Gender issues in gaming are a volatile subject online, and
recent drama surrounding a Finnish Hearthstone tournament
only stokes the fire.
On Wednesday, news broke that a Finnish game tournament for Blizzard’s Hearthstone
had essentially said “no girls allowed”,
restricting entry into the competition to male players only. Adding
insult to injury, participation carried a €50 entrance fee, meaning
female players literally couldn’t even buy their way in.
While the Hearthstone tournament is being run as part
of Assembly, founded
in 1992 as a demo party and now one of the biggest games events in Finland,
it actually wasn’t the festival at fault. The event is a national
qualifier for the International eSports
Federation (IeSF) world championships, to be held in November
It was the rules of the latter organisation, based in South Korea,
that were being followed in enforcing the gender divide.
The IeSF’s initial, flimsy reasoning was that it wanted to run
eSports — competitive play of video games, which can have staggeringly high prize funds — in the same manner as
professional real world sports, with separate tiers for men and
To be fair, the IeSF acted swiftly once the online community,
particularly on Reddit, learned of the ‘boys only’ rules. The governing body
reversed its stance and made the contest open to all. However, in
what initially seems an act of staggering blindness, the
organisation has now left itself in essentially the same situation,
only reversed. In part of the statement announcing the change to entry conditions, the
“As a result, IeSF shall have two event categories: ‘Open for
All’ events and events that are reserved for women. The events
which were initially set aside as the male division will now be
open to all genders, and the events which were initially set as the
female division will remain as they were.”
So now, boys can’t play in the girl’s leagues. However, the
problem isn’t as simple as ‘sexist gamers’, and the reasoning for
the move actually lies further afield than the eSports arena. “It
is important to note the rationale for IeSF’s efforts to join the
international sports society, and why IeSF initially created a
gender division policy,” Alex Kim, who runs International Affairs
at the IeSF, told Wired.co.uk. “To achieve this goal, IeSF has been
preparing to apply for Sport Accord membership.
While applying, [we] found out that it is one of the requirements
to have an active women’s promotion to join.”
Sport Accord is, by its own description, “the union for both
Olympic and non-Olympic international sports federations as well as
organisers of international sporting events.” It oversees how
sports are run, and covers the ethics of federations and players,
checking for doping and stamping out illegal betting where
possible. And, as Kim says, any sports federation looking to become
part of the union must operate in a certain manner, which currently
involves having separate divisions.
So this becomes a breakdown of traditional sports versus
cybersports. Kim continues, “From the traditional sports scene,
years ago men were dominating, and international sports societies
decided to install women’s divisions to increase the involvement of
women in a more easy and efficient way. Of course, in traditional
sports there has been the physiological difference between genders
that make it necessary to separate the genders in sports. However,
that was hard to apply to eSports since there has not been any
evidence that those differences can be applied.” Essentially, while
it’s understandable to have a gender division for, say, basketball,
it’s less so for video games where the skill is far more mental
It would seem the IeSF is effectively forced to run tournaments
for both genders, at least until such a time that either Sport
Accord (or similar bodies) rethink their approach to eSports, or
the IeSF stops trying to be judged against physical sports. And
perhaps it should – video games can and should be the great
leveller, the one competitive activity that anyone can engage in
regardless of age, gender, or any other distinguishing metric.
There are even fantastic charities such as Special Effect working
so that disabled gamers get to play too – there’s no need for an
eSports Special Olympics when a player in a wheelchair is just as
capable as an able-bodied competitor.
Similarly, gamers and eSports competitors of both genders may
need to ask themselves how they want to be seen, and which
direction they want their chosen sport to go in. If it’s as true
sportsmen and women, then they may have to accept the gendered
divisions laid out by the union, as on investigation this isn’t
quite as black and white an issue as many first imagined. If,
however, they want to make eSports its own beast, a sporting league
for the 21st century where all entrants have equal chance of
winning, that requires the entire community to demand changes.
Most importantly, if the IeSF does keep the split
divisions, it needs to equalise them as much as possible. At
present, the men’s competition covers play of DoTA 2,
Starcraft 2, Hearthstone, and Ultra Street
Fighter IV, while the female competition only offers
Starcraft 2 and Tekken Tag Tournament 2. What
makes Tekken inherently more suitable for female players
than males? What makes Street Fighter more masculine? Dare
we even ask where SoulCalibur or BlazBlue might
sit on the gendered fighting game hierarchy? And why does the
women’s tier only consist of two games against the men’s four?
These are the issues that need to be addressed.
For its part, the IeSF is definitely open to change and growth.
“This is the third year testing female promotion events, and we
truly believe that we have grown the number of women players in
competitive events,” says Kim. “We know that there are still
questions remaining over why the IeSF still retains the female
division, but we have been testing measures to bring more women
into the eSports scene, and to try to bring more attention on women
“The IeSF did not mean any sexism or gender discrimination, but
originally tried something good for females. Our actual measures to
promote women in e-sports could be mistaken, but please note that
we tried for good,” Kim adds. “I would like to apologise, and we
admit our initial policy was mistaken in the process of
investigating and testing a measure to develop our eSports events.
We will keep endeavouring to find better ways to increase the level
Assembly Summer will be held as scheduled from 31 July to 3
August, with the Hearthstone qualifiers now open to all.
From Kim and the IeSF’s statements, what happens next with eSports
is up to you.