Opinion: Hearthstone tournament controversy shows the folly of eSports' ambitions [Update]

By Ozzie Mejia, Jul 02, 2014 11:00am PDT

Update: I had previously reached out earlier in the day to fighting game commentator and video game law advocate David Philip Graham (a.k.a. Ultradavid). His response was put so eloquently, that his concurring views have been added. For more on Graham's qualifications and resume, visit his website.

Video games are among the most prominent mediums struggling to shake off an undesired "boys-only" stigma. It's an issue that continues to grow uglier, as new social conundrums pop up by the day, often leaving women marginalized and men under a shameful spotlight. However, the latest controversy spells out a more recent folly for video games, particularly in the competitive realm.

Reddit's Hearthstone community had recently discovered a qualifier for an upcoming Finland Assembly Summer 2014 tournament would be open to male players only. There is no ambiguity in this statement. The tournament organizers clearly expressed that women would not be allowed, with their justification being that they're aiming for this tournament to be on par with legitimate sports. This is an argument that trivializes the idea of video games as a "real sport" and one that competitive gaming should move away from.

To be clear, the organizers of this Hearthstone tournament know exactly what they're doing in segregating their events by gender. The tournament's head admin confirmed all of the details to PC Gamer earlier today. To double down on their intentions, the International e-Sports Federation (IeSF) replied to a Facebook comment, "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."

If that has become the case, then why continue with this charade that video games are legitimate sports? The argument of what constitutes sport has grown more complex over the years. Golf is a sport. Bowling is a sport. However, those are measures of athletic prowess, in which there can be a divide between men and women. Olympic sports like Marathon and Pole Vault are likewise segregated for this reason.

The difference is that video games are not a measure of physical athletic ability. While more physical, contact-based sports may require gender segregation due to body structure differences, none of that matters in gaming. Video games are a measurement of the mind and reflexes and, in this arena, men and women can participate on an even playing field. To try and place video games on the same pedestal as sports like golf and bowling is flawed, simply because there is no visible evidence as to why the two genders cannot compete equally. Is there a difference between two men, two women, or a man and a woman competitively playing Hearthstone? To the average viewer, there isn't. For the most part, their observational focus is on the monitor, not necessarily on the players themselves.

Adding to this view is someone that's been a big part of the competitive gaming scene for many years. David Philip Graham, known to fighting game fans as Ultradavid, concurs that the comparing video games to other sports, like golf, bowling, and even poker, is a particularly unfair one.

"We're not poker or chess, or soccer or football for that matter," Graham said. "What happens and what has happened in those different competitions doesn't have any compelling or even persuasive authority with respect to video games. I'm a big hockey and football fan myself, but I'm not going to conflate video games with them. I'm not willing to put up with what I see as problems regardless of appeals to chess or whatever else. We are our own scene! We don't need to parrot existing examples. We should learn from them, but part of what that entails is learning where they've screwed up so we can avoid it. To the extent that any other competition enforces needless separation of genders or sex, well, I think they're screwing up."

The galling part of IeSF's stance is that the Hearthstone players themselves don't have any sort of antipathy towards allowing women to compete. Male competitive gamers often do not express these chauvinistic tendencies during actual competitions, because the focus is on competing and winning. I've been a fan of the competitive fighting scene for a while, having seen female fighters like Evil Geniuses' Chocoblanka or GamesterGear's Sherry Jenix display the same gaming prowess as their male counterparts. Not once have I seen male competitors cry foul for their participation and, in fact, they welcomed their inclusion. And it's unfortunate, because the IeSF's position serves to add an unfair perception to the video game scene and how it portrays both men and women.

"I think the biggest messages this IeSF crap sends to gamers are cautionary tales," Graham adds. "One is that the drive to force sportsification onto video games in a misguided attempt to garner legitimacy from uninterested people can end up just making things worse. Thanks to these idiots, we have mainstream outlets talking about competitive video gaming in a way that makes it sound misogynistic and stupid rather than welcoming and exciting. Another is that sexism is still a big problem in video game circles. This should be obvious to anyone already, but having it laid out so obviously should make it hit home for even the stupidest denier. We have a lot of work left in rooting out problems like this. I want competitive gaming to be open to everyone regardless of sex, gender, race, religion, nationality, socioeconomic class, etc. And I want people who want anything other than that to leave now and never come back."

If the path towards becoming a legitimate sport means imposing segregation, then why go down this rabbit hole at all? Competitive gaming is in a good enough place to support inclusiveness, thanks to good tournament organizers and supportive game publishers. Next week is the annual Evolution Championship Series tournament, with Capcom tossing in an additional $10,000 for its Ultra Street Fighter 4 prize pool, Razer tossing in $10,000 for Killer Instinct, and Aksys throwing in $30,000 for BlazBlue: Chrono Phantasma. The common factor in all of these tournaments? Men and women are both welcome to participate, with no such concerns for whether the tournaments will be perceived as "legitimate sports." They're not bogged down by this idea of pretending to be anything other than video games.

"I don't need video games to be anything but video games," added Graham. "I'm suspicious of people who want them to be sports. I view that mostly as a marketing gimmick intended to convince disappointed fathers that sons aren't wasting their time playing competitive video games, they're spending their time playing professional sports. That is, it's something for the older generation, and only for the current generation to the extent that they've internalized their parents' disdain for video games. Screw that! Video games don't have to be sports to be legitimate; video games AS video games can be legitimate on their own."

Competitive gaming stands in a class of its own and it's one where tournament organizers can make their own rules, highbrow perceptions be damned. And while that comes with its own set of issues, segregation between genders certainly is not among them. If separating men and women is what it takes to be a part of the "legitimate sports" club, maybe it's a club that eSports shouldn't want to be a member of.

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