Gender in eSports Research: A Literature Review | A Summary

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Egil Trasti Rogstad
Nord University, Norway


Since emerging in the 1990s, the popularity of eSports – organized competitive gaming – has grown enormously in recent years. According to Newzoo (2021), a leading global provider of games and eSports analytics, the eSports industry will surpass the $1 billion mark in revenue for 2021, while the global live-streaming audience will grow to 728.8 million by the end of 2021. Unlike traditional sports, in which men are often considered to have a physical advantage over women, physical attributes are unrelated to high performance in eSports, allowing both men and women to compete in the same events. At an early stage, scholars like Hemphill (1995) argued that “Cyberspace holds out the possibility that new forms of sport participation and sociality can be created in terms of game-making, game-playing, and norm-making within games” (p. 58). However, in terms of gender issues related to sexism and exclusion, eSports has proven to be no exception, according to recent research.

Indeed, the eSports industry is heavily male-dominated, with women representing a lower proportion of participants, fans, and leaders. Studies show that women comprise 35% of eSports players (Interpret, 2019), but only 5% of professional players, which means that women players rarely compete at the topmost level of eSports (Hilbert, 2019). This strong distinction is also an indication that exclusionary practices can and do have an effect on who plays and what games they play. Most of the studies within this literature review argue that hegemonic masculinity is supported and valorized through eSports in order to maintain men’s dominant position within eSports environments. Utilizing a traditional narrative review approach to current academic research conducted on gender and eSports, the aim of the this literature review was to examine how the theoretical concept of hegemonic masculinity has been used to understand gendered power inequalities in eSports and to discuss how these can be said to align with hegemonial forms of masculinity and power commonly found in traditional sports.

CS:GO Players at the women’s tournament at IEM Katowice 2017.

Since proposed by Raewyn Connell (1987, 1995), the concept of “hegemonic masculinity” has been a major component of the growing field of critical masculinity studies. Within a broad range of disciplines, it has proven to be essential to the understanding of masculinities and how unequal gender relations are legitimated worldwide. Connell (1995) defined hegemonic masculinity as the “configuration of gender practice that embodies the currently accepted answer to the problem of the legitimacy of patriarchy, which guarantees (or is taken to guarantee) the dominant position of men and the subordination of women” (p. 77).

A list of keywords was used to direct the identification of relevant research on eSports and gender: eSports, competitive gaming/video games, electronic/virtual/digital sports, gender, male/female/men/boys/girls, masculinity, and femininity. These were used to search Google Scholar, EBSCOhost, Scopus, and Web of Science. The search was conducted between January 2020 and May 2020 and restricted to peer-reviewed English and Scandinavian language papers, anthologies, and doctoral dissertations published from 2006 to 2020. The papers identified in the primary search (n = 5967) were screened in relation to inclusion and exclusion criteria, resulting in a final sample of 21 relevant papers.

The alleged physiological superiority of men over women upon which male domination and privilege are based is not as central to the virtual nature of eSports as it is in other sports. However…

Further, a thematic analysis was carried out to identify common themes within the reviewed literature. Three primary themes were identified: masculinities in eSports (articles focusing on theoretical analyses of the concepts, characteristics, or consequences of masculinities in eSports environments), online harassment (articles focusing on negative experiences related to gender stereotyping and gender-based harassment), and negotiating gendered expectations (articles focusing on complex and diverse range of gendered expectations, identities, performances, and variations in eSports).

After presentencing and discussing these primary themes, this study found that the reviewed literature suggests that many eSports environments – despite clear differences between eSports and traditional sports – are shaped by the hegemonic masculinity dominating other sporting contexts. Some studies reviewed in this article argued that this is because the eSports industry is organized by and for men, resulting in a highly masculine environment. The alleged physiological superiority of men over women upon which male domination and privilege are based is not as central to the virtual nature of eSports as it is in other sports. However, skills that are only “masculine” because they are virtual – that is, grounded in long-established traditions of male dominance over video game culture – have taken root in the eSports environment. Traditional sports and eSports thus discursively link masculinity, athleticism, and competition together in very similar ways. Assumptions of areas in which women fall short – skill, ambition, desire, and capability – are presented as physical or mental discrepancies between genders and reinforced by discursive, material, and behavioral validations of inferior and secondary roles for women.

Research findings and gender theory have systematically undermined such innate sex-based imbalances, proving them entirely misleading and often completely fabricated ‘phantasms’ (Butler, 1993) of an oppressive social hierarchy focused on limiting the role of women. However, such conclusions have yet to influence the current circumstances for women engaging in eSports. If the eSports scene is indeed aligned with the damaging outcomes of hegemonic masculinity, the industry will likely benefit from analyses of how eSports affects participants to become more inclusive.

Copyright © Egil Trasti Rogstad 2021

References

Butler, J. (1993). Bodies that matter: On the discursive limits of ‘sex. Routledge.
Connell, R. W. (1987). Gender and power: Society, the person, and sexual politics. Stanford University Press.
Connell, R. W. (1995). Masculinities. University of California Press.
Hemphill, D. A. (1995). Revisioning sport spectatorism. Journal of the Philosophy of Sport22(1), 48–60. https://doi.org/10.1080/00948705.1995.9714515
Hilbert, J. (2019, 9 April). Gaming & gender: how inclusive are eSports? The Sports Integrity Initiative. https://www.sportsintegrityinitiative.com/gaming-gender-how-inclusive-are-esports/
Interpret. (2019, 2 March). Female esports watchers gain 6% in gender viewership share in last two years. https://interpret.la/female-esports-watchers-gain-6-in-gender-viewership-share-in-last-two-years/
Newzoo (2021, March 9). Newzoo’s Global Esports & Live Streaming Market Report 2021. Retrieved from https://newzoo.com/insights/trend-reports/newzoos-global-esports-live-streaming-market-report-2021-free-version/
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