No Girls Allowed: Dissecting The Gender Divide in Overwatch League

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No Girls Allowed: Dissecting The Gender Divide in Overwatch League

Why are the top female Overwatch players being ignored in the new Overwatch League? That’s the question that Kotaku raises with a new report coming out of the Overwatch League media day in Los Angeles this week, noting the conspicuous absence of Kim “Geguri” Se-yeon. A female player from South Korea who is by all accounts at the top of her game, Se-yeon is notable both for being excellent at videogames, but also putting her money where her mouth is, demonstrating a high level of skill as well as a huge threshold for bullshit. So where was she on media day? Why did no major teams sign her to their roster?

To be honest, I didn’t feel like discussing this. I’m exhausted. At the heart of this issue is the same systemic imbalance seen across many facets of our culture, from academia, to sports, to the arts, to politics: you name it, this problem is there, lurking, poisoning the well. I can write until my fingers cramp and scream until I’m blue in the face, but really, it doesn’t count for anything. If society has yet to listen to all the people before me, then one more little article or opinion won’t solve or change anything. I’m just repeating the knowledge and wisdom of the women who came before me, repackaging it in a way that is palatable to a specific audience in hopes that maybe someone who didn’t get it finally will. I hardly feel as though I’m helping.

But nonetheless, I’ve been thinking about this since the last time I attended The International. Seeing wave after wave of all-male competitive teams made it almost impossible not to examine the reasons behind self-imposed social segregation. There are so many reasons why we as human beings categorize ourselves into little groups, but it mostly boils down to fear. We take the path of least emotional resistance and cling to what we know to avoid social awkwardness and, thus, pain. We seek out the comfortable and familiar to guide our own behavior, to reverse engineer our sense of belonging by taking context clues from our surroundings. It’s all but encoded in our DNA to rush to what we feel is safe and familiar. Where the problem lurks is in where the lines of sameness vs. other are drawn, and what factors will determine where our sense of sameness lies. It determines who gains our trust and who is afforded humanity.

I realize how often over the course of my life I’ve been met with resistance from men when it comes to friendship. As someone who suffered bonding and attachment issues in childhood and had an easier time gravitating towards the aloof low-maintenance of male camaraderie, I’m not unfamiliar with being shut out. Sometimes, boys will just not let you play with them. One of my strongest high school memories is of two boys in my English class who liked to pass notes back and forth and write comedy together. They loved it when I read their collaborative poems, and seemed eager for my attention. But when I tried to “joke back” and offer my own contribution, they quickly boxed me out. Comedy, you see, was for impressing girls, not to bond with them. I wasn’t allowed to be a collaborator, just an admirer. What should, and would, have been a social equalizer instead became a threat, because they didn’t want me to be equal. The power balance was threatening unless it was in their favor.

I’ve seen that behavior pop up in videogames culture a lot. Speaking in general cisnormative terms, insecurity drives a lot of “othering” behavior between cismen and women. We don’t give men the proper tools to work out their emotions in a safe, nonjudgmental space. As a result, they project the distrust of their own perspective and emotions onto women, whom they perceive as the gatekeepers of their masculinity, and thus, their self worth. That distrust pervades every facet of their socialization throughout childhood to adulthood; it is taught by fathers, brothers, friends, coaches, pastors and especially entertainment and media. And instead of working out those feelings, they’re taught to repress them. It’s no wonder they start to weed us out from their social circle at such an early age. They’re afraid of us.

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And it’s not that I think competitive male Overwatch players as a whole don’t trust Se-yeon specifically or personally. I just sense they don’t afford her the same benefit of the doubt as they would someone they already naturally felt comfortable with, someone they consider already a part of the group—someone they have not “othered.” So when I see that not a single Overwatch team invited the most highly skilled woman in the game to join their roster, it doesn’t surprise me. Cismen don’t want to be our friends and teammates because they don’t trust us. When it comes to Overwatch and the Overwatch League, I don’t expect that pressure from the media, or mandatory quotas, or any other surface solution will solve the gender imbalance. The causes simply run too deep. Sexism and misogyny are so pervasive that few of us have any means to intellectually navigate ourselves out of it without enormous help, especially if we’re still at an age where our prefrontal cortexes haven’t even fused. Right now our nation is going through a massive social upheaval as women demand an end to sexual harassment, and almost every corner of society has applied a hasty bandage to the problem and expected it to go away. But it won’t, not until we stop distracting ourselves with the most conspicuous external symptoms. Until we allow men to feel safe with emotional intimacy, both with other men and with women, they will continue to punish us for making them feel. They will continue to distrust us, and reject us as friends and teammates. These are just symptoms to the disease.

It should be noted that the justifications given by various league members for the No Girls Allowed phenomena in Overwatch League amount to horseshit. Kotaku reports that Houston Outlaws general manager Matt Rodriguez commented, with regards to the snubbing of Se-yeon, “You have to go through all these hurdles, like if you pick up a player, is the press gonna call it a PR stunt, or is it because she was the best?” Outlaws player Jacob “JAKE” Lyon added, “For that even to be the perception, it’d be so terrible to be her. People would always be doubting, always be judging. So it has to be the right person, the right player, and those things have to come together at the right moment—which makes it especially hard for women in the scene right now.”

These comments are not reasons, they are excuses. They both act as a gatekeeper, ensuring that the only women who get through are ones who consistently out and over perform compared to their male competitors, and amount to punishing almost any woman who approaches the sport, especially if she takes up attention and space (which as a female player is almost entirely out of her hands). It’s sexism in a benevolent suit. How kind of them to save those poor female competitors from their own success! But even more so, it’s yet another symptom of the same disease. Women aren’t allowed to participate, even when they’re the best. They have to be so good that even insecure men will concede to their authority (usually transferring into sexual attraction in the process). Otherwise, skills are only something men are allowed to have, in the interest of pursuing women.

I don’t expect this problem will change anytime soon, not in ten or twenty years or more. As Alan Wake once wrote, it’s not a lake, it’s an ocean. We have bigger, deeper problems to tackle and none of them will start to straighten out til we get to the root of the source.

Until then, we can encourage people to examine who falls into their social circle, whom they afford their trust and the benefit of a doubt, and why. Who do you assume the worst of? Of whom do you assume the best? Now ask yourself why. Be brutally honest. Don’t let yourself get away with anything. Be merciless and unrelenting. Examine the power balance in your personal friendships, observe who you concede to and who you resist. There are many subconscious reasons why we distance ourselves from perceived others. Start by examining yours.

That will be key to unraveling this whole sexist sweater.

Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer living in Seattle, WA. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.