Last week, teams competed in the 2017 Halo World Championship, an eSports tournament with a $1 million prize pool. While the competition took place onscreen, the demographics of its competitors told a story of their own: The players were all men. The commentators were men. And, as a shot of the crowd revealed, so were most of the fans.
After years of growth, eSports is set to continue its boom. Market research company Newzoo projects the industry will bring in $696 million in revenue this year, a 41 percent increase from 2016. With companies like ESPN and Turner Sports signing on to broadcast tournaments, the industry’s profile keeps rising. Still, many of eSports’ top events remain heavily male-dominated, creating a big earnings gap between men and women in the industry.
In eSports, players make most of their money in tournaments that range from casual online play to high-profile events in sold-out arenas. At the highest level, it can be a lucrative career: The top 100 eSports players have made an average of over $880,000 in lifetime earnings, according to the site e-Sports Earnings. Yet all 100 are men. By comparison, the average winnings for the top 100 female players comes to about $10,500 each. That puts the men’s earnings at 84 times the women’s.
Some in the world of eSports dispute this type of comparison, claiming that skill, not gender, accounts for the difference. And unlike in a traditional salaried job, players here get some choice in their earnings, deciding what frequency and level to compete at. As eSports News UK founder Dom Sacco wrote while criticizing the BBC’s look at earnings differences in eSports: “[W]hile the stats may be correct, it’s an unfair comparison to make due to the sheer lack of female pros at the top level.”
But the difference remains at a more granular level too. Take the top-earning male and female Starcraft II players, Jang “MC” Min-chul and Sasha “Scarlett” Hostyn. Both are in their twenties, both have played in 109 competitions, and Hostyn has won 20 more tournaments and matches than Min-chul. Yet Min-chul has earned $506,725.69 during his career, to Hostyn’s $174,537.82.
The lack of female involvement still remains a driving issue, one partially explained by harassment and sexism within the eSports community. A 2015 white paper published by AnyKey—a partnership between Intel and eSports company ESL to encourage diversity and inclusion in the industry—highlights the obstacles facing women who try to make a career in eSports: “Both offline and online harassment have put eSports women in positions where they could not respond for fear of professional retaliation, have caused them concerned for their safety (including doxxing, etc.), and have resulted in their withdrawing or leaving organizations due to the wear and tear of constant harassment.”
To combat these patterns and raise women’s earnings, organizations have worked on outreach efforts to broaden the industry’s reach. AnyKey provides resources and research to support women competitors, and, last December, streaming site Twitch introduced a tool called AutoMod that can automatically detect and flag inappropriate comments. Beyond these, some major events, like last year’s Intel Challenge Katowice, are giving female gamers a space to compete in the form of women-only tournaments with their own prize pools.