Female Representation in Starcraft

StarCraft 2 /r/starcraft /u/doofpooferthethird 179 comments

I was reading a few articles (e.g. https://www.polygon.com/2014/5/27/5723446/women-in-esports-professional-gaming-riot-games-blizzard-starcraft-lol http://www.meleeitonme.com/the-voices-of-women-in-the-super-smash-brothers-community/ ) about how women were/are severely underrepresented in the esports scene, both as audience members and as players. I assumed that that was the case for Starcraft as well. Most of the top pro players are male. I also saw this old poll https://www.reddit.com/r/starcraft/comments/py65z/why_is_there_a_disparity_between_male_and_female/ that suggested that over 90% of the Starcraft playerbase was male. However, when I watch old videos of Brood War competitions in Korea, I see loads of female audience members, many of whom seem like big fans of the game - they don't look like they're humoring their friends or partners or whatever by accompanying them to these events, they actually cheer at all the right moments and draw up cute signs to wave at the camera. Is there a reason why that enthusiasm among the Korean audience didn't translate into more female players at the top scene? What does the Starcraft reddit community think? I have a few theories, but I don't really have hard proof for any of them, they're just based on wild speculation and armchair observation. I also considered a few theories, and decided they didn't hold water. I'll list those first.

1) Starcraft itself is a sexist game.

This may be the case for the single player campaign, I'm not sure, ( https://www.overthinkingit.com/2011/01/24/the-awful-sexist-plot-of-starcraft-2/?v=7516fd43adaa this article is a real hoot) but personally, I don't think gender relations really comes into play for the 1v1 competitive multiplayer. Starcraft multiplayer is played from a sort of abstracted, god's eye view - so arguably, there's less opportunity for the kind of weird, gross female objectification that's possible in games like, say, Overwatch or Mortal Kombat. The female units in the latest version of sc2 (adepts, oracles, queens, medevacs, liberators) don't seem weirdly sexualized either. I don't think this is a primary reason

2) Women are somehow physically disadvantaged when it comes to competitive Starcraft

I doubt this is the case either. Yes, there are differences between male and female physiology, which is why many sports are segregated by sex. But Starcraft has (relatively) low physical requirements compared to most other sports. You don't need a lot of upper body strength or stamina to play starcraft - what you need are quick fingers and sound strategies. There are studies that suggest that men have, on average, slightly better reaction times than women (http://biology.clemson.edu/bpc/bp/Lab/110/reaction.htm#Gender) but the difference is slight enough that it should be a non factor. You do need to be quick to win at Starcraft, but even after LOTV made the game faster and more micro intensive, Starcraft isn't like Counterstrike or fighting games, where millisecond reactions can make or break games - other skills, like prediction, strategy, muscle memory, game sense are far more important. And unlike reaction time, there's no reason to suggest that women are somehow worse at those other factors.

In any case, we should always be wary of claims that men or women (or any other human demographic for that matter) are inherently 'better' or 'worse' at activities. Yes, many groups are, on average, 'better' at some things than others, but it's silly to claim that because of any inherent advantage, especially without strong proof. It was distressingly common for people to jump to biological conclusions about differences between human populations, when the real reasons were social, cultural and economic.

Either way, the skill differences shouldn't even matter that much - there are different weight classes in boxing and MMA, and there are vibrant foreign Starcraft scenes even though on average, the Korean scene had (and still has) a much higher skill level on average. Even if, for some bizarre reason, Koreans were genetically predisposed to be better at Starcraft, we still would see lots of foreigners playing, watching and supporting the game

3) Sexism in the larger Starcraft community, past and present

This seems like a more plausible reason, though harder to qualify. For reasons I'll outline later, I don't think it's the only reason. However, I can think of one or two examples that could possibly hint at a larger problem.

