Mark Religioso, a brand manager for the video game publisher Bandai Namco Entertainment, wants more women to be involved in the professional gaming arena known as esports, where players compete in video game tournaments to win thousands of dollars in prize money.
So this year, Mr. Religioso began planning “Bonnie and Clyde” tournaments, where esports teams consist of one man and one woman. He also began laying the groundwork for a mentoring program to foster interest in esports among women.
“These are baby steps so that we can get more women on the team,” he said. “We need to make the scene a welcoming place.”
Mr. Religioso’s efforts are one of several recent moves by video game makers and publishers to increase diversity in esports, which is rapidly becoming one of the video game industry’s most visible segments. As more women play video games, the esports industry is starting to focus on getting more of them involved in professional competition to help the effort expand and become mainstream.
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Revenue from esports is expected to surpass $1 billion worldwide by 2018, yet the viewership for esports is only 15 percent female, according to the market research firm SuperData. There is little data on the number of women who actually play esports, but anecdotal evidence suggests the figure may be small.
Efforts to increase diversity in esports go back more than a decade but have started gathering momentum. In 2003, the French esports company Oxent began organizing annual women-only tournaments; 40 teams competed in the 2016 tournament in Paris, an increase of 25 percent over the previous year.
Twitch, the Amazon-owned site that livestreams video game play, began hosting Misscliks, a support community for women in gaming, three years ago after some of its founders became dismayed by the lack of women in esports. Twitch also established Inclusivity City, an area for diversity organizations, at its annual convention, TwitchCon, which ran Sept. 30 to Oct. 2 in San Diego.
And this year, apart from Bandai Namco’s efforts, Intel and the esports company ESL partnered to form AnyKey, an advocacy organization that seeks to create support networks and provide opportunities for women in esports.
Many women gamers welcome these efforts. With a predominance of professional male players, the culture of the video game industry has long been perceived as misogynistic. Women in esports have frequently faced heckling from teammates and anonymous threats of rape and murder.
“It’s an extremely toxic environment for women,” said Stephanie Harvey, 30, who is a top competitor in esports tournaments for the game Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. “To be a woman in esports, you have to have a thick skin.”
How effective these efforts will be in drawing more women to esports is uncertain. Although Oxent, which has run the Electronic Sports World Convention for 13 years, has organized women-only tournaments for years for Counter-Strike, there is little evidence that they are encouraging more women to play competitively. Some gamers think the events reinforce the idea that women are not capable of competing with men.
Lâm Hua, the head of content at Oxent, said the women-only tournaments were not entirely successful in drawing more women to esports, but after much debate, the company decided that they were “the first step in the grand scheme of women recognition in the sport.” For now, he said, they were “a necessary evil.”
Other diversity efforts in esports have focused on normalizing the idea of women in gaming. Anna Prosser Robinson, a programming manager and onscreen personality at Twitch, helped push the company’s diversity initiatives after seeing women rise up, then drop out of esports.
“We would see these awesome, compelling women be excited” about esports, she said. “Six months later, they would be gone.” The goal of Misscliks, she said, was to provide support and resources to encourage those women to create a network on Twitch and stay in esports.
Ms. Prosser Robinson also helped bring diversity to TwitchCon this year with Inclusivity City, a physical space on the convention floor that hosted several diversity organizations like AnyKey and Hack Harassment, as well as a Smash Sisters tournament for women who play Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. fighting games.
“Inclusivity is a core value of our brand,” Chase, a Twitch spokesman who goes by one name, said of the diversity effort at the convention. “It was a success this year and definitely something we could consider for next year.”
AnyKey, the creation of Intel and ESL to increase the number of women in esports, focuses on two areas. One is research and discussion of the diversity issue, headed by T. L. Taylor, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the other is initiatives and solutions, led by Morgan Romine, a former esports player.
AnyKey organized a women-only esports tournament in March at one of the industry’s largest events, the Intel Extreme Masters competition in Katowice, Poland. Ms. Romine said she saw women-only tournaments as a way to strengthen players’ skills and move them into open competition.
“There is a lot of work that needs to be done, giving more women confidence and experience in that space,” she said.
Mr. Religioso of Bandai Namco said he began noticing the lack of female esports players at regional esports tournaments last spring, like Final Round in Atlanta and Combo Breaker in Chicago.
With the growth in esports, he saw an opportunity to reinvigorate interest in the company’s Tekken franchise. Next year, Bandai Namco will release Tekken 7, a one-on-one fighting game that the company hopes will be popular among esports competitors. Women make up about 23 percent of the fan base for the Tekken fighting games, Mr. Religioso said, but few are playing them competitively.
Rather than segregate men and women, Mr. Religioso wants them to work together in the “Bonnie and Clyde” tournaments. He also wants to introduce Western audiences to the Tekken Girl’s Club, a mentorship program in Japan in which professional players teach women to master the game’s mechanics.
Another solution to encourage more women into esports would be to change the way video games are made and marketed. Stephanie Llamas, director of research and insight at SuperData, said women should be participating more on the business side of the industry and developing games with women in mind.
“It’s difficult to understand the demographic if you are not part of that demographic,” she said.
New York Times