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Hearthstone, eSports tournaments, and the separation of genders [update]

Posted on July 3, 2014 AT 12:15pm

Update: The International e-Sports Federation Board has announced a change in the policies of this year’s IeSF World Championship, following yesterday’s flurry of complaints surrounding how the gender breakdown of its tournaments would run. Now, the DotA 2, StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm, Ultra Street Fighter IV, Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, and Tekken Tag Tournament 2 tournaments will be open to players of all genders. However, there will still be female-only competitions for StarCraft II and Tekken Tag Tournament 2.

So, really, this is a win on all fronts. Now all of the main games of the World Championship can be played by all genders (including male players being able to participate in TTT2), while female players will still get some much-needed recognition with a few of their own events.

Original Story: As videogame developers, publishers, and players attempt to make eSports a legitimate and recognized industry, big questions will no doubt pop up along the way—and that’s exactly what has happened over the course of today surrounding one tournament’s rules of Hearthstone.

Every morning, the first thing I do after waking up is check Twitter. It’s a good way to try to get my mind up and running, and it gives me a start on knowing what’s gone on in the world during those hours that I was oblivious to life beyond my bed. This morning, one of the conversations I awoke to was something concerning Blizzard’s free-to-play trading card game Hearthstone—but I wasn’t sure exactly what the story surrounding it was.

It seems that yesterday on the Hearthstone subreddit, a member by the name of Karuta posted up a screenshot of an email for the upcoming Finnish qualifier for the IeSF (International e-Sports Federation) World Championship. The email, among other things, made a simple declaration: that Hearthstone participation was only open to “Finnish male players.”

As Karuta and others looked deeper into this year’s World Championship, it turned out that the included games break down as follows:

Male Competition: DotA 2, StarCraft 2, Hearthstone, Ultra Street Fighter IV
Female Competition: StarCraft 2, Tekken Tag Tournament 2

Having female-only tournament options isn’t an unusual thing. In a hobby where many types of players often struggle for acceptance or exposure, that separation can be a good thing—when it’s wanted. If a female player wants to play in the main tournament, however, she should be allowed to do so. (The yearly fighting game competition EVO, for example, allows female players to play in their main tournaments if they opt-out of the female-only one.)

In attempting to respond to the criticism that began cropping up around the internet, the South Korea-based IeSF, and representatives for Assembly Summer 2014 (the event in Helsinki that will play host to the Finnish qualifiers for both Hearthstone and StarCaft 2), both tried to explain why things were the way they were.

From the official IeSF Facebook page (in a post that has since been taken down):

Let me elaborate a bit on the decision to create both male and female competitions. This decision serves two main goals of the IeSF:

1 – promoting female players. We know that e-Sports is largely dominated by male players and females players are actually a portion of the overall player base. By hosting a female-only competition, we strive to promote female gaming on a global scale.

2 – International standards. IeSF is very close to get e-Sports recognized as a true sports like it should be. Part of that efforts is to comply with the international sports regulations. For example, chess is also divided into male / female leagues.

But, we want you to know that we listen to you, and appreciate your feedback! Our efforts does not clash with the community opinion – but on the contrary – we are here for the future of e-Sports and will do our best to promote it as best as we can.


And, in a statement made to PC Gamer by Markus “Olodyn” Koskivirta, the head administrator of the Assembly Summer 2014 Hearthstone IeSF Qualifier:

“Your information is indeed correct, the tournament is open to Finnish male players only. In accordance with the International e-Sports Federation’s (IeSF) tournament regulations, since the main tournament event is open to male players only. This is to avoid possible conflicts (e.g. a female player eliminating a male player during RO8) among other things.”

On a personal level, there’s a number of issues I take with elements in both of those statements. Why in the world would eSports want to comply with international sports regulations? No matter what you want to call the competitive playing of videogames, it isn’t a sport, and shouldn’t try to be seen as one. The separation of the sexes in physical sports can make sense due to real-life factors that may give one or the other an unfair advantage—something that isn’t the case with eSports. And then there’s the whole can of worms with the “avoid possible conflicts” statement.

