stream.  As opposed to most of the comments, it does mock the skills of the players, but the actual skill-based criticism is only facet of a multi-pronged mocking of the team. By portraying their femininity as something to be mocked, the video devalues the validity of the team not only as not only inferior gamers, but additionally as inferior people, casually reinforcing hegemonic male ideals.

After the release of the video, the team continued to live in the house, stream on Twitch, and play together.Four months after the release of the video, however, Team Siren quietly dissolved, moving out of their gaming house and resuming their status as individual players. The team gave no official comment as to why they broke up, but the dissolution of the team re-started the online debate about their validity as a team.

http://imgur.com/a/Isd9y

While most of the negativity directed at the team had to do with the now-infamous video, a  repeated criticism of the team was that “people” (the community) would rather see a mixed-gender team as opposed to an all-female team to prove that female gamers could actually play competitively.  In fact, The highest-ranked member of Team Siren, Sylvanis, stated that she wanted to join a male team; she had actually tried out for and been offered a spot on a male team, only to be rejected once they discovered that she was female. This is not an isolated problem; T.L Taylor notes that female players often struggle to gain access to communities to develop their expertise as “boys don’t like losing to girls.”[9]

Forum Breakup Explanation

Additionally, Christina (a former member of Team Siren), posted in the LoL forums, giving some context to the team’s breakup. Echoing a statement made by Yoonie in her explanation video [10], the team itself did not actually make the video and had no idea how they were portrayed or when their sponsor released the video. Aside from this, Team Siren had many other issues besides the video. According to both Yoonie and Christina, the team struggled with interpersonal issues within the house. Additionally, they were only ranked in the Gold tier (3rd), far below the highest Challenger tier. While many professional teams often bring on less skilled male players with the intent of skilling them up (an opportunity which is only rarely, if ever, extended to female players)[11] , Team Siren was expected to already be at a high (Challenger) level to be worthy of the community’s respect.

Despite all this, the non-existence of the video would arguably not have saved the team. While, according to Yoonie, the large amounts of online “hate” made it difficult for the team to rely on each other for support, the many other interpersonal problems were a main contributor to Team Siren’s downfall.  Ultimately, while it was not solely responsible for their breakup, the most backlash directed at Team Siren was directed towards them as a consequence for vocally and publicly performing femininity as an explicitly female esports team.

Female Players & Performing Femininity

Can femininity successfully (without social or in-game consequences)be performed by female players successfully in an esports context?

In gaming environments where some aspect of the player’s identity is presented (livestreaming, competing, online multiplayer with voice chat, female gamers have to decide how to present themselves in relation to femininity. Some emphasize femininity, as if to compensate for their gender transgression. Some swing the other way and go out of their way to avoid  femininity, aping masculine behaviors (dress, trash talk, etc.).

Signs of traditional femininity can coincide with geekdom and girl gaming. Kennedy (2005) argues, for example, that “by foregrounding both their ‘femaleness’ and their skill in the game they offer a different set of meaning to computers, computer games, and technological competence.” It is also at time strategically deployed as a way of engaging with sexism and stereotypes that would otherwise sideline the woman gamer.

Some women choose to adopt the more dominant stance by acculturating–adopting forceful player names, engaging in trash talk, having an in-your face attitude, and even making sexist remarks…this is not simply “aping masculinity” but invokes something more akin to a mythical “monstrous feminine” which is woven through with often playful invocation of dominating yet oppositional identity. Some try to simultaneously enact both ends of the spectrum.[11]

For female gamers in a male-dominated space,  performing their version of femininity can compensate for the gender transgression of entering a male space, reassure other players of knowledge of gender role, or fight back against the need for femininity completely. As seen with Team Siren, excessive performance of femininity carries extreme social backlash. To some extent, simply playing while female constitutes an unavoidable performance of femininity. How do we discover where the “acceptable” level of femininity lies?

The isolation and overall lack of women present in esports ties back to the othering and sidelining of women in traditional sport. While there is much more of a physical difference when it comes to women performing in a traditional athletic context, female athletes must also deal with the sidelining of women and expectation of women as support. In Ian Ritchie’s overview of sport from a cultural studies perspective, he notes:

…sport is seen historically to be a long-standing project to reinforce dominant modes of masculinity and male privilege while at the same time allowing “just enough” and “just the right kind” of female physical activity so as not to rock the boat. [13]

In the case of the world of esports, the “right kind” of femininity is often in a supportive roles: Nicholas Taylor’s  girlfriends, booth babes, and “Halo hoes.” Still, the policing of femininity also applies to what few female players find their place in the esports community. What is this “right kind” of female gamer/game participation?

