"My goal is to get rid of these female tournaments altogether," says Stephanie Harvey, a five-time world champion in Counter-Strike. "The goal is to compete against each other and be one of the first competitive environments that doesn't care about gender."
During a talk at GDC, Harvey and Morgan Romine, an anthropologist specializing in diversifying esports, took to the stage to address the struggle for better representation in esports and dispel misconceptions surrounding female-only tournaments. While both women expressed that creating exclusive spaces for female competitors wasn't a long-term solution, the message was clear: Women's-only tournaments are a necessary first step to creating a more inclusive esports culture.
"Women's tournaments are important, and they are valuable as a temporary solution for helping to build a community of women in this space," says Romine. "Ultimately, we would like them to not be necessary, but we do think they are."
As director of initiatives at AnyKey, an organization founded through a partnership with Intel and ESL to foster diversity in esports, Romine has been working closely with the competitive community to find new ways of bringing more women into esports. Gender-specific tournaments are one of their several focuses. "It's a temporary strategy, and we also don't think it's a one-pronged strategy—there needs to be other things happening in this space to help support a greater vision of diversity," Romine says.
Both Harvey and Romine feel that many women face an uphill battle to reach the same heights as their male competitors—not to mention the vitriol thrown around in online communities. With female-only tournaments, the idea isn't to permanently segregate men and women, but to create a platform to promote female players and encourage newcomers. "It creates a crucial platform for visibility in this space," Romine says. "It's really important to have role models. If you don't see people like yourself competing and succeeding in these spaces it's really hard to aspire to do that."
Harvey's motivation for this cause comes first hand, as she describes how formative it was for her to find a role model early on in her career who showed her what she could be capable of. It wasn't until she was approached about joining her first all-female team that Harvey began to take Counter-Strike seriously, and now she wants to create more opportunities for others like her.
During the talk, both Romine and Harvey were sensitive to the misconceptions that have spread regarding this recent push for female-only tournaments. Romine was adamant that female-only tournaments shouldn't lead to any form of "gender policing" for competitors, but admitted that, for her and AnyKey, this initiative is an experiment. When it came to the idea that they could be unintentionally propagating the idea that women need their own tournaments because they're incapable of competing with men, Romine says, "We don't want to perpetuate that, but we do feel like it's worth taking the risk to be able to help build a community."
The idea also isn't about making women's tournaments a once-in-awhile thing, but building consistent exposure that creates player narratives that anyone can begin to invest in the same way many are invested in the rise and fall of existing esports teams. Romine also suggests that this benefits everyone by increasing the audiences for the sport, allowing organizers to put on even bigger events.
As the conversation around esports continues to evolve, the one thing Harvey and Romine make clear is that they don't have all the answers. Romine suggests that esports, unlike most traditional physical sports, are in a unique place where men and women compete on an even level—yet they remain just as separate as if they didn't. And for those who argue against finding new ways of increasing the reach of esports to new audiences, Harvey asks: "If these female tournaments can inspire other people ... I don't see how that can hurt. Are you saying you don't want more women involved in gaming?"