Competitive gaming, also called esports, has become incredibly popular in recent years. There are more competitions than ever before, some with prizes in the tens of millions, and there are more games that have their own tournaments. Twitch and other live-streaming services allow players to share their gameplay online.

These gaming competitions have been male-dominated, although gaming groups such as Frag Dolls have represented and supported female gamers since the heyday of competitive Halo. Now gaming women are more visible than ever, with greater acceptance of female players in almost every genre. Women have also become notable gaming personalities, hosts, and commentators.

However, one recent competition came into the spotlight for taking a large step backward: The Assembly Summer 2014 Hearthstone qualifier in Finland, which put this sentence in its rules: “The participation is open only to Finnish male players.”

Hearthstone is a digital card game, where players create decks of cards with unique abilities to fight one another. Similar analog card games, such as Magic: the Gathering and Pokemon, are enjoyed by players of all genders around the world—in fact, a woman just won the senior division of the U.S. Pokemon National Championships.

This is the story of how Hearthstone almost took a huge step backwards in terms of gender equality.

“Legitimate Sports”

Markus Koskivirta, head administrator of the qualifier, stated that “The tournament is open to Finnish male players only…in  accordance with the International e-Sports Federation’s (IeSF) tournament regulations, since the main tournament event is open to male players only…”

IeSF also released a statement on Facebook saying, “The decision to divide male and female competitions was made in accordance with international sports authorities, as part of our effort to promote e-Sports as a legitimate sports.”

That last part is important: What constitutes legitimacy? A male-only league? In such a forward-facing medium, IeSF seemed remarkably stuck in the past. And it was made worse by the fact that this was an international rule—it didn’t just affect gamers in one country, but all of them.

Missing the Penalty Kick

Reaction to Finland’s rule and  the IeSF as a whole was overwhelmingly negative. Despite the official stance, many players criticized the rule, claiming sexism and unfairness to skilled players. The IeSF apologized for harm and responded to two points of criticism:

“1 – Promoting female players. We know that e-Sports is largely dominated by male players and females players are actually a portion of the overall player base. By hosting a female-only competition, we strive to promote female gaming on a global scale.

“2 – International standards. IeSF is very close to get e-Sports recognized as a true sports like it should be. Part of that efforts is to comply with the international sports regulations. For example, chess is also divided into male / female leagues.”

The second point is misleading: chess does have a separate female-only league, but women are not prohibited from entering the World Chess Championship.

The IeSF was already planning to host female-only tournaments StarCraft II, which is one of the most male-dominated games in the world and boasts more popularity than Hearthstone’s by far. Why were people worried about Hearthstone restricting female competition when Starcraft, a much more prestigious game, allows it?

Because women have never been so openly, thoroughly banned from playing any video game competitively. Yes, most competitors are men. And yes, men are often assumed to be the only ones interested in competing. But women had never been explicitly restricted from participating in a gaming competition. Ever.

Gaming is Rated E

Despite the Hearthstone controversy, esports are the perfect medium to promote gender equality.

That’s because, unlike traditional sports, esports are something everyone can be good at. There is no reliance on strength, no aggressive touching, or other factors that complicate traditional sports. In the digital space, people are just people: users who control their player avatars for competition. It’s purely skill that determines victory. This is what sets gaming apart from other types of sports. It doesn’t matter who or what you are; if you’ve got what it takes to be the best, then you have the same chance as anyone else to be the best.

It may be called “electronic sports,” but what’s truly important about competitive gaming isn’t in the sports. It’s in the game. And it’s time to recognize the difference.

The Consequences

After a day of criticism from fans and professionals, the IeSF “formally revised” its policies on gender divisions in their qualifiers. The new system changes the male league to the “Open for All” league, while the female division remains intact. Their official statement reads:

“The IeSF Board addressed its reason for maintaining events for women, citing the importance of providing female gamers with ample opportunities to compete in eSports—currently a male-dominated industry. Female gamers make up half of the world’s gaming population, but only a small percentage of eSports competitors are women. The IeSF’s female-only competitions aim to bring more diversity to competitive play by improving the representation of women at these events. Without efforts to improve representation, e-Sports can’t achieve true gender equality.”

Blizzard, Hearthstone’s developer, supported this reversal. Blizzard has told that one of its goals is to ensure a “vibrant and also inclusive community around our games.”

This push for equal representation in Hearthstone is an important step towards correcting gender disparity in esports. The IeSF was quick to respond to public protest, showing a commitment to women in esports that was not yet totally clear. That, coupled with the strength of the esports community in rejecting the initial ruling, marks what will hopefully be a positive future for women in esports.

This article was written by

Jonathan is a lifetime gaming enthusiast and artist, pursuing a career in game development. You can find him on Google+ and see his art at BuildMyPaperHeart.