We can try to gain insight into what performance of gender can contribute to success by examining female esports players that have achieved some modicum of success/acceptance in the gaming community. Catherine Beavis observed and interviewed an all-female Counterstrike team at a LAN cafe in Melbourne during six-week competition. The team, led by “Butterfly,” was composed of 5 teenaged Southeast Asian girls with considerable experience with CS specially selected by Butterfly. Beavis notes that gaming as linked to a presentation of self was especially important to Butterfly and her clan:

Butterfly and her group’s commitment to the game and competition were linked to broader ‘identificatory investments’. These included a repositioning of themselves in relation to their boyfriends, with whom they competed as well as with other teams, and their sense of themselves as expert and special in relation both to males and to other girls. More, as was readily apparent on observing their game play, their femininity was intensified by the contrast provided by the presence of male players who dominating the spaces both of the café and the game. This was evident not just in the ways they played and spoke, but also in their dress, their petite frames, their interactions with each other and other players, the ways they were physically dwarfed as they played in the LAN’s large black executive chairs.

While much research suggests that ‘female identity as gamers is contextually-restricted, in that gaming in male dominant environments “is not socially rewarding for females”‘ [18], for Butterfly and her team this was explicitly not the case. Rather, a large measure of their pleasure and satisfaction in being a female team stemmed from exactly that – the uniqueness of their position, and the ways in which this overturned male complacencies and expectations about gendered practices and identities. [14]

The team was very visibly feminine in a predominantly male space, and yet was very successful in  success in the male-dominated CS playspace earned them grudging acceptance.

Despite their success and performance in the tournament, Butterfly and her team still received gendered criticism and microaggressions and expressed frustration at being patronized (being “good for a girl”) Even without the aggressive performance of femininity and lack of victories of Team Siren, Butterfly’s all-female clan struggled to be fully accepted into the Counterstrike community. While their skill grants them a conditional acceptance (a “good girl gamer” is competent and always plays well), the presentation of femininity that they exhibit simply by being noticeably female is enough to push them to the outskirts of acceptance, as recognized by the fact that they are not being treated as equals in the way a male team would be.

Nicholas Taylor also observed and interviewed Fatal Fantasy,  a successful female Halo competitor at NerdCorps and Major League Gaming events. One of the few female presences at these events, she achieved success both in individual free-for-all events as well as in paired teams. Additionally, Fatal actively presents as a “desirable heterosexual female,” choosing to wear dressses and makeup to events while also being one of the more vocal players (for everything from strategic to trash talk), potentially as a compensatory measure.

…Fatal Fantasy shows herself to be a competent gamer and a dominant presence at NerdCorps events. Through her vocalised and embodied derision (in the above account) she positions herself as an accomplished and demanding teammate. Her performance as a self-assured female Halo 3 player complicates a discourse in which, by virtue of its connections to masculinised cultures of both mainstream sports and gaming, competitive Halo 3 is configured as the exclusive domain of young men. Her participation further stresses that there is nothing in terms of gameplay—the technological skills required, the intensive communication and coordination demanded of team play, or the stresses of competition—that are ‘inherently’ masculine. Instead, it is the discourse that links competitive gaming with a misogynistic (and homophobic) sports tradition that makes her identity as a ‘good girl gamer’ so tenuous and contingent. [15]

What secures Fatal Fantasy’s status as a “good girl gamer?” In addition to her skill, she is also extremely careful as to how she presents herself. Despite positioning herself as desirable, she is firmly “off-limits” as a potential sexual encounter and is very careful to establish to Taylor that she  is there “just to play,” not as a “Halo ho.” In clarifying this, Fatal establishes that despite her gender and presentation of femininity that she is there for “the right reasons”; she is there to play games, not to acquire male attention.

Ultimately, the sphere of esports lies at the intersection of geek and jock masculinities and is difficult for women to exist in.  While male players can appropriate some aspects of femininity to reinforce geek or non-traditional masculinities, the same does not apply to female players.  If female gamers choose to project either as hyper-feminine/sexualized or as aggressively masculine, they often face harassment, gendered slurs, and exclusion (social or otherwise) from events or their e-sport’s community. In performing femininity, female players are expected to hold to a mythical and often fluctuating ideal of the “good girl gamer” in order to gain what is often only tenuous acceptance.

