After playing her final card, Li Xiaomeng watched the avatar of her opponent, Brian “Bloodyface” Eason, explode. “Go, Liooon!” Li’s supporters cried out, cheering her on by her screen name, raising placards and waving a big red Chinese national flag fervently. Lights illuminated the stage. Victory was Li’s with a streak of three to nil.
The 23-year-old girl from Xinjiang, a remote region in Northwestern China, removed her headphones, walked toward the center of the stage and shook hands with her opponent, an established American player. “What a performance,” the game host marveled at her clean sweep.
Li clutched the crystal trophy of the Hearthstone World Championship—the official tournament of Blizzard Entertainment’s popular e-sports title—close to her chest. Under the stage lights, it radiated a blue glimmer. The host asked her, “What is going through your head at this very moment?” Lost on words, she burst into tears.
It took a few moments for Li to reclaim her composure. She thanked her friends and supporters, and recalled an encounter from two years ago that made her historic win even sweeter: At a major game tournament, a male player said she shouldn’t even bother signing up to play: “If you are a girl, you should not wait here. It’s not for you.”
Li’s win is unprecedented in that she’s the first player from mainland China to get this far in the Hearthstone World Championship. Right now, e-sports are experiencing surging popularity in China, following the phenomenal win of the local competitive organization Invictus Gaming in the 2018 League of Legends World Championship. The Middle Kingdom now has 640 million gamers, and is home to more than half the world’s e-sports audience, by some estimates. Research firm Newzoo predicted that China would become the second-largest e-sports market in 2019, generating USD 210.3 million in revenue.
Not long ago, video games were described as “digital heroin” by parents and the media in China, but attitudes are slowly shifting. Pursuing a career in e-sports is still unorthodox, but is increasingly accepted by the general public. TV drama series, talent shows, and movies with tangents or arcs involving the e-sports industry and its players are in the mainstream.
Twenty-two-year-old e-sports player Jian Zihao from Hubei, also known as “Uzi,” is a good example of how far professional gamers have come. He was selected as the Weibo Person of the Year on Monday, an award that is bestowed based on votes gathered from the public.
But it’s an entirely different story for women who are professional e-sports competitors. The industry is oftentimes plagued by blatant gender-based discrimination, industry insiders observe.
A rough road to fame
In a long essay recounting moments and realizations from her e-sports career on Zhihu, a Chinese site similar to Quora, “Liooon” Li reflected on the difficulties she encountered along the way: being questioned about whether she was just a front for male “ghost-players,” being told she played badly by men who lost matches to her, or being called “too fat” by online viewers.
“On all these occasions, was my sin being ‘weak,’ or just being a woman,” she asked, in defiance of the long-held justification cai shi yuanzui—literally, “weakness is a sin”—for discrimination against female players by many Chinese gamers. The Hearthstone world champion’s unhappy experience before her ascended to fame is a tale all too familiar for many female e-sports players in China.
Disdain and hostility often manifest as abusive language in training matches. “Once, a random guy who I didn’t know cursed at me in the in-game communication channel, with words that were too repulsive to be repeated here, and he deliberately tagged me,” said Long Hongming, team leader of the Beijing-based female gaming club REGirls. Long said being on the receiving end of this kind of abuse from male players is one of the major obstacles she encountered in the pursuit of a career in e-sports.
Long’s coach, Wang Yiling, said it was understandable that his player would feel disheartened by that sort of provocation. “Imagine you are playing your games and doing nothing wrong, and someone begins to swear at you out of the blue,” he said. “How can you not be upset?”
On top of the open hostility from other professional players, female e-sports players sometimes find themselves being subjected to harsh or flippant online comments because of their gender.
“Say you are a female player taking part in gaming tournaments. If you play well, it’s not a problem. But if you make one small mistake, it will surely be blown out of proportion [by e-sports fans],” said Zhou Jie, COO of the women-only Killing Angel (KA) gaming club.
The discrimination extends beyond callousness. There are structural inequalities that prevent women from moving up the ladder in e-sports: Elite gaming clubs favor men, and few scouts seek women as they fill their programs’ ranks with new blood.
KA’s Zhou was once a potential recruit for an e-sports team, but as soon as they met her in person and found out that she wasn’t a man, they decided to rescind the offer. “It’s possible that they thought it would be inconvenient to have a woman on the team,” she said.
To counter elite gaming organizations’ reluctance to include female players, women have formed exclusively female gaming clubs, though these are still few in number. After a very short-lived boom three years ago—there were reportedly no fewer than 200 active female e-sports teams in 2016—most of these gaming clubs have disbanded, and only a handful are still active today. Now, those that remain are feeling a chill. Tournaments meant for all-female teams are no longer organized, and sponsors typically only offer deals to elite all-male teams. Women are more often than not locked out of the business side of e-sports because of structural inequalities in talent scouting and youth recruitment.
“Companies chase profits,” said Ricky Zuo, an editor at China Electronic Athletics magazine, adding that Tencent would not pour resources into woman-focused e-sports.
“Tournaments for female players are becoming extinct these days. If a professional e-sports team doesn’t have tournaments to play, what’s the point of their existence?” DZ Yang, an industry insider who once led a female gaming club, said to KrASIA. “The biggest difficulty for them is that they don’t have exposure,” he said.
Without a consistent presence in tournaments and deep-pocketed sponsors, female e-sports teams have turned to live-streaming for revenue. Most stream their sessions on Douyu or Huya, two platforms favored by gamers in the country. KA’s Zhou said the tips that her players receive from their fans on these sites usually eclipse their base salary from day jobs.
There is a downside. Shifting from playing in tournaments to seeking income through entertainment means these women are scrutinized under the male gaze.
Yang said his former boss would pass on women who are shorter than 1.6 meters in height or considered plain-looking. To put it bluntly, if an applicant were a woman, her appearance might outweigh her actual gaming skills during the selection process—even if the team is 100% female. And this tendency is in turn used by the predominantly male fan base to justify their belittlement of professional female e-sports players.
New champions on the rise
Breaking this vicious cycle requires a substantial top-down push from both the government and major game publishers, REGirls manager Li Muzi said. If the government could cultivate e-sports as it does with other sports, pouring in resources and promoting women’s participation, then it may encourage girls who want to pursue this as a career.
Tencent could be another game-changer, industry insiders observed. As the world’s largest video game company, it has stakes in popular e-sports titles, such as League of Legends, Call of Duty, Honor of Kings, Fortnite, and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. There are good reasons for the tech behemoth to throw its weight behind women-focused e-sports—China now has more than 300 million female video game players, and they represent 46.2% of the country’s gamer population. Tencent’s cash cow, the phenomenal mobile-based multiplayer battle arena game Honor of Kings, courted more than 100 million female gamers in 2017.
Fiasco Zheng, vice president of Guangdian Capital, whose investment portfolio includes a company that runs gaming tournaments for Tencent’s popular e-sports titles, observed an “important trend” of rapidly growing female e-sports viewership.
“While the female viewer base expands, we believe deeper engagement for them will come,” he said.
In a tweet sent out shortly after her historic win at the Anaheim Convention Center in California last November, “Liooon” Li said she expects more women to become world-class e-sports competitors. “There will be more female champions in all games, and you should get used to it,” she wrote.