Scarlett is not just one of the best female Starcraft players out there, but also one of the top earning players in esports as a whole. As a trans MtF, it seems that she has gotten some weird comments from ignorant/deliberately hateful people on online chats and forums (https://games.avclub.com/how-a-transgender-foreign-hope-is-challenging-the-pro-1798265974, the part about the Redbull competition) but it also seems like the Starcraft community has, for the most part, accepted her, and her gender and trans identity is not considered a big deal compared to her ability at the game. She seems a little reluctant to speak on such matters, preferring to talk about the game itself - and this is a decision that we should respect, we shouldn't expect members of minority groups to be spokesmen for their communities if they don't want to.

Zombiegrub, one of the few English speaking female casters out there, also isn't really an activist for this kind of thing, but she has mentioned having to deal with sexism in her career.

"5. Let's put it out there: you are a woman. Nonetheless a woman in an environment that is unfortunately very hostile to female gamers and females in general. (twitch-chats and Overwatch, I'm looking at you…). How do you deal with all the sexist crap that is coming at you?

To be honest, SC2 is used to me and I'm used to SC2. That is to say, I remember in 2013 when I was 'coming up' - the amount of terrible comments and sexist shit and negativity was, well, what you hear about all the time. I've always been pretty good at ignoring it though - I think my goals and expectations are not influenced by outsiders, so I've always been comfortable with my work. Nowadays, with BasetradeTV mods being so good, and the fact that SC2 isn't growing that quickly, I have a lot of people that will do the dirty work for me..banning people, responding on reddit, etc.

Occasionally, I'll be thrown back to what it was like before. If I do a more casual event where no one really knows the scene but knows I'm a girl, there's a lot of that stupid stuff...like in Mean Girls when the guy asks 'do you want your muffin buttered' and all the other guys were snickering? Yeah, it's dumb, but it's that type of stuff. And then if people get angry at you, say I beat them in SC2, it's incredibly easy for them to throw out insults based on my gender."

From https://tl.net/forum/starcraft-2/519756-interview-zombiegrub-sc2-casting-fun

One Twitch streamer, Livibee, may have also found herself on the wrong end of sexist assumptions about 'girl gamers'. I'm a little unclear on what happened exactly, but it seems that some people accused her of using another Twitch streamer, Vibe (who was her roommate for a while), to boost her Starcraft account into Grandmaster league. Their 'proof' was a close analysis of her league progression and match history, which ignored the fact that people have good days and worse days in Starcraft, and that playing while talking on stream is harder than just shutting up and focusing. To prove them wrong, in the next season, Livibee went out of her way to stream every single game she played to get her promoted to GM. Needless to say, no one questions her abilities at the game anymore. One has to wonder if she would have faced this kind of obsessive, angry scrutiny if she were male.

Not saying that these examples prove anything about the Starcraft community as a whole, and there doesn't seem to be any large scale public acceptance of hateful rhetoric. But it's in the nature of larger online communities where you only need a few loud, angry voices to make a mob. Even if, for example, only 1% of the Starcraft community was publicly, unabashedly misogynistic, that's still more than enough to ruin any one person's day. One thing I noticed about Scarlett, Zombiegrub and Livibee is that they seem to be admirably thick-skinned. They have the fortitude, or the personality, that can weather the toxicity they encountered - but it's also unfair to expect everyone to just power through all that. It's possible that the nonsense they had to deal with 'weeded out' those who were unwilling, or unable, to deal with it.

However, I'm doubtful that this fully explains the gender disparity in the game - Starcraft as a game seems uniquely 'immune' to sexism, at least on the lower level. Unlike physical sports or board games like chess, you never see your opponent, so you don't know their race/sex/age whatever. Unlike team oriented games like Counterstrike or Dota, you never have to go on voicechat, where people can suss out that you're a girl, and verbally abuse you for it. You can do 1v1 ladder, or even co-op or team games, without ever having to talk to the people you're playing with. If I'm not wrong, this kind of sexism would only start to matter once people start becoming more involved with the game, when you end up revealing who you are and what you look like. Where sexism can have a big impact is on public representation and on the highest levels of play, but it shouldn't have as big of an impact on the casual levels of play.

