PAX East 2016: “Competition for All” and the State of Women in eSports

eSports are here to stay, and that was made especially clear at PAX East 2016, where games like League of Legends, Overwatch, and Battleborn had a massive presence. While much of the convention was looking forward to the exciting future of competitive gaming, one panel early on in the show looked to address issues with eSports regarding diversity and inclusion in order to promote a healthy community for everyone. “Competition for All: Building Inclusive E-Sport Communities” was overall an optimistic look at the ways women are banding together to create a safe space where women can participate in the competitive scene at any level.

The panel kicked off at full speed as Anna Prosser Robinson, Twitch’s programming manager and co-founder of Misscliks, opened with a discussion of the sexism and harassment all too present in Twitch chat. Since joining the video game streaming service, Robinson said that she’s approached the issue by breaking it down into much smaller problems to be addressed one by one. This makes the solutions seem more easily attainable. By increasing moderation in chats and establishing a zero-tolerance policy, she hopes to make Twitch chat less toxic.

Robinson’s Misscliks programming, too, hopes to make change by empowering female role models in Twitch communities. By building up role models who can speak up in chat when something negative crops up, change can snowball, until more people are comfortable shutting down offenders. She’s also developed a chat bot that will speak up when someone behaves badly, encouraging other community members to chime in. Robinson wants people to actively ask “What can I do?” versus lamenting over the state of Twitch communities.

Kelly Kline, project manager at ESL, is doing similar work to build up healthy, happy communities while weeding out harassment and hurtful language. When ESL covered the Intel Challenge, a special event promoting women’s CS:GO teams, Kline was forced to continuously alter moderator bots in chat after chat participants found ways to get around mod filters to abuse women. Now, she is focusing on ways to encourage people to simply be nice. Those who come in to harass streamers get timed-out of chat, while moderators educate the community on how to be supportive contributors.

There’s a fine line to walk when moderating these chat rooms. They need to be safe spaces, but folks like Kelly Kline and Anna Robinson also don’t want to over-police their communities, which would create an equally unwelcoming environment. In building up these communities, people like Kline and Robinson are looking to places that already have positive communities, mostly because the chats for their associated streams give the audience something to do, even if it’s something as simple as a cheer. They even cited Twitch Plays Pokemon as an example, in which the chat had to pull together to accomplish a unified goal.

While it’s impossible to weed out abuse entirely, it is still wholly possible to create a positive space, and the work these women are doing is tremendously encouraging. Fellow panelist Lil Chen chimed in to express that we can no longer view Twitch chat as a supplementary element in streaming. “It’s a part of the stream and we have to take ownership of that. We can’t just say, ‘Oh, that’s just how chat is,” she said.

The discussion next turned from streaming to the actual competition floor. YouTube interaction designer and former Smash Bros. competitor Lil Chen took the mic to talk about Smash Sisters, a new series of events by women and for women hoping to compete in the Smash community. The whole thing kicked off in January 2016 at Genesis, the world’s largest competitive Smash Bros. event, where Smash Sisters brought together women in a series of beginner and high level crew events.

Since then, support for Smash Sisters has grown, with many events planned for the rest of the year. Chen noted that good community support makes a massive difference when welcome women into esports.  The Smash community “fights for its friendliness”, and Smash Sisters has support from the male leaders of the community too, which has been immensely helpful. Moving forward, Chen wants to continue to build up the initiative even more, as it continues to serve as a place where women can form healthy bonds while playing competitively.

Morgan Romine, director of initiatives for AnyKey and former Frag Doll, was also present. As a former competitor, Romine is also looking at ways to get women on the esports stage. Part of that includes creating stepping stones that will bring women to the upper levels of competition. By ensuring that esports is a welcoming space for women, more will get involved, until they can start to break through and claim some of the spotlight.

That’s where AnyKey comes in. Teaming up with ESL, Intel, and researchers at MIT, AnyKey seeks to accrue data to find out why women aren’t playing esports, as opposed to purely speculating. Using these findings, AnyKey hopes to develop programs to make a change in the industry. Romine also said that Riot, Blizzard, and Valve are all on board to work with the new program, with more concrete plans rolling out later this year.

Above all else, though, all of the panelists were clear that all-women competitions were not the end-all solution to the problem.

eSports will never be truly equal until people of all identities can compete together in the same space without fear of harassment. Creating competitions for women is just one small step to help make that happen. It’s a good way to build up role models and bring amazing players into the spotlight with the goal of inspiring other women to get into the sport. Ultimately, though, they hope that segregated tournaments are a temporary fix.

It’s clear that eSports has a long way to go if it wants to welcome everyone, but the Competition for All panel was an uplifting look at the very real work being done to ensure that competitive gaming has an open, accepting culture moving forward.

Jessica Famularo is a freelancer based in Pennsylvania. Apart from video games, she enjoys hiking, reading, and travelling around the world. Follow her on Twitter.
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Jessica Famularo is a freelancer based in Pennsylvania. Apart from video games, she enjoys hiking, reading, and travelling around the world. Follow her on Twitter.

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