A growing number of colleges are embracing competitive, organized video gaming, but new survey results suggest that women are significantly underrepresented on varsity esports teams—and among esports scholarship recipients.
To learn more about the esports landscape, the Associated Press requested roster and scholarship information from 56 public colleges participating in the National Association of Collegiate Esports, which now includes 192 postsecondary institutions. Across the 27 colleges that responded, male gamers made up 90.4 percent of varsity esports teams and received 88.5 percent of esports scholarship funds.
Yet, female players now account for 41 percent of U.S. gamers. And, unlike in other sports where men and women compete separately, physical attributes like strength or size are largely irrelevant to esports outcomes.
Programs proliferating without typical athletics governance
Collegiate esports teams are relatively new—the oldest varsity team dates back to 2014—but are growing in popularity as the overall esports audience swells. The average team in the AP’s relatively small survey sample had 30 players, with one-quarter receiving scholarships. According to the athletics recruiting company Next College Student Athlete, most esports scholarships range from $500 to $8,000 annually, but some schools have started offering full-tuition awards.
However, college esports typically are not housed within athletics departments and do not fall under the purview of the NCAA. The sport lacks a governing body, or regulation like Title IX, to ensure that programs distribute opportunities and resources equally between male and female student-athletes.
“The way that these programs have been built out, the games that they select to play, the esports models that they’re looking at, the people that they are staffing, all are replicating an unequal system,” says Grace Collins, CEO of Liminal Esports and a former liaison at the U.S. Department of Education focused on educational technology.
Calls for improved game selection, team climate
To address gender under-representation in college esports, Collins suggests broadening the types of games varsity teams value. The strategy paid dividends at University of South Carolina-Sumpter, the only school in the AP’s sample where women make up half the six-year-old varsity esports team.
Originally an all-male team, USC-Sumter was able to recruit more female players upon adding “Overwatch” to its game lineup. “I didn’t do anything special, like, ‘Oh, I need to make sure I meet this quota or anything specific,’” coach Kris Weissman told the AP. “But I made sure that we had an open and appealing program to everyone and anyone.”
Teams also must ensure they’re creating a positive climate, experts say, pointing to incidents of gender-based harassment within the gaming community.
“If schools are going to be adding esports—and this is true regardless of whether it’s in the athletic program or not—then they need to address barriers such as harassment and other forms of discrimination that women may be facing in esports,” said Neena Chaudry, general counsel and senior advisor at the National Women’s Law Center. “Just as they would in any other sport or in the education program in general.”
At Boise State University, whose esports team includes five female, three nonbinary, and 16 male players, Esports Coach Doc Haskell prioritizes players’ commitment to inclusion and teamwork when making recruiting decisions, and monitors the way players communicate in practice and competition. “These teams need to look like us, like our campus community,” Haskell says.
Achieving gender equity has implications not only for esports teams but also for careers tied to the industry, experts say. University Business points out that esports teams likely will serve as a pipeline for professional roles across web design, marketing, broadcasting, and other technology-related fields.