Free Play: The esports industry is changing, but the game is not

Over the last 20 years, the esports industry has evolved for women — in a positive way. Women are now more included than ever, not only as athletes but also as managers and high-level executives of the biggest names and organizations in the industry. Women can now be coaches of world-class professional esports teams, experienced commentators and skilled analysts of the biggest tournament circuits in the world. 

Just two years ago, Riot Games announced that it would be creating a new tournament circuit and program named VCT Game Changers. The VCT Game Changers series is an A-Tier tournament that has set a new standard for equality and inclusivity in the esports industry for the better, showing the world that women are skilled enough to compete at a high level.

While there have been women-only tournaments in the past — including “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive”’s counterpart, the ESL Impact Cash Cups — “VALORANT” is at the front of the industry in terms of embodying the spirit of equality both online and offline. 

Riot Games put in the effort and money to increase promotion, bring the tournament to a global scale, commit resources to high-quality production and pledge an unprecedented prize pool for a women’s-only tournament — $500,000 for the 2022 VCT Game Changers Championship versus a measly $1,000 for ESL Impact Cash Cups in each region. 

While $500,000 is a huge prize pool, it’s still only half of the VALORANT Champions tournament prize pool, which stood at $1 million last year. Although Riot Games has certainly made considerable progress in promoting and protecting the inclusivity of women through VCT Game Changers, the game of money still hasn’t changed — ironically. 

At the non-player level, women have entered the scene with a bang, but at the player level, not so much. Big-name gaming corporations and professional esports teams have unbelievably large budgets, but only a small fraction of the digital pie goes to women. No women appear among the top 300 highest-earning esports players and the top 400 women in esports combined earn less than half of what the top-earning man, “Dota 2” player Johan “N0tail” Sundstein, makes. 

Forget the wage gap: This is a wage abyss. 

“It’s a man’s sport! Women can’t play video games,” groans the typical G FUEL-swilling, Cheetos-dusted finger-wielding keyboard warrior who makes up the gaming industry’s loudest online presence. But the myth of women being worse than men at video games has long been debunked. 

A study of thousands of players in two massively multiplayer online role-playing games led by a researcher at UC Davis found that women advance as fast and perform as well as men do: Gender makes no difference in gaming skill. 

So, why is misinformation still widely recognized as a reason why women aren’t in the highest echelon of tournaments and playing at the highest caliber of esports? Why haven’t we tried to balance men and women in the “great equalizer” of sports? 

Yes, women-only tournaments have done wonders to promote inclusivity by creating safe spaces, instilling role models for younger gamers and creating a pathway for women esports talent to pursue their dreams. But while women-only tournaments have been a solution in advocating for equality in the past — it’s time for a change. 

Guaranteeing a spot for women in high-profile tournaments is the complete opposite of the solution, as it will only breed even more discrimination and misogyny. Women-only tournaments, despite providing the aforementioned space for women to compete, also to a certain extent, show that women need a closed tournament — one without men — to succeed. 

Now that we have proven that women are just as skilled as their male counterparts, it’s time to start not only advocating, but also supporting women to enter the bigger and better-paying competitions that are dominated by men. 

Cloud9 White was one of the first women’s teams in “VALORANT” and dominated the scene for nearly two years under the banner of one of the most profitable esports franchises in history. The former in-game leader of the now disbanded superteam, Melanie “meL” Capone, expressed the importance of having a “quality approach” to women in the professional scene in a BBC interview. 

Capone also cited the need for “not just the exposure and just signing the team, but also having a coach, secondary coach, an analyst, a really good manager and just a lot of support from the organization in general.” 

The top men’s teams have an abundance of support — just take a look at 100 Thieves’ “VALORANT” roster. Fully equipped with a highly skilled team of a general manager, head coach, assistant coach and a team of analysts, the roster has seen thousands of dollars of success, achieving top three positions in A- and S-tier tournaments since the roster’s inception in 2020. 

Compare that to last year’s VCT Game Changers winners, G2 Gozen, who only have a team manager, coach and team manager intern — yes, an intern managing a world-class women’s professional esports team — even though G2 is one of the largest and most profitable professional esports organizations on the planet. This is a world of difference in support systems. 

Women need a solid support system to even have a seat at the table, to even have the opportunity to compete at the highest echelon of esports. With a strong support system, women have the opportunity to prove themselves by entering the longest-standing and most prestigious circuits and tournaments in the world — and, hopefully, winning. 

By entering distinguished tournament circuits, such as the “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive” IEM tournaments and the “League of Legends” World Championship, bigger prize pools will be available for women to fill up the wage canyon that has existed since the dawn of esports. 

While the esports industry has evolved for the better, the name of the game — equality — hasn’t changed. With corporations and esports organizations having gargantuan budgets, the biggest names in esports have the capability to give these women the support they need to fight for a name, place and a living in the industry. After organizations make that first step, talent, skill and finesse will prove themselves. 

Chloe Thien is a junior writing about video games. Her column, “Free Play,” runs every other Friday. She is also the co-chief copy editor at the Daily Trojan.