Gender inequality in sports video games threatens Olympic inclusion


Sanna Erdoğan
University of Lapland, Finland

Egil Trasti Rogstad
Virtual(ly) Women Athletes: A Study of Gendered Power Relations and Inequality in Sports-Themed Esports
265 pages, hft
Bodø, Norway: Nord University 2023 (PhD in Sociology)
ISBN 978-82-92958-61-2

Virtual(ly) Women Athletes: A Study of Gendered Power Relations and Inequality in Sports-Themed Esports is an article-based sociology dissertation. It delves into the complex realm of gendered power relations and inequality in esports. By exploring esports with the intersection of media, sports, and digital games, the thesis illuminates how inequality issues manifest in this digital sphere, mirroring those in real-life sports.

The thesis features a comprehensive summary report that serves as a roadmap, guiding the reader through the introduction, previous research, theoretical framework, methodology, and presentation of the articles and findings. The choices of theoretical frameworks underscore the author’s expertise and ensure that the thesis is digestible for readers with diverse levels of knowledge in esports. The publication forms a cohesive entity, and implementations are accurate. The thesis transparently explains the research process and details of the study. Hence, the author refers to the articles several times, and summaries are given regularly throughout the book.

The thesis establishes the pressing issue of inequality in esports. It comprehensively describes the gendered field, where inequalities persist in funding, training possibilities and respect in the culture of esports. The thesis shows that esports are not inclusive and bias-free, underlining the urgent need for change. Esports is a rapidly growing industry with significant financial resources. The author skillfully highlights the tensions between individual players in corporeal esports and structural orders that benefit males and build barriers to female participation.

Media builds differences between male and female players, strengthening the idea of female inferiority and the absence of physical capability.

Building on this comprehensive summary, this review proceeds to delve into the results and three key findings that have not only sparked the reviewer’s intellectual curiosity but also hold significant implications: (1) media representation and gender stereotypes, (2) feminist perspectives and equality, and (3) masculine structures and male-dominated sports. The review underlines these findings and discusses the importance of promoting gender equity in sports.

1. Media representations and gender stereotypes

The study analyses gender as a discursive practice in which societal norms, cultural understandings and shared ideas affect masculinity and femininity. Relations and negations of gender theory get perspective as a definition of how to do gender. This gender performativity is based on the work of Butler (2006), who understands gender as something people do. Using a case study of media representations of the first female player, Chiquita Evans, in the NBA 2K League, the study focuses on understanding the subject position and identity negations inside discursive constructions from 26 selected media texts relevant to the case study. The thesis reveals how the media influences perceptions, stereotypical gender expectations, and traditional assumptions about gendered sports participation. The identities and models represented in media affect people’s assumptions of the “acceptable” gender order.

The results indicate that media confirm gendered representations and stereotypes. Media builds differences between male and female players, strengthening the idea of female inferiority and the absence of physical capability.  Female players meet double expectations, trying to fulfil the expectations of decisive players and feminine behaviour. Women are forced or assumed to show competence by being determinate and resilient when competing among other professional players. Media coverage and activity seem challenging to handle: Female players tend to avoid online media activity because of harassment. Interpreting the study, the female player’s survival technique is to concentrate on playing and ignore other people’s opinions about them. One solution provided in the thesis is improving gender-balanced journalists to change media topics and increase female players’ positive media outcomes.

(Shutterstock/Friends Stock)

2. Feminist perspectives and improving equality

Like feminist praxis, which has movements and inquiries described as waves (Naples, 2020), gender and technology have three waves explained in the dissertation. Waves in technology started in the 1990s and lasted ten years each. First, girls were not assumed to have an interest in game playing. Second, a binary gender system was created by emphasising the differences, leading to men being “gamers” and women being left outside of culturally shared gaming ideology. A third wave has followed feminist scholars to intersectional understandings.  During these phases, esports game developers have tried to attract more females to sports video games (SVG). Sadly, those “feminine” games have strengthened stereotypes and gender dichotomy. Moreover, even though the author scrutinises esports through poststructuralist theory, the game industry seems to have a limited understanding of gender-inclusive policies.

The thesis describes sports as a masculine, male-dominated field where promoting equality meets barriers and obstacles. One of those is discussing the possibility of including esports in the Olympic Games. Esports assets, such as providing gender-equal participation, become harmful in this matter. In the current situation, only 2% of the athletes in esports are women. IOC promotes equal representation, but esports cannot fulfil equality measures. Esports are not equal when measuring equal participation, economic conditions, discrimination, sexual harassment, and gendered preferences. Following the document analysis based on published and public information concerning IOC’s plans for esports, the author offers recommendations to esports stakeholders for improvements to include esports in the Olympics in the future. Provided critique can establish equal training conditions and equal pay, abolish discrimination, increase female role models and change male-dominant sports culture.