4) Starcraft esports landscape

In the 'glory days', when Brood War was at the height of its popularity and when WoL had just released, there was a strong support system for Starcraft pro gamers, especially in Korea. The system of team houses, where players would live and practice with each other while looked after by a manager, seemed to give Starcraft players a significant advantage over others, because they could practice and discuss the game and its strategies with each other with fewer distractions. Maybe women were somehow excluded from this system of team houses, for one reason or another. I doubt it was something explicit, like a sign outside saying 'no wimmen allowed', or an official policy - but maybe it was more of an implicit thing, where women would feel uncomfortable living in such a setting, or feel uncomfortable even asking to be included in a team house, or their parents were more reluctant to allow them to join that system. This could explain why there are so few top female Korean Brood War players, even though we saw so many female fans of the game packing the stadiums - they faced obstacles getting into the team house system that cultivated the best players in the scene. The team house system seems less important nowadays, perhaps because information about the game and its strategies are so widely available now, it's easier to self-teach Starcraft than it was, and the fact that scene is smaller now, but perhaps the initial lack of top female players disincentivized female players from progressing beyond a certain level in the game, eventually leading to a drop-off in interest in general in later years.

5) Starcraft's gameplay is somehow unappealing to many women

To me, this is potentially the most interesting reason - but it's hard to explore it without wandering into a minefield of sexist assumptions about what women do or don't like. As I've mentioned before, people used to have a lot of really stupid assumptions about certain human demographics because of lazy thinking (Women can't/won't get steady jobs! Women can't/won't vote! Women can't/won't become politicians! etc.) It's really easy to fall into that trap. But on the other hand, it's undeniable that men and women (and other demographics) can have wildly different tastes when it comes to entertainment. What's harder is trying to come up with some kind of concrete reason for these different tastes.

I remember reading this article https://www.polygon.com/features/2014/2/6/5361004/fighting-game-diversity about the reason why fighting games (in America) have much better black and latino representation than other esports communities (tldr; arcade cabinets were cheaper than PCs and unfortunately, white people were relatively socio-economically priveleged in the US). Likewise, Starcraft's massive popularity in Korea can be traced to a number of unrelated factors coming together in a perfect storm (Korean government's massive investment in high speed internet, economic crash putting many young people out of work, proliferation of PC Baangs, Brood War's release).

I wonder if there is some kind of similar, relatively comprehensible explanation for the relative dearth of female representation in Starcraft. Do men like competitive endeavors more than women? Considering the number of women that play sports, I feel that even if this was true, it wouldn't be one of the main reasons. Is the violence in Starcraft somehow off-putting? I just read that 35% of Fortnite players are women, and that game has more up-close and personal (though arguably less visceral) violence than Starcraft's distant, somewhat abstracted violence. Starcraft isn't like Doom or Mortal Kombat with its juvenile/awesome fascination with blood n guts n gore, so I doubt that that's a primary reason.

Anecdotally, when I try to encourage my friends to play Starcraft (It's free! It's fun! Come on please we're literally just binging Youtube meme videos now) I have had more success with my male friends than female ones. Granted, the most common response from both dudes and ladies was "this looks so complicated I just want to relax in my free time", but still. When I tried to get my roommate into it, I remember she said "this looks like such a geeky guy thing". Is there really something about Starcraft's RTS gameplay that's male coded?


What do you people think? What's the reason for the under-representation of women in Starcraft? A combination of the above factors, or something else? I just wonder how Starcraft can go from having thousands of female fans in Korean Brood War audiences, to having so few female pro gamers and a 90% male player base in the modern day.