Jumping into the fray as the day went on was the Finnish eSports Federation, who posted comments on their opinions on the issue of gender separation in eSports competitions. One portion of that statement was particularly interesting:

The Finnish eSports Federation (FeSF) has expressed it’s concerns about the subject matter in previous years. Internationally, opinions on the matter have swayed from side to side and the subject has been a constant source of discussions during the IeSF summits. Finland along with other Nordic countries has stated it’s case for removal of said limitations. For example, Dreamhack boycotted last year’s IeSF tournaments very publicly.

Several representatives from Asian and African nations have however expressed their concerns about gender equality not happening without said restrictions. In these countries it is common practice and considered necessary to divide men and women into separate series, in order to even compete.

So, part of the problem could be cultural issues among some of the countries involved in the IeSF—countries that believe, for reasons either genuine or out of bias, that men and women should be kept separate in the competitions.

Why does all of this matter? It matters because, again, eSports are not sports—and there’s no reason for us to force a separation of players when the playing field is level for all participants. Putting a spotlight on those players in the minority, who may never be seen otherwise, is a good thing in my eyes. When gamers of all kinds are watching tournaments, they should be able to see participants who resemble themselves, so that they know they, too, can one day potentially be up there on stage competing to be the best. If a player in the minority feels as if they have what it takes to face off against the majority, however, that should be their choice to make.

…also, I want to know why female players get stuck playing Tekken Tag Tournament 2, while the guys get to play Ultra Street Fighter IV. That feels like the IeSF just rubbing it in. (Someone will come in here and tell me that female players actually want to play TTT2, a statement I refuse to ever believe.)

As of now, both the IeSF and representative for Assembly have put out updated statements. Here are both in full.

From the official IeSF Facebook page:

To all our fans and e-Sport enthusiasts,
In the last hours we have received lots of feedback from you regarding the IeSF 6th e-Sports World Championship, particularly regarding the male/female tournament division.

We want to thank you for your interest in e-Sports and for sharing your opinions. The e-Sports community opinion is always important to the IeSF.

Our top priority is to promote e-Sports in the best ways we can. We believe that listening is important, and we’re now collecting your opinions from the social media, and we will update soon.

Thanks for your patience!


From the official Assembly Summer 2014 website:

A conversation is going on in various media about the gender divide in International e-Sports Federation (IeSF) tournaments. Two IeSF tournaments will be held at ASSEMBLY Summer 2014: Starcraft 2 and Hearthstone. The Finnish qualifiers are organized by Finnish eSports Federation (FeSF), and the international finals will be held in Baku, Azerbaidjan.

The international IeSF Hearthstone final in Baku does not include a female competition, and therefore Finnish female players can not qualify for it. Because the tournament has, however, been requested by Finnish professional players, it was important to hold the qualifiers here for the first time.

The IeSF Starcraft 2 final includes competitions for men and for women, and the men’s qualifier will be held at Assembly Summer 2014. The location of the women’s national qualifier is still unclear, but it is probable that FeSF will also send a Finnish female player to the international finals.

Even though we partially understand IeSF’s stance behind separate series for men and women, we think that separating the genders is not the right way to advance electronic sports. The other tournaments held at Assembly are not separated by gender, and they are open for all (both gaming tournaments and computer art competitions). We have worked with FeSF and other Nordic electronic sports federations, trying to induce change in this IeSF rule.

It is important that the topic is being discussed. We will also re-examine our stance on the IeSF qualifiers in the future, and we hope that IeSF will change their rules to facilitate gaming regardless of gender. FeSF, an IeSF member organization, will also continue their work advancing this change.

We believe that electronic sports and all other competitions in the field of computing should be about the individual’s skills and creativity. Everyone should be encouraged to improve themselves, and discrimination should not be tolerated. We welcome all people to Assembly Summer 2014, regardless of their gender.

Source: International e-Sports Federation – Official Facebook page

Source: Assembly Summer 2014 – Official website

Eric L. Patterson, Executive Editor
Eric L. Patterson got started via self-publishing game-related fanzines in junior high, and now has one goal in life: making sure EGM has as much coverage of niche Japanese games as can realistically be crammed in. Eric’s also active in the gaming community on a personal level, being an outspoken voice on topics such as equality in gaming and consumer rights. Stalk Eric on Twitter: @Eric_EGM. Meet the rest of the crew.

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