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Women-Only Esport Competitions Are on the Rise — But Where’s the Money?

‘If you want to get more women in the door, offer them $100,000 instead of $50,000’

Illustration: Lauryn Siegel

Earlier this year, Emmalee “EMUHLEET” Garrido and her Dignitas Female teammates took first place playing Counter-Strike: Global Offensive at the Intel Challenge Katowice, one of the most prestigious women’s esports tournaments in the world. They earned a $25,000 sum, divided between the team’s four players and one coach.

Though $25,000 is a sizable prize, it’s not enough for the team to live on. So Garrido holds down a job as a nurse in California during the day, leaving her house at 4 a.m. every day for her two-hour commute. After work, she dedicates at least five hours to practicing Counter-Strike. “My passion really drives me,” says Garrido. “Even if I only get four to five hours of sleep, I can go all night long practicing with my team.”

Prize pools in esports have never been higher. Last year, The International, an annual Dota 2 tournament, awarded more than $25 million in winnings. But though more and more esports athletes are able to make a living off of gaming, very few of them are women. The problem is driven by participation; in Overwatch League, for instance, there is only one female player out of a competitive field of 194; of the top 500 earners in esports, only one identifies as non-male; and in 2016, the BBC estimated that women account for less than 5% of players in competitive gaming.

To spur women’s participation, organizations have launched women’s-only events, and clubs like Singularity, Counter Logic, and Gen.G have aggressively added all-female teams to their rosters. But the purses for these events don’t match coed prizes.

Of the top 500 earners in esports, only one identifies as non-male.

Conditions are slowly changing: This summer, Garrido will be playing for a $100,000 prize pool at DreamHack Valencia. The prize is twice the size of the next highest purse on the female circuit, and equal to the money offered to the coed teams at the recent DreamHack Open in Rio de Janeiro. When she heard about the prize pool, Garrido was shocked. “My jaw dropped to the ground,” Garrido told OneZero. “Hopefully a lot of people will come out and support it.”

Dagny Veinberg, a producer at DreamHack, says she wants to finally give women a chance to turn Counter-Strike, and esports, into a career. “There’s a lot of talk in esports. ‘We should do this; we should do that.’ But there’s no action,” she says. “There’s only so many panels you can attend where we can discuss this issue.”

TThough the esports competitive circuit is plagued by bureaucratic horror shows, bounced checks, and financial mismanagement, it’s also proven to be a stable source of income for a lucky few. Professional players in Blizzard’s Overwatch League are guaranteed a minimum salary of $50,000 a year. Players in League of Legends’ professional LCS circuit are guaranteed at least $75,000 a year, with some reports indicating the average take-home pay is higher than $300,000. With new investors like Drake and Michael Jordan buying in, some analysts believe esports could top $1 billion in total valuation as soon as 2020.

As esports has evolved, it’s also given birth to women’s-only professional circuits, which are widely recognized as stop-gap efforts to bring more women into the sport.

Dignitas Female has been one of the most successful women’s teams on the planet. Still, their winnings are meager: They won $4,690 after a first-place finish at 2018’s GIRLGAMER Esports Festival, $1,505 after finishing in third at 2019’s Copenhagen Games, and $25,000 in first-place prizes at Intel Challenge Katowice in 2019 and 2018. In total, it’s estimated the team has earned $65,524 since its founding in 2017 — a fraction of the sum they would have won for similar victories at coed tournaments.

“There aren’t enough tournaments to solely support a woman not having to work or be salaried,” says Klaudia Beczkiewicz, a free agent Counter-Strike player who most recently played for the all-female team Assassins. Beczkiewicz supports herself by working a stringent nine-hours-a-day shift at Microsoft, and says she stays fresh by practicing on the weekends.

Beczkiewicz is familiar with the commonly cited justifications for why coed esports tournaments pay out more than women-only tournaments. Detractors, some of whom include women, argue that women’s teams don’t match the skill level of men’s teams, and because there are no rules preventing women from competing in coed tournaments, a comparable prize pool for a division that might exclude the best players in the world is unfair.

“I come from an online poker background,” says Lillie Klefelt, who founded Female Legends, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing the gender diversity in esports. “Usually, when guys compete it’s for millions and when girls compete it’s for nothing. It’s cool to have real money. But at the same time, the money has to be relative to the skill. You can’t dump in a huge amount of money without a level of play; that sends the wrong signal. It has to be encouraging, but it can’t be ridiculous — then it looks like a PR thing.”

Still, Klefelt says that incremental steps towards inclusivity are important, and necessary to bring in a broader spectrum of players. Earlier this year, Female Legends partnered with the gaming tournament organizer Challengermode to launch the Women’s Esports League, which is exclusively open to female and non-binary players and has a prize pool of 2,500 euros, or $2,822. Klefelt would like to see that figure go up, and she hopes for a future in which her staff can drum up sponsors and funding more easily.

“Just imagine you go to Sephora, and you see a girl that’s playing a video game in an advertisement.”

Veinberg has little patience for those who argue that funding women’s-only tournaments undermines the industry, or saps resources from coed tournaments. “They have how many millions to win in other tournaments?” she says. “The more it’s discussed, the more people realize that this isn’t [that big of a deal.]”

Garrido would like to see sponsors throwing their weight behind women’s esports tournaments. Sephora, in particular, comes to mind. “Just imagine you go to Sephora, and you see a girl that’s playing a video game in an advertisement,” she says. “If a girl walks in and sees that, that’s something they could relate to.”

Veinberg believes that inclusivity begins with money, and she points to traditional sport competitions as a model for bringing in women athletes. It took a campaign spearheaded by Venus Williams to finally equalize Wimbledon’s men’s and women’s champion purses, and the U.S. women’s national soccer team recently sued the U.S. Soccer Federation for wage disparities between their team and the (much less successful) men’s team. DreamHack’s Counter-Strike effort has drawn comparisons with Formula One’s W Series, which is only open to women drivers. The W Series has a total prize pool of $1.5 million, and aims to bring in women drivers in order to eventually compete in integrated races.

“If you give them the opportunity, they will be able to make a living out of it. It’s one thing to say, ‘Hey we’ll give them time to play, but they also have to have a full-time job,’” says Veinberg. “This is basically giving them the same opportunity… If you were 19 years old and you were considering your career moves, you wouldn’t go into esports. Maybe, with more tournaments like this, you can. That’s what we’re investing in.”

writer and reporter - Red Bull, Sports Illustrated, PC Gamer, Vice, Rolling Stone, Daily Dot, Gawker Media, Buzzfeed, Verge etc - winkluke at gmail

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