Although eSports is still in its infancy, the pro competition is dominated by male participants. A 2019 report from industry analyst Entertainment Software Association says women and girls make up 46 per cent of gamers; a rise of one per cent from 2018.
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Anyone who has played an online multiplayer game where voice chat is an option will attest to the abuse that flies around from competitors as you play. But it’s far more personal if you’re a woman – the language can be especially derogatory towards them.
For many fans it remains a “boys’ club” – and women aren’t welcome regardless of abilities. Although this problem isn’t exclusive to eSports – it’s still a shocking reality throughout the world of sport. But a teenager from Bahrain is one of many leading the fight back against the misogyny.
“Initially, it was difficult to be accepted in the Middle East’s gaming community,” Mariam “Mary Gaming” Maher, 14, tells The National. “The mindset wasn’t broad enough to accept girls, especially in terms of acknowledging when we perform better than boys.
Since 2017, Mariam has been honing her skills on cultural phenomenon Fortnite. In 2018, Mariam uploaded footage of herself taking out 24 opponents in a row, which made a splash in the eSports community.
“The video achieved more than 85,000 views and many people watching commented that my score made me one of the best players in the region,” Mariam says. “This made me realise I could start to take a career in gaming seriously and make the best use of my talent.”
What followed was a stratospheric rise on the pro gaming scene with Mariam becoming one of the very first female eSports athletes in the region. She was soon snapped up by Nasr eSports, one of the leading eSports organisations in the GCC that operate in Dubai, and bagged herself a sponsorship with gaming hardware company Lenovo Legion.
The demands of staying ahead of the game in eSports can be arduous. Training takes a lot of time and effort as Mariam says, noting that she practises for about “five or six hours per day”. But she’s quick to point out that weekends are spent away from games and out socialising with her friends instead.
Mariam’s efforts so far have paid dividends. She’s already won a host of Fortnite tournaments and exclusive partnerships on colossal streaming platform Twitch, have netted the teen more than $50,000 (Dh184,000) so far. This is a hefty sum for anyone, let alone a teenager, and honing her skill set could lead to even bigger payouts. So what does the future hold?
“I would like to see how far my career in playing Fortnite can go,” she says. “I’d also like to work on growing my YouTube and Twitch channels”. She’s in safe hands at Nasr eSports. The company already has some of the biggest regional gamers on its books, including Adel “Big Bird” Anouche, a Street Fighter expert in Algeria. “A big part of the reason why I joined Nasr eSports is that they can help guide me and identify the best way to build my career”. There is a fallback plan in case the video gaming comes crashing down. Mariam plans to study law, which displays a level-headedness that belies her age.
But back to the elephant in the room – how can eSports shake free of the toxic environment and encourage more people like Mariam to take part? What, if anything, can be done by those around the sport to make it less of a daunting prospect for girls wanting to get involved?
“With more organisations now working to represent female talent, the idea of gaming as a male-dominated sport is also now changing.” she says. The organisations Mariam speaks of are the likes of Red Bull and Lenovo. Last winter, the latter launched the Legion Girl Cup, an event geared towards encouraging female gamers in the region to unite.
It brings like-minded gamers together to compete, but also to socialise and share their experiences in eSports. If the sport is to mature and evolve, then events like this are imperative. It can form a support network for those that hit unnecessary roadblocks in advancing their careers. “We need companies like Lenovo to challenge viewpoints,” Mariam says, “showing that gamers come from all different backgrounds with equal talents. Seeing fellow girl gamers given platforms such as the Legion Girl Cup shows me that progress is being made and the future looks positive.”
With the eSports industry valued at about $1 billion, all eyes are on those brands and companies that want a slice of the action. Investment in eSports teams is coming from the likes of basketball star Michael Jordan and Hollywood actor Ashton Kutcher, and it’s down to these guys to set the standards that will encourage female players in their teams. And with firmer punishments being handed out for online harassment, there’s hope it will discourage the most vocal trolls and make the virtual playing fields more peaceful.
One thing we’re hoping to see is more female participation throughout 2020. Of the 200 finalists of the first Fortnite World Cup held at Flushing Meadows, New York, last year, none were women. But with talented gamers such as Mariam leading the way, we wouldn’t be surprised to see the Bahraini teenager battling the boys at the next one.
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