3. Masculine structures and male-dominated sports

The author draws theory from Connell’s (1995) hegemonic masculinity, picturing it as a relational and structural practice of organising sports. The concept describes the patriarchal sports culture, which maintains the privilege of males and masculine characters. In this context, people are positioned as subjects in hierarchical social positions, including gender order. Gender differences and male dominance are not inherent and natural but a result of continuing constructions inside social practices and interactions. Using hegemonic masculinity to explain the inequality between female and male players is relevant. Deeply embedded, culturally shared assumptions link men to technology and sports, which hinder women’s’ attraction to participate. Moreover, the inequality is maintained by relating men to be more “suitable” to technology, primarily “card-core” gaming, which means competitive targets in esports.

As feminist scholars, e.g, Grosz (1994) may ask, what would happen if women invented sports today? What would sports be if developed from a female perspective?

Using the data collected via an online survey with 444 informants, Rogstad examines gendered character representations in SVG perceived by players already playing SVG. The descriptive analysis with variables shows differences between male and female respondents. The results reveal that almost all (91%) female respondents see the lack of female characters as a problem. Over half (57%) of the male participants also noticed the paucity of female characters in SVG. The authors suggest that same-gender characters are more important to women than men. Moreover, 88% of the female participants felt that having more female characters would increase their interest in SVG. The results demonstrate how important it is to have more female characters in SVG, but more importantly, that those are not sexist or strengthen females as physically inferior.

Reviewer’s comments

In my reading of Connell, I have interpreted the idea of hegemonic masculinity as limiting discursive practice. In that sense, it creates an image of masculinity that is respected over others. Additionally, there are several masculinities in hierarchical order. The author briefly describes tecknomasculinity (Kocurek, 2012), combining hegemonic masculinity and technological expertise. I would have liked to read more interpretations on how “allowing” multiple masculinities could make change possible (see for instance Mellström & Pease, 2023). Although I agree that the concept of hegemonic masculinity can explain how current structures and male stereotypes linked to esports hinder gender equality. Thus, rethinking patriarchy and relations between power and gender order can be scrutinised to understand gender domination (Connell et al., 2018). Moreover, I recommend scrutinising the idea of gender as performativity and Butler’s idea of possibilities to “undo” gender in the future. The author describes the tension between physical athletes as players and the characters in SVG. Exploring the possibilities of undoing gender in esports would raise interesting issues for further research.

As a feminist scholar, I am interested in revealing power hierarchies, mechanisms and binaries. It would be interesting to know the reasoning that led the author to use the dualistic categorisation of esports and traditional sports. Naturally, it is essential to be clear about the kind of sports the text or issue relates to. In the beginning of the thesis, the author used the term real-life sports and changed it to traditional sports later. My question is, in what case and matter are historical structures needed, and when are they harmful when developing various sports? As feminist scholars (e.g, Grosz, 1994) may ask, what would happen if women invented sports today? What would sports be if developed from a female perspective? Drawing from that idea, what possibilities exist to consider esports a “unique” sports discipline?

Luckily, the author could present some positive directions for improving equality in SVG. The author interprets the book as suggesting that esports could provide an inclusive environment based on a lack of physical evolution. He compares esports to some non-physical sports, such as chess. For future research, it would be interesting to investigate these non-physical sports more to examine how sports could be more gender equal. Secondly, comparing to another gender-equal Olympic sport, equestrianism could provide some perspectives on the issue. On the other hand, as the thesis reveals, the barriers are built into structures and slowly changing attitudes. One option could be interdisciplinary research with technology or organisational research in engineering, online platforms, or social media. The author suggests researching how media reconstruct hegemonic structure and considering intersectional perspectives. Hence, exploring intersections of gender and ethnicity would need diverse participants in esports.

Limitations of the review

My expertise is in sports coaching, leadership, and gender studies. Topics and themes discussed in the review are influenced by the reviewer’s current knowledge and from the position of a feminist scholar. My interests and competence have influenced the outcome of this review.

Copyright © Sanna Erdoğan 2024


Connell, R., Martin, P. Y., Messerschmidt, J. W., & Messner, M. A. (2018). Gender Reckonings: New Social Theory and Research. New York University Press.
Grosz, E. (1994). Volatile bodies: Toward a corporeal feminism. Indiana University Press.
Naples, N. A. (Ed.). (2020). Companion to women’s and gender studies. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated.
Mellström, U. & Pease, B. (Ed.). (2023). Posthumanism and the man question: Beyond anthropocentric masculinities. Routledge.

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