The world’s best Dota 2 teams are at Rogers Arena this week for The International: the biggest-money and most prestigious tournament in all of esports.
But of the 80 competing players, there will be no women among them, something that doesn’t surprise female gamers.
“The community can be toxic, masculine. You need a thick skin,” said Vivian Chung, a Vancouver recreational Dota player.
Women in esports say they routinely deal with online harassment, denial of career advancement and a lack of role models at the elite level seen at The International. Advocates say gender diversity is likely to improve only with the help of the greater gaming community, specifically male players calling out sexism when they see it.
Too late a start
Chung grew up playing video games alongside her sister.
While boys their age were playing competitive, PC-based games like Starcraft or World of Warcraft, she was more likely to be playing fun-focused titles like Super Mario Brothers or Cooking Mama.
Now 22, Chung, was later drawn to Dota by its mix of strategy, fantasy and teamwork and is content to game just for fun.
“A lot of what being good at a video game is, is starting from a young age and having those muscle memories built into you,” she said.
That’s a crippling handicap for women in a world where many male gamers have been playing since they were in elementary school.
“Society teaches you not to spend so much time with video games. You should be doing your makeup or shopping.”
Chung says revealing yourself to a be a female player during an online game can sometimes draw sexist remarks.
“Oh you are hot. Will you marry me. Show me your … ” she cites as common examples, her voice trailing off.
Struggle for acceptance
Professional Dota 2 coach Murielle ‘Kipspul’ Huisman says Chung’s experience is a familiar one, even at the pro level.
“People who underestimate you. People who straight up refuse to believe you know what you are doing,” Huisman, 27, said of some obstacles she’s faced in her career.
“It becomes a really big ball of issues that you have to hold.”
Huisman, who is based in Amsterdam, has coached two teams after working as an analyst for several more.
She left one of her jobs after she says her gender prompted one of the team’s male players to begin undermining her.
“It’s not fair. I don’t like the idea that the fact that I’m a woman will cause players to try to increase their status if they’re feeling down by putting me down.”
She’s calling on more male gamers to step up and call out gender discrimination when they see it, something she says doesn’t happen easily now.
“You have to be extremely good before a guy will stand up for you,” she said. “People are getting refused for jobs for being women.”
Huisman estimates about five per cent of all Dota 2 players are female, but says even that small proportion isn’t reflected in the pro ranks.
“The question is, once we get them up to the right skill, can we get their male teammates to value them?”
Reason for hope
A Dota 2 online host, who goes by the name Reinessa, says she’s hopeful that will happen, but knows firsthand women are still battling for respect.
In more than half of the games she joins, she says being a woman is mentioned in the online chat.
“My gender is acknowledged which is weird, because it’s a video game and it’s doesn’t matter.”
Reinessa says societal norms are evolving and that newer games like Fortnite tend to have more women players compared to more established games like Dota 2.
“Picking up a game that has been around for a decade is intimidating. Picking up a game that everybody is new at is more likely to even out demographics.”
She says women are a more common presence outside of playing, and working as managers, coaches, analysts and commentators.
While a woman making it to a top event like The International might be a few years away yet, she says solving Dota 2′s gender gap starts with everyday players accepting females into the scene.
“Make it normal. We don’t want to be special,” she says.