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Esports tournament marks historic turn for women gamers

For The Women (FTW) Showdown – hosted by Comcast’s Spectacor Gaming, Nerd Street Gamers and Riot Games – celebrates diversity and inclusion in the booming gaming industry.
@Theia, one of sixty women gamers who competed in the For The Women (FTW) Showdown 2020 Valorant tournament in September.
@Theia, one of sixty women gamers who competed in the For The Women (FTW) Showdown 2020 Valorant tournament in September.Nerd Street Gamers

In an ongoing effort to create space for competitive women gamers, three gaming companies upped the ante in September, hosting a historic esports tournament.

For The Women (FTW) Showdown — a collaboration between Comcast’s Spectacor Gaming, Nerd Street Gamers and Riot Games — culminated in a three-day, all-women’s virtual esports tournament with a $50,000 prize pot.

The winnings marked the highest amount distributed for an all-women’s tournament featuring the first-person shooter game Valorant, which launched in June.

“We want to showcase all the female talent out there to normalize female gamers in hopes to have more co-ed teams and tournaments,” said Meredith Weber, co-founder of FTW.

Professional women gamers are on the rise.
Professional women gamers are on the rise.Nerd Street Gamers

From Sept. 11 through Sept. 13, 12 North American teams competed remotely while hundreds of thousands of viewers cheered them on via Twitch.

“We’re thrilled with the community’s response to FTW’s first tournament,” said Tucker Roberts, president of Spectacor Gaming and Philadelphia Fusion. “This event proved that there’s a huge demand for more women’s tournaments.”

FTW Summer Showdown started as a one-day event with a $10,000 prize. Then last week, Valorant creator Riot Games expanded the tournament and the prize pot by making FTW a part of their popular Ignition Series.

Historically, women have been discouraged from gaming due to harassment. All-women’s esports tournaments generally feature smaller prize pots than male-dominated events. The $50,000 prize, however, was comparable to all-male Valorant tournaments.

“The Valorant team at Riot Games is 100 percent committed to fostering an inclusive environment for competition and creating safe opportunities for women to compete without fear of identity or gender-based harassment,” said Anna Donlon, executive producer of Valorant at Riot Games. “When the team learned about the For The Women Summer Showdown Valorant tournament ... the decision to elevate the tournament to our existing Ignition Series tournament programming and up the prize pool stakes was easy.”

According to Statista, esports — or professional, competitive gaming — is almost a $1 billion global industry, and it is growing fast. Interpret found that women comprise 30 percent of all esports viewers, but that the number is slowly rising.

“If we continue to create a fun, positive and inclusive environment for women to participate in esports, then we all win,” said Alex @Goldenboy Mendez, an esports expert who cast the FTW showdown alongside hosts @BlackKrystel and @OvileeMay.

Like traditional sports, standout esports players are more likely to be signed to a pro team, gain sponsors and earn a living. Officials have high hopes for FTW’s winning team, @teamMAJKL.

Competitive gaming is a billion-dollar industry.
Competitive gaming is a billion-dollar industry.Nerd Street Gamers

“Since Valorant is such a new game and the competitive ecosystem is still being developed, it’s really important to showcase the strong female talent in the space and help them accelerate their professional gaming careers however we can,” said Joe Marsh, CEO of T1 Entertainment & Sports, a joint venture between Spectacor and SK Telecom, and one of the tournament sponsors.

Most of the FTW competitors have faced sexual harassment in gaming, but gender isn’t the only hurdle. @teallyy, the only black female competitor in the tournament, said she has faced a raft of racism as well. While her team — Hardstuck — didn’t win this weekend, she said she would continue to compete, improve and hopefully incite change. FTW was her first esports tournament ever.

“To be black and also be a female – they’re two things that you don’t see in gaming,” said @teallyy, who preferred to go by her gaming nickname. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen that. I want to let other African-American females know that if this is what you want to do, you have what it takes.”

Two transgender women FTW Showdown competitors who go by Ari and Kass said they transitioned in the midst of their gaming careers. Separately, they told Know Your Value that they were treated with derision once they began living as their true gender. Much of the abuse comes over voice chat through gaming headsets. FTW moderators, however, were very strict about banning misogynistic, racist and transphobic comments during the tournament in the chat window.

“[FTW] is my opportunity to give back,” said Kass. “I can try to be the best example I can be for other women who want to play in esports or want to compete without having to deal with the toxicity they generally face.”

While esports is stereotypically the purview of 20-somethings, a 30-year-old Brooklyn mom named Jana Whitter also competed this weekend between pumping and feeding her 10-month-old baby.

“If you want to play and be a mom, don’t worry about what other people think. There will always be judgment from others,” said Whittier. “You need to just not care and go for your dream. Moms can need things too.”

Esports is still very male-dominated, but a few female players have already paved the way to the top. Sergeant First Class Megan Lomonof serves as the esports operations manager of the U.S. Army and is a grandmaster Overwatch player. She has also managed successful teams in both Overwatch and Valorant. She watched the FTW tournament with pride.

“While not a complete solution to the sexism in gaming, my favorite part about the [tournament] is the empowerment they provide women to take up the space they deserve both in game and in voice chat to achieve victory,” said Sgt. 1st Class Lomonof.

Officials involved in the FTW Summer Showdown hope that this is only the beginning in a fight for diversity and inclusion in gaming. “We’re all working toward one goal, and that’s to make this industry the best it can be,” said Kelsey Rowley, communications manager at Spectacor Gaming and co-founder of FTW.