This is exactly how not to run a women's esports tournament
Last weekend, a Chinese streaming network hosted the biggest all-female tournament in Hearthstone to date. Players were flown in from the U.S., Korea, Canada, and Japan to compete alongside three Chinese players for a share of the $12,000 prize.
Despite the absence of some of Hearthstone's top female players, like Haiyun "Eloise" Tang and "DeerNadia," Imba TV's International Women's Invitational appeared to be a serious commitment to give these women a platform. Around 150,000 to 200,000 people were watching at any one time.
In practice, however, the event's presentation made it look like someone's dollhouse fantasy rather than a serious esports tournament.
The arguments over single-sex tournaments in esports has raged for quite some time. In Hearthstone, the debate erupted last July when the International Esports Federation (IeSF) initially made their tournament male-only before reversing the decision due to the backlash.
The IeSF attempted to explain it away by claiming to be "in accordance with traditional sports authorities." In other words because traditional sports are segregated, esports should be too—something which almost everyone would agree is a preposterous statement. There is more disagreement, however, about whether women-only tournaments should exist to promote women in gaming and provide a platform for female esports competitors.
Those aren't arguments I want to re-run here—I believe these tournaments are necessary—but apparently we need to talk about what they should look like. The Chinese Women's Invitational looked more like a satire of a women-only tournament than anything else.The eight women were all wearing white dresses, either as part of an assigned dress code or the worst fashion faux pas in the history of esports. The set was adorned with purple drapes and flowers projected on to the floor, with large versions of Hearthstone card backs along the walls—of course using what must be the ladies' favorite, the rainbow design.
The playing area itself was perhaps worse than anything else. While most tournaments go out of their way to make players as comfortable as possible, the International Women's Invitational put the women on uncomfortable looking stools at high tables which were very hastily covered with a white tablecloth. Chair manufacturer DXRacer sponsored the tournament. But despite this, it was stools for the ladies—oh but don't worry, the male casters had nice pink DXRacer chairs to ensure their comfort.
While I can't claim to know a whole lot about many of these players, I can tell you that they are not to be underestimated. Eventual winner "Harusol" of South Korea regular achieves top 100 legend in Asia, while American runner-up "Chandyland" is also a strong ladder player and member of semi-pro team Flipside Tactics.
The profile of women in esports is growing. And since Hearthstone is one of the most accessible games, we should have seen more female players at the highest level by now. As it is, only a handful of female players have made any kind of impact. Tournaments like this could provide a platform for these players to show their skills and get noticed, perhaps attracting team offers and invites as a result. If these women are not presented seriously, why would anyone take this tournament seriously?
Who did ImbaTV think its audience was? Did it think all the purple and pretty clothes would appeal to women? Agreeing with the need for women-only tournaments doesn't mean you want those tournaments to display every terrible stereotype.
From what I saw of their play at this event, some of the players in this tournament have the potential for a bright future as esports professionals—so let's make sure we're treating them like it.
Screengrab via DTwoHS/Twitch