Esports is a rapidly growing, high stakes industry: Major competitions can draw more viewers than top sports events like the NBA Finals and World Series, and it's estimated to be an over $1.5 billion business by 2020.
If you do happen to go to an in-person competition, you can expect to find a few things: Fans will cheer gamers on from the sidelines, trash talk will be volleyed back and forth across monitors of opposing teams, and there will be enough collective adrenaline to boot up a hard drive. (Well, not really, but the hype is palpable.) You will not, however, find nearly as many women as men.
Although roughly equal numbers of men and women report playing video games in a Pew Research Center survey, men pursue competitive games more often and are twice as likely to identify as gamers. According to Nielsen, there are also far more male than female esport fans.
In one online forum questioning why there aren't there more female esports players, the theories range from stress ("I think they are just not interested in extreme competitive situation[s], it's too stressful") to sexist assumptions ("Because they are extremely bad at video games that require mental reactions, and do not have the same brain chemical levels as us. End of story"). Of course, neither of these misguided opinions is true. And one all-female esport team, known as the Ladies of Fire N Ice, is out to win games, prove their haters wrong, and shift some of the longstanding stereotypes about who a gamer is and what they look like.
There are five "ladies" of Fire N Ice, the organization that sponsors the team: Ashley, 21; Aneesha, 20; Alex, 21; Alexis, 21; and Emily, 29. Online, they are more commonly known as Jeter, Divine, Panda, Arise Optimus, and Hustlerette. (In the aftermath of GamerGate, it's common for female gamers to not disclose their last names — going instead by their gamertags, or online Xbox aliases — for privacy and safety reasons.)
They all started gaming at a young age, playing Super Nintendo and games on their brothers' Xboxes, but each is still relatively new to the world of competitive esports. As a team, they are very new — they have only played together for about three and a half months. The difference between playing on an all female team versus a coed team is noticeable, they say.
"[On a coed team] you're the woman, so you're kind of the outcast," Ashley told Refinery29 of how the imbalanced gender dynamics tend to play out. "There's four other guys so you usually get the blame [when something goes wrong] because guys don't think women can play at their level."
The Ladies of Fire N Ice compete in Gears of War 4 — a third person, shooter video game. Being successful at the game requires coordination, accuracy, and lightning fast reflexes.
Like traditional sports, trash talking is a big part of some esports games, especially Gears of War. The Ladies of Fire N Ice are fierce trash talkers themselves — "[Aneesha and Alex] will get up, get in your face, and they will make you tilt," Alexis says of her teammates. However, they say their insults focus on game-based play, rather than appearance. These are different from the kinds of criticisms they often face.
At LAN events, in-person gaming competitions where the trash talk comes off the screen and into real life, male opponents will target stereotypes about female gamers to try to get a competitive edge. As Emily puts it, they'll say things to "get into your head."
"I think my favorite misconception is that we're all fat and ugly," Alexis says sarcastically. "That's one we've all heard before."
While these sorts of superficial criticisms and trolling comments might be more expected online, where the gamers typing them can hide behind the anonymity of their screens, they can sting in person. "I think one of the worst things a guy can do is target a woman's insecurities over a video game," Alexis adds.
When it comes to gameplay, the Ladies are starting to hit a stride: At a LAN competition earlier this month, the Ladies of Fire N Ice (they take that gendered name as a point of pride) ranked in the top 29 out of over 60 teams, winning three rounds and losing two. It was the result of weeks of hard work: Although the five women live in different parts of the country and in different time zones, they practice six to seven times a week for up to four hours every night online. Some evenings, they'll watch footage of their gameplay to look for areas they can improve, others they'll play scrims, or practice games, against other teams.
And all of this is on top of their "real" jobs: Ashley is a radiology technologist; Aneesha and Alexis are college students; Alex is a nursing student working as a nurse assistant; and Emily is a grad student who works with autistic students at an elementary school. (Fire N Ice would not disclose the salaries of any of the players. Pro esport players can earn hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, but there is a reported pay gap between male and female players.)
This doesn't mean that there aren't teams of women who are full-time competitors. There are the CSGO Women, five female players who earned a second place finish at the 2016 esports world convention, as well as pro gamer Stephanie Harvey, also known as MissHarvey.
Although the Ladies don't have full-time career aspirations for esports, a few key factors fuel them to keep playing: their competitive drive, close friendships with each other ("It makes me feel like I'm a part of something bigger, part of a family," Alex says), and desire to show what women can do in the esport space.
"I feel that to continue getting women to play, we as a team have to show that we’re not letting it affect us," Alex says of dealing with the sexism they face. "We’re still here and we’re still playing. Once you show that the misconceptions affect you and you stop playing, it’s showing that they’re winning."
For the Ladies, fighting stereotypes is a team effort, and one that they're slowly, but steadily, excelling at. As the industry becomes even larger and more lucrative in 2018 and years to come, it will be increasingly important for new female players to show up and prove that they belong in esports, too.