Colleges and universities rushing to invest in the booming arena of varsity esports are overwhelmingly committing opportunities and scholarships to male players, according to data collected by The Associated Press.
Male gamers held 90.4% of roster spots and received 88.5% of scholarship funds in a sample of 27 public American schools surveyed by the AP during this school year. The glaring gender disparity exists even though 41% of U.S. gamers are female, according to the Entertainment Software Association, and in a realm where — unlike traditional sports — there are no physical barriers separating male and female competitors.
“It’s tremendously sad and tremendously not surprising,” said Grace Collins, an expert on gaming, education and gender.
The AP requested roster and scholarship data from 56 public U.S. schools identified among the 192 participants in the National Association of Collegiate Esports, relying largely on public records requests.
Several schools responded that although their programs compete at the varsity level, they had not been sanctioned varsity status by the school. Their roster data was often incomplete, and those programs were held out of the sample. A handful of other schools either denied the AP’s request or did not respond to repeated messages.
The AP’s data set covers only a small sample of the landscape. But the overwhelming results confirm what esports coaches, players and experts have identified on their own as a problem since the first varsity program launched in 2014:
As esports are carving out their place on college campuses — and doing so without a central governing body, such as the NCAA — little is being done to ensure resources are spread equally along gender lines.
“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,” said Collins, CEO of Liminal Esports and a former liaison at the U.S. Department of Education focused on educational technology.
“So often it seems like to me, they’re trying to make another football for universities, and taking with it all of the baggage that is completely unnecessary to pull along with esports.”
Esports’ impact on campuses remains relatively small. The average roster in the AP’s sample included 30 players, but programs ranged from six to 83 gamers. Roughly a quarter of those players received scholarships, and the average payout was around $1,910.
Participation is sure to rise, though, especially after interest in gaming accelerated globally during the coronavirus pandemic. As people spent unprecedented amounts of time at home, the total esports audience swelled to 495 million last year, according to market research company Newzoo — a nearly 12% bump. That helped the competitive gaming industry surpass $1 billion in revenue for the first time.
While plenty of women play video games, they remain woefully underrepresented in many esports. There are several reasons for that, including a culture of toxicity and harassment perpetuated by some male gamers who favor the most popular games, like “League of Legends.”
In traditional sports, Title IX has helped ensure athletic departments devote roughly equal resources to male and female students. The 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.
Many schools, intentionally or not, have sidestepped those restrictions by housing their esports program outside of the athletic department. Many of the esports scholarships reported to the AP were academic or merit-based funds.
Still, Title IX — which broadly prohibits gender discrimination in any educational program that receives federal funding — could be a tool for addressing esports’ inequity issue, according to Neena Chaudry, general counsel and senior advisor at the National Women’s Law Center.
“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,” Chaudry said. “Just as they would in any other sport or in the education program in general.”
Collins — who launched the first all-girls varsity esports high school team at a private girls school near Cleveland in 2018 — believes one way to boost female participation would be to expand the selection of games. They compare it to a movie club that only watches “Die Hard” movies and then wonders why only boys or men show up.
“That’s not to say that girls on your campus don’t like to watch movies," Collins said. "It’s just saying they don’t like to watch ‘Die Hard.’”
“League of Legends” is a staple of collegiate esports programs, as are male-dominated “Madden” and “Call of Duty.” “ Overwatch ” — a game whose cover character is a gay woman — has a slightly better ratio of women to men and is also popular. Collins would like to see schools try games like “Just Dance,” “Mario Kart" or something from the fighting genre. Girls and women are also more likely to play mobile games.
Boise State was among the more equal schools in the AP's survey, with 16 male players, five female players and three who identified as nonbinary. Esports coach Doc Haskell has been intentional about diversity — “These teams need to look like us, like our campus community,” he said — and among the pivotal steps he's taken has been a focus on the way players communicate.
While scouting potential recruits, Haskell believes he places a higher priority relative to other programs on intangible qualities — teamwork in particular — than a player's current ratings. Once players are in the program, he closely monitors the language they use in practice and competition, looking for teachable moments that foster inclusion.
“There are things that would be, in previous generations, considered ‘locker room talk,’” Haskell said. “The grand truth is that we can hope to avoid these things. We can teach around these things.”
The only school in the AP's sample with a 50-50 ratio of men and women was at the University of South Carolina-Sumter, which has eight male and eight female players. The program was the first in the state when it launched six years ago and initially had an all-male roster, but it picked up a couple of women gamers when it added “Overwatch” in its second year. That little bit of representation slowly built on itself.
“I didn’t do anything special, like, ‘Oh, I need to make sure I meet this quota or anything specific,’” coach Kris Weissman said. “But I made sure that we had an open and appealing program to everyone and anyone.”
Giona Mack, a freshman on the USC-Sumter team, had an avid interest in gaming during high school but was hesitant about collegiate esports because she didn't want to be the token woman. Weissman arranged a campus visit for her, and the vibe of the co-ed team helped her believe she could reach her potential there as a gamer.
"I got more nervous when it came to males because I found them more competitive,” Mack said. "That was my online experience of games. 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 reflected that.
“I really wanted to do something like this during college," she added. “Knowing that there were females, just mentally for me was big.”
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