Ok I think a lot of people seemed to think the point of this post was criticizing the Starcraft community for being sexist. It's not, I was genuinely puzzled about the question, and the Starcraft community (as with many online gaming communities) being sexist was simply one of the factors that I had to consider - and even then I argued that sexism couldn't be the whole story. People missed that. I've also never personally faced sexism in the Starcraft community, and only read/heard about it through secondary sources. Until now, unfortunately - maybe that's what I get for not lurking anymore. 54% upvoted doesn't look promising :/

And anyhow, I did get an answer to the question, somewhat. After reading the comments, it turns out there's a relatively simple explanation for all those female fans in old school Korean Broodwar tournaments. I almost don't want to say it, but it does seems likely that many of them were "fangirls" of pro-gamers, rather than fans of the game itself. So all that female screaming you hear in the background of old Korean tournaments - those people were probably there to watch a young, rich, hot celebrity athlete perform at the top of their game, and not so much because they were uber fans of Broodwar. After considering this possibility, I watched this 2005 National Geographic documentary https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kc0Pgm8lWRw - and if you go to 21:15, the narrator starts talking about "members of Ji Hoon's fanatical female fanbase" and it cuts to an all-female fanclub meeting centered around the player himself. Bizarrely enough, they don't seem to talk about the game, or his style of play or whatever - the focus is on Ji Hoon's appearance, how cute he looks when he plays, giggling over photos of him in magazines and whatnot. I kid you not, they stayed up until 3 in the morning making banners to support him. These guys were legit as big as rock stars. And yeah, I get it, Xellos was kind of cute, but still, it's not like he had a lot of opportunity to display a winning personality. Someone like MCanning on the other hand...

So anyway yeah, mystery solved, in a sense. It's kind of weird that this phenomenon (Brood War fangirls) seems to validate stereotypes about how different demographics approach entertainment, but there you go. Basically, the reason why we don't see (or hear) so many women in the audience now is because Starcraft isn't as big as it once was, and players are no longer promoted by the marketing machines as bona fide celebrities for fangirls to go gaga over. eSports is bigger than ever now, but for whatever reason, players aren't being pushed as sex symbols (in Korea) anymore, so that subset of the Starcraft fandom has withered away.

That's just a theory of mine, and I'm not saying that all of the women in those audiences were just there for the celebrity appeal, but I think it can explain the discrepancy between what we see in the videos and what we know about the demographics of the playerbase.

Another good point that was brought up is that Starcraft was developed in a era where marketing for games was heavily gendered i.e. the 1990s. What I suspect now is that back then, there was a trend (at least in the US) to have a lot of pop-entertainment be all gritty and hardcore and testosterone overloaded. Just look at what came out of that era - Doom, the Dark Age of Comics, Mortal Kombat and so forth. Starcraft wasn't as gritty as those games, but it did have a somewhat hardcore grimdark aesthetic, (it was based off of Warhammer 40k) and Baronesq puts it really nicely - https://www.reddit.com/r/starcraft/comments/f1aolh/female_representation_in_starcraft/fh4jmdk?utm_source=share&utm_medium=web2. Commenters who have identified themselves as female also said that they felt like Starcraft's marketing didn't really seem like it was for them, and in some cases it was word of mouth that got them into the game.

The reason why so many women are now are playing a game (Fortnite) in a stereotypically 'male' genre (competitive shooter) might be because the marketing, or the image it projects or whatever, just so happens to have been palatable enough for women to want to play the game in larger numbers (at least compared to most other competitive video games).

Now I wonder if it is possible for Fortnite's success in breaking out the mainstream can be replicated in smaller online games like Starcraft (even on a smaller scale). I love this game and want to see it do well, but seeing debacles like WC3 reforged and Activision's shenanigans doesn't exactly inspire confidence for its future.

Region lock was a deliberate move to increase the diversity of the playerbase by encouraging non-Koreans to excel at the game, and it's been undeniably successful. I wonder if a similar effort can be made for other demographics. Of course, I'm not saying Starcraft's game mechanics should be girl-ified or whatever, I'm just wondering if there was some approach that the community or Blizzard is missing that could help things out.

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