If there’s anything more emblematic of the gaming industry than the Overwatch League having a woman on their logo but none in their teams, I can’t think of it.
This isn’t Blizzard’s first diversity-lip-service-related controversy. From Pharah’s retroactive Native American ancestry to their incorrect use of kanji on a Japanese character’s skin, there’s a lot of Overwatch that seems intent on celebrating fictional diversity over actual diversity. And with the news that there’s not a single woman on the entire Overwatch League, it’s becoming clear that lip service really is the name of the game, despite the diverse cast.
We know that the gaming community would rather support its fictional women than the real ones that participate in and contribute to gaming culture. We know this because we see it every day; while characters like D.Va or Pharah or Mercy might be celebrated in-game, actual women are routinely and often systematically discredited and prevented from ever reaching the heights their characters do.
D.Va is more than just a solid tank hero for players of any gender around the world; she’s hope for a better future for women in South Korea, the fictional character’s home. D.Va, in canon, is a South Korean woman named Hana Song, a professional gamer and a national hero who turns her skills to serving her country in the war against the omnics. Song represents a future where women are viewed on equal terms to men, inspiring South Korean women to use her as a symbol in feminist marches.
The gaming community is quick to applaud this, as they should be—look at the way games can inspire real-world movements! But when it comes to actual women, real-world Hana Songs, the gaming community is less inclined to care. Kim “Geguri” Se-hyeon, known as one of the world’s top Zarya players, was repeatedly targeted with harassment precisely because of her skill. Men that she and her team defeated in competitions joined in the campaign calling her a cheater, and later quit their team after she demonstrated her skills again on camera.
While the lack of women in the Overwatch League has come to light because of the Kotaku piece discussing that not a single team drafted Geguri, it’s not really about her. It certainly strikes a nerve that one of the best players in the world wasn’t drafted because of arbitrary reasons like language barriers, team harmony (neither of which seem to bother any teams when there aren’t women involved), and co-ed rooms, but this goes beyond a single player. This is a systemic issue, and the responses made by the managers and players as to why they don’t have any women on their team are themselves the problem.
Outlaws general manager Matt Rodriguez told Kotaku that “There is absolutely no reason that [Geguri] couldn’t do it … I’ve read a lot of articles about her having hard times, and that sucks. But that’s the hurdle. You have to get through all the shit and negativity you’re gonna read on Reddit or Inven or whatever.”
But this isn’t about Geguri. This isn’t Reddit or Inven keeping women out of esports; this is bullshit gatekeeping in the guise of “protecting.” As the men in charge quibble about the right time and harassment and co-ed housing, they don’t hire women. They blame Reddit and Inven as havens of toxicity and abuse without questioning their own complicity in gatekeeping via lazy excuses. What work are these men, who are so concerned about the experience of being a woman in professional gaming, actually doing beyond hemming and hawing over how it isn’t the right time?
When is the right time to see talented women on screen? If we leave it up to the men in charge, it’s seeming more and more like that time will be never.
Rodriguez also expressed concern that hiring a female player might be mistaken as a PR stunt rather than as an asset to the team. Jacob “JAKE” Lyon, a player for Outlaws, echoed that sentiment, telling Kotaku that “For that even to be the perception, it’d be so terrible to be her.”
It’s not their responsibility to protect women from that fate. I’ll let you in on a little secret: we already know that we’ll get harassed. Certainly nobody knows this better than Geguri, who had to demonstrate her skills live because men in her own industry couldn’t believe that a young woman could beat them. If she doesn’t want to play in the Overwatch League for any reason at all, that’s up to her, not up to men who are concerned for what they think it might be like to be her. As Holly Green wrote at Paste Games, “It’s sexism in a benevolent suit. How kind of them to save those poor female competitors from their own success!”
If any woman wants to play in the Overwatch League, it shouldn’t be up to men to decide what women are capable of handling. Men should stand behind her and support her, not in front of her, blocking her way out of some misguided sense of concern. This isn’t just about Geguri’s exclusion from the Overwatch League; this is about the larger implications of a professional organization that actively bars women from entering in the guise of protecting them.
Naturally, this discussion has led to the inevitable question of where all the women in pro-level Overwatch are. If not Geguri, then who? “There just aren’t enough women in the professional sphere,” goes the old adage, as men look around at one another and shrug their shoulders. “We just can’t find them anywhere.”
And certainly, the professional sphere is largely male-dominated. And is it any wonder, when men keep us out because they think we can’t take it? They punish us by pushing us aside rather than taking steps to prevent the abuse in the first place. Is it a surprise when so many of us are afraid to play competitive because it’s hard to hear your team’s strategy over the jackass who won’t stop asking to see your tits in between calling shots?
As honeyserotonin points out on Reddit, “It’s not because NO women in the ENTIRE world can’t ever get good enough to be grandmaster. It’s because you can’t get that high without using a mic, no matter how talented you are. And you can’t get that high without a group. And if you really want to make a name for yourself and get noticed by pro teams, you’ll probably need to put out videos and go to tournaments. All of which expose you to more abuse.”
Of course we all face harassment in gaming, but there is a difference between being targeted by harassment because you’re playing a video game and being targeted by harassment because you’re a woman in what’s seen as a man’s space. And it is a man’s space, isn’t it, because the Overwatch League’s only woman is a fictional time-traveling lesbian who appears in silhouette.
We can putter about trying to find answers for ages. A woman’s league is a great idea, but won’t solve the systemic problem. Another co-ed league (because the Overwatch League is co-ed in theory, if not in practice—funny how they apparently couldn’t find a single woman anywhere in the world who was as good as any of those men) is a great idea, but securing the funding, let alone the pomp and circumstance and VIP placement of the Overwatch League will be a hard, if not impossible, battle.
So what can we do as fans, as consumers, as people who would like to see ourselves represented not just as polygons but as actual real human beings? What we need, more than anything, is for the men who make these decisions to set their own egos and fears aside and make an effort. The arguments put forth by the Overwatch League are no more than excuses for laziness and a lack of foresight—they don’t have co-ed habitation because they didn’t think they’d need it. We need the men who make these decisions to open the doors and support us by treating us as valued members of the community, not as potential inconveniences.
We can support those who are putting in the effort. Women in the Girl Gamer Overwatch subreddit are looking to put together their own tournament comprised of non-binary folks and women. We can follow the Female Pro League, teams like Death Blossoms, Ganymede’s Girls, or any of the other players, journalists, and organizations suggested by Anna Bell on Twitter.
— Anna Bell🔔 (@liopleurodonic) January 11, 2018
Overwatch has an amazing cast of interesting, diverse female characters. Shouldn’t the most high-profile event in the game’s community be as supportive of the real-world women who have made the game as popular as it is of its rocket-powered heroes? Because cool as she is, we will never have a real-life D.Va if men continue to lock the gates and tell us through the bars that it’s for our own good.
Melissa Brinks is Sidequest’s editor in chief, co-creator of the Fake Geek Girls podcast, author of The Compendium of Magical Beasts, and an aspiring beekeeper. She once won an argument on the internet, and tweets at @MelissaBrinks.