June 15, 2024

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The Sports Fanatics

Inside the world of female esports: ‘It’s a scary space for women’

At the FIFA Museum in Zurich, 24 women from around the world have a safe space to play their favourite video game. But when they switch on their consoles at home, their experience is very different.

“I’ve had to deal with people where someone’s had a death threat and it’s a real-life threat that the police had to investigate,” says Nas Baig, founder of ECL Entertainment, an organisation dedicated to providing women with more opportunities in the world of esports.

“They were able to find out who it was and his excuse was: ‘I’m really sorry, I was drunk one night. I lost to her and I sent her a message on Xbox. I shouldn’t have done that’. That kind of thing happens regularly.”

The level of abuse is alarming and is just one of many hurdles that make it particularly challenging for women who are trying to establish a career playing video games on a full-time basis.

The Athletic is speaking to people throughout the industry to uncover women’s experiences in esports. We have been told by players and others who work in the esports industry that:

  • Women commonly receive sexually violent threats while playing esports
  • Esports is a “scary” place for women
  • Men typically earn much more than women in professional esports
  • Teams usually favour men when allocating coaching and investment (by one esports player)

To become a professional esports player, you have to make sacrifices. “It means no social life — you have to be dedicated with a passion,” says Jennifer Lopez, 23, who represented the United States at #FAMEHERGAME in Zurich, a bootcamp and tournament organised by FIFA.

Designed to “increase visibility, build grassroots opportunities and create a safe space for women”, the best female FIFA players from around the world were invited to learn the skills they might need to navigate esports, such as handling media and dealing with online abuse. They then competed against each other.

Players arriving at the bootcamp in Zurich (Photo: FIFA)

Twenty-four participants took part, representing different countries, competing for two all-expenses-paid trips to the Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand this summer. Some of those attending said they play for just a few hours a day, but others have been dedicating far more time to succeeding in esports.

“I have played FIFA for about 550 hours in the last two months — around eight to 10 hours a day,” said Miss Lola, 33. “I feel like I’ve lost sleep and social interactions. I barely leave the house. I’m just in front of my computer screen and my console all day. But it’s something I’m so passionate about. It doesn’t even feel like work really; it’s fun to me.”

Miss Lola used to be a nurse but is now pursuing a career in esports. The moniker she uses when streaming, Miss Lola, is based on a character from the 1996 Looney Tunes film Space Jam called Lola Bunny — the only female character to play basketball with the male characters in the film.

Some players at the event were signed to professional teams, meaning they are paid a wage and given money to invest in building their squad in Ultimate Team, the game mode in which esports players compete. To get ahead in Ultimate Team, they need FIFA points, which can either be gathered over time by playing or bought with real money to get quicker access to better players. Professional teams sometimes give players money to help them do that.

“In terms of upfront investment, female players may get around £1,000-£1,500 ($1,300-$1,900) to start building out their team, but it’s common for men to get around £5,000 in investment,” says Baig, whose mother Rashida was awarded an MBE for tackling racial and gender inequality. He set up ECL Entertainment to try and level the playing field.

That claim was backed up by Leah Hall, 30, an esports player and broadcaster from Canada: “More organisations are signing women, which is amazing, but unfortunately a lot of organisations are signing female pro players to tick a diversity box.

“I think if an organisation has a pro male FIFA player and a pro female FIFA player, the coaching, the time, the investment, the money, most of that — I would say probably 85-90 per cent — will be going into that male pro player and much less into the female pro player.”

On the subject of payments from esports teams, one source, an expert in the industry — who, like a cited in this piece, spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect their professional relationships — said that their experience was professional women in esports being paid £350-£750, while men got £2,000-£10,000.

Hall used to work as a teacher and project manager but now works in esports full-time creating content and broadcasting at professional FIFA tournaments. She was recently a broadcaster at the eChampions League final in Istanbul in June. That final had a prize pool of $280,000, but players can’t rely on winnings for their income. Instead, they mainly make money through brand deals as a result of having a large online following.

Twitch is the platform of choice for a majority of streamers. If a subscriber buys a subscription to get ad-free viewing of a streamer’s content, Twitch takes 50 per cent and the streamer gets the other 50 per cent. (A rival called Kick has emerged offering streamers 95 per cent of revenue.) Subscription fees vary from $5-$25 per month.

