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Varsity Esports Offer Scholarships and the Latest Example of Gender Bias in Gaming

Collegiate Esports Expo
Courtesy of Collegiate Esports Expo

We’ve written previously about the rise of esports in academia, with more and more colleges and universities creating varsity esports teams alongside the development of collegiate leagues. We’ve also written a lot about the continued efforts of the esports and gaming industry to be a more inclusive and equitable environment. While a lot of the news on that front has been encouraging, a recent study has less-than-stellar news regarding the demographics of students receiving academic scholarships for esports: 90% of esports scholarships go to men.

According to coverage from Gizmodo, The Associated Press, and elsewhere, a study conducted by the Associated Press uncovered some disappointing statistics. The study reached out to 56 of the 192 public schools in the US which comprise the National Association of Collegiate Esports. The sample size for the study was relatively small—data from the 27 public schools that responded to their requests for public records—with some schools having incomplete roster data, not responding, or refusing the request. Still, the findings of the study are supported by issues that “esports coaches, players and experts have identified on their own as a problem since the first varsity program launched in 2014.” The study officially found that “male gamers held 90.4% of roster spots and received 88.5% of scholarship funds.” It’s been well-established that the sphere of gaming and esports has a record of being toxic towards female gamers, gamers who are LGBTQ+, and BIPOC gamers as well. However, as Gizmodo reports, the “Entertainment Software Association estimates that women make up about 41 percent of all U.S. gamers and Pew Research Center polls show 57 percent of women ages 18-27 play games.”

Courtesy of Tespa

One of the biggest issues on this front would have to be that fact that there is a lack of oversight from governing bodies. While there is the NCAA for traditional athletics in the academic sphere, there is no official association looking at maintaining standards for collegiate esports and gaming. While there are a number of organizations such as NACE, the National Association of Collegiate Esports, as well as Tespa, formerly the Texas Esports Association, participation isn’t required or unified and different schools reach disparate conclusions. As the AP puts it, “without a central governing body, such as the NCAA — little is being done to ensure resources are spread equally along gender lines.”

Courtesy of NACE

AP’s study also provides some context regarding collegiate esports programs as well. Gizmodo noted that “according to the AP, the average size of the programs was just 30 players, of whom only a quarter received an average scholarship of $1,910.” Title IX ensures that in traditional college sports resources such as scholarships, institutions have to “ensure athletic departments devote roughly equal resources to male and female students.” Title IX as a law “mandates equitable opportunities to participate in sports for men and women, and it requires that scholarships be offered proportionally to participation. It also states that facilities, equipment and other provisions be roughly equal.” Yet, AP’s study has found that a lot of the scholarships provided to esports competitors “were academic or merit-based funds,” creating a bit of a loophole on that front.

Even if things are not looking great from a gender equality front regarding varsity esports and scholarships, there are some folks and institutions working towards changing things for the better. AP spoke with general counsel and senior advisor at the National Women’s Law Center, Neena Chaudry, about how Title IX may still be implemented to fight inequality. Chaudry says, “If schools are going to be adding esports — and this is true regardless of whether it’s in the athletic program or not — then they need to address barriers such as harassment and other forms of discrimination that women may be facing in esports, just as they would in any other sport or in the education program in general.”

Boise State
Courtesy of Boise State

An example of what this may look like moving forward can be seen at Boise State and University of South Carolina-Sumter, two schools which rated on the more equitable side of AP’s study. Boise’s team consists of 24 players, 16 of which are male, five are female, and three are non-binary. The team’s coach, Doc Haskell, told AP: “These teams need to look like us, like our campus community,” and that efforts to achieve that goal start with the scouting process. Haskell has prioritized “intangible qualities — teamwork in particular. Once players are in the program, he closely monitors the language they use in practice and competition, looking for teachable moments that foster inclusion.” The University of South Carolina-Sumter is actually the only team which participated in the study to have a team that had 50/50 split of male and female players on their 16-player team.

When the USC-Sumter team first launched six years ago, the team was all-male; however, in their second year, they included Overwatch among their games and were able to bring in a couple of female players. This supports sentiments that gaming, education, and gender expert Grace Collins told AP. Collins noted that the choice of games included in a program has a huge impact on equality: “The way that these programs have been built out, the games that they select to play, the esports models that they’re looking at, the people that they are staffing, all are replicating an unequal system.” In a lot of collegiate esports programs, games such as League of Legends, Madden, and Call of Duty are known for their male-dominated playership. AP notes that there is “a culture of toxicity and harassment perpetuated by some male gamers who favor the most popular games, like League of Legends.” Back in 2018, Collins “launched the first all-girls varsity esports high school team at a private girls school near Cleveland” by, among other things, prioritizing games like Overwatch in particular. Overwatch is a game which has a gay female character on its cover and is known for having a higher ratio of female players than many other games, another piece of evidence behind the importance of representation in gaming. It’s clearly no coincidence that USC-Sumter was able to attract more female team members once they included Overwatch in their program.

Courtesy of USC-Sumter

Such measures are important because, when it comes to creating an equitable space in esports and gaming, the danger of being tokenized or alone in a potentially toxic and overtly male space is something that keeps female gamers from participating in collegiate esports programs. AP spoke to USC-Sumter freshman, Giona Mack, who said that “I thought if I went into an esports team and it was mostly male-dominated, I would just feel overwhelmingly nervous, and the way I performed would reflect that… Knowing that there were females, just mentally for me, was big.” Part of what helped Mack decide to join the USC-Sumter team was the fact that head coach Kris Weissman has been putting in the effort to create a team dynamic which was welcoming. Weissman says that he “Didn’t do anything special, like, ‘Oh, I need to make sure I meet this quota or anything specific, but I made sure that we had an open and appealing program to everyone and anyone.” This straightforward approach paid off. When he arranged for Mack to have a campus visit, “the vibe of the co-ed team helped her believe she could reach her potential there as a gamer.”

As with many things, the current state of affairs of gender equality for collegiate esports isn’t that great. The virtual nature of gaming should, theoretically at least, be an ideal place for competitors to come together in an arena where gender doesn’t matter. In an ideal world, esports and gaming should be the most level of playing fields, just as academic environments should allow access and opportunity to everyone, regardless of gender, race, or sexuality. Unfortunately, we’ve got a way to go before that’s achieved.

Luckily, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Just because the road is long doesn’t mean we won’t get to our destination eventually, and the first step on that road is ultimately looking at the sort of data found by AP’s study, listening to the insight of experts like Neena Chaudry and Grace Collins, and following the lead of coaches like Doc Haskell and Kris Weissman.

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