Notes

  1. Natalie Chen Christensen,  “Geeks at play: Doing masculinity in an online gaming site.” in vol. 6 of Reconstruction, ed. by Marc Oulette. 2006.
  2. T.L. Taylor, “Professionalizing Gamers.” In Raising the Stakes: The Professionalization of Computer Gaming. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012), 111-112.
  3. Nicholas Taylor, Jen Jenson, and Suzanne De Castell “Cheerleaders/booth Babes/ Halo Hoes: Pro-gaming, Gender and Jobs for the Boys” in vol 20, no. 4 of Digital Creativity 2009. 244.
  4. Emma Witowski. “Eventful masculinities: Negotiations of hegemonic sporting masculinities at LANs,” in Mia Consalvo, Konstantin Mitgutsch, and Abe Stein (Eds.) Sports Videogames. New York: Routledge, 2013. 228-229.
  5. Jo Bryce and Jason Rutter. “Killing Like a Girl: Gendered Gaming and Girl Gamers’ Visibility.” In CGDC Conference Proceedings, (Tampere: University of Tampere Press, 2002), 247.
  6. Taylor, Jenson, and De Castell, 244.
  7. “Introducing Team Siren,” posted by “Team Siren,” 2013.
  8. “Serious Girl Gamers,” posted by “videogamedunkey,” 2013.
  9. T.L. Taylor, 125.
  10. ibid, 125.
  11. “Why Siren Disbanded,” posted by “YoonieS2,” 2013.
  12. T.L. Taylor, 123.
  13. Ian Ritchie. “Sport on the Cultural Studies Agenda.” Review of The Girl and the Game: A History of Women’s Sport in Canada, by Ann Hall.” in vol. 12 of Topia (2004).147.
  14. Catherine Beavis. “Pretty good for a girl: gender, identity and computer games.”2005.
  15. Taylor, Jenson, and De Castell, 244.

 

Works Cited

 

Beavis, Catherine. “Pretty good for a girl: gender, identity and

computer games.” (paper presented at DiGRA, Vancouver, June 16-20, 2005).

 

Bryce, Jo, and Jason Rutter. “Killing Like a Girl: Gendered Gaming and Girl Gamers’ Visibility.” In CGDC Conference Proceedings, 243-255. Tampere: University of Tampere Press, 2002.

 

Chen Christensen, Natasha. 2006. “Geeks at play: Doing masculinity in an online gaming site.” Reconstruction 6.1 (Winter).

http://reconstruction.eserver.org/Issues/061/christensen.shtml

 

Riot Games. “The Major League [of Legends]: League of Legends’ Global Reach.” 2012. Infographic. IGN, 2012. http://www.ign.com/articles/2012/10/15/riot-games-releases-awesome-league-of-legends-infographic

 

Ritchie, Ian. “Sport on the Cultural Studies Agenda.” Review of The Girl and the Game: A History of Women’s Sport in Canada, by Ann Hall.” Topia 12 (2004): 147-51.

 

Taylor, Nicholas T. 2009. “Where the women are(n’t): Gender and a North American ‘pro-gaming’ scene.” In Breaking New Ground: Innovation in Games, Play, Practice and Theory: Proceedings of the 2009 Digital Games Research Association conference, eds. Barry Atkins, Helen Kennedy, and Tanya Krzywinska. London.

 

Taylor, Nicholas, Jen Jenson, and Suzanne De Castell. “Cheerleaders/booth Babes/ Halo Hoes: Pro-gaming, Gender and Jobs for the Boys.” Digital Creativity 20, no. 4 (2009): 239-52.

 

Taylor, T.L. “Professionalizing Gamers.” In Raising the Stakes: The Professionalization of Computer Gaming, 110-133. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012.

 

Witkowski, Emma. . “Eventful masculinities: Negotiations of hegemonic sporting masculinities at LANs,” in Mia Consalvo, Konstantin Mitgutsch, and Abe Stein (Eds.) Sports Videogames. New York: Routledge, 2013.

 

“Introducing Team Siren,” YouTube video, 2:33, posted by “Team Siren,” May 30, 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Gz9um3wV1o

 

“Serious Girl Gamers,” YouTube video, 1:36, posted by “videogamedunkey,” Jun 5, 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7onpZl0tayA

 

“Why Siren Disbanded,” YouTube video, 7:03, posted by “YoonieS2,” Aug 24, 2013.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FLrqPoiUn3w

 

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