“A lot of female players can make a good living out of that,” says Baig. “They can probably earn anywhere between £1,500-£3,500 a month on Twitch. The top male and female streamers are neck and neck in earnings.” However, earning money from Twitch subscriptions is far less lucrative than brand deals. “The income that I make from casting and doing brand deals propels me more than Twitch,” says Hall.

Players try to build a following and then look to work with brands who wish to market to that audience. That is more difficult for women players, who tend to have smaller followings. Streamscharts, a website that tracks the most popular FIFA 23 streamers each week, showed no women ranked in the top 50 at the time of writing. (A leak in October 2021 revealed that only three per cent of Twitch’s highest-paid streamers were women.) “There’s not as many of those brand deals as there are for men,” says Baig.

Esports competitors in Zurich (Photo: FIFA)

When women do pursue a career in esports, it is not always accepted.

“When I got selected for this, everybody was like, ‘Why didn’t your brother get selected? He’s the one who plays more. He’s the one who is better’,” says Sneha Arya, 21, who is representing India and is a newcomer to the international stage.

When women stream their FIFA content, they are often targeted with abuse. It is common for women to receive sexually violent messages, sometimes death threats, when streaming their content, according to a source speaking to The Athletic.

“If you’re on Twitch, people will set up an account and send you horrific messages,” says Baig. “If you block them, they’ll go and set up another one. We had a female player who said that one person set up 15 accounts in the space of a month and kept sending horrific messages. The female player blocked them, but they came back and set up a new one each time. There is a constant level of abuse.”

“I stream on TikTok and every day there are comments saying, ‘Get in the kitchen’,” says Lisa Manley, 24, who is representing England. Manley is a full-time esports player who creates content and is a broadcaster at various esports events.

Hall has a similar experience: “There’s a lot of toxicity, bigotry, disrespect and rude comments. Some of them are nasty, mean comments and some are inappropriate, objectifying comments.

“There’s always: ‘What does a girl know about football/soccer?’; ‘What does a girl know about FIFA?’. Those classic things that unfortunately have become normal in our lives because that’s just the reality of the day-to-day.”

She adds: “There are a lot of young people who make comments who might not have the same life experience and enjoy being rude on the internet,” says Hall. “It’s a scary space for women.”

A report from Sky Broadband and Guild esports found that almost half of female gamers have received abuse online. Eighty per cent of those messages are sexual in nature, with more than half of female gamers (52 per cent) feeling worried about receiving abuse while playing video games. Miss Lola tries not to let it get to her.

“There are occasionally trolls that say, ‘Go to the kitchen’,” she says. “But I have fun with all of that. ‘Go to the kitchen? Sure, do you want a ham or turkey sandwich?’. That’s my response, because if I let them get to me then I let them win. So I try my hardest to have fun with it.

“Sometimes they do make you feel like you’re not good enough: ‘You shouldn’t be playing this game — you’re a girl, go do your makeup, go play with your hair’. But regardless, I’m gonna do me.”

When a player ‘rage quits’ in FIFA, it means they leave the game before it ends. The mere presence of a female player beating a male player, for some, is enough to trigger that response. “If I turn my mic on when I’m winning, men will literally just quit because they notice I’m a girl,” says the USA’s Lopez.

When it comes to tournaments, the FIFA eWorld Cup is considered the most prestigious FIFA esports event. The prize in 2022 was $500,000. The FIFAe Club World Cup had a prize pool of $300,000 in 2022. While at the FIFAe Nations Cup, $400,000 was on offer. These tournaments are dominated by male players.

The #FAMEHERGAME bootcamp in Zurich was the first event of its kind to specifically bring together the world’s best female FIFA players in a tournament setting with supportive training in place.

Although there was not a six-figure prize pot on offer, everyone got to compete — Germany’s Fabienne Morlock, 21, and Brazil’s Maria Cecilia Rocha Fonseca Fernandes, 17, got to the final, which the latter won 4-1 on aggregate across two legs — in front an audience with commentators, interviews and post-match analysis.

Maria Cecilia Rocha Fonseca Fernandes (Photo: FIFA)

One of the measures FIFA introduced to combat abuse at the World Cup in Qatar was a social media protection service for players which can hide comments that contain harmful words — that software was promoted in Zurich. It is aimed at combatting abuse, though it can’t stop everything. To stop the abuse and make esports an equal experience for men and women, much needs to change.

“Why is there a need to separate and have a men’s tournament and a women’s tournament?” says Miss Lola. “Let’s work on making it all-inclusive, where men and women are competing with each other at the same level.”

Asked what needs to change, her answer was simple: “Society.”

(Top photo: FIFA)