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Do men and women need different gaming leagues? eSports policy sparks outrage, new rules

The South Korea-based International eSports Federation has reversed its controversial policy of hosting gaming tournaments segregated by gender. IeSF events are now divided into two categories: previously male-only events have been made open for all, but, curiously, the female-only division is still being maintained. The organization provided the following reasons for retaining female-only events:

“The IeSF Board addressed its reason for maintaining events for women, citing the importance of providing female gamers with ample opportunities to compete in eSports—currently a male-dominated industry. Female gamers make up half of the world’s gaming population, but only a small percentage of eSports competitors are women. The IeSF’s female-only competitions aim to bring more diversity to competitive play by improving the representation of women at these events. Without efforts to improve representation, eSports can’t achieve true gender equality.”

The controversy began yesterday when Redditor Karuta posted this image of the terms of entry for a Finnish Hearthstone tournament during Assembly 2014, which stated, “The participation is open only to Finnish male players.” That policy was put in place to avoid a possible conflict of a female player winning the tournament, which serves as a qualifier for the IeSF championship. At the time, that IeSF championship only allowed males to play Hearthstone competitively.

It’s likely that the rapid policy turnaround came as at least a partial result of Hearthstone developer Blizzard exerting some pressure on the organization. As the developer said in an official statement, “One of our goals with eSports is to ensure that there’s a vibrant and also inclusive community around our games. We do not allow the use of our games in tournaments that do not support this, and are working with our partners to ensure they share the same goal. To that end, we’ve separately been in contact with IeSF and understand that they’ve updated their rules to make it clear that their Hearthstone tournament will be open to all players.”

Initially, the IeSF took to Facebook to address the reasoning behind the now-altered policy. “The decision to divide male and female competitions was made in accordance with international sports authorities, as part of our effort to promote eSports as a legitimate sport.” As originally configured, the championship comprised male-only brackets for Dota 2, StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm, Ultra Street Fighter IV and Hearthstone; and female-only brackets for StarCraft II and Tekken Tag Tournament II.

In an e-mail exchange with Eurogamer, IeSF general manager of international relations Alex Lim further explained that the segregated tournaments were part of an effort to have eSports included in the 4th Asian Indoor Martial Arts Games, hosted by he Olympic Council of Asia. Lim acknowledged that the division was a misguided attempt to achieve legitimacy in traditional athletic communities by applying conventions based on physical sports to mental sports.

“As we strive to do the best we can to promote eSports as a true sport beyond any barriers, mistakes might happen along the way,” Lim explained, “but it is our duty as a community of eSports fans and enthusiasts to learn from those mistakes and to make sure they remain in the past.”

Under pressure from Assembly, the Finnish eSports Federation, and Blizzard, not to mention the torrential backlash of collective Internet outrage, the IeSF Board held an emergency meeting and opened up all of the previously-mentioned games to all comers, while still holding separate, female-only events for StarCraft II and Tekken Tag Tournament II. The 6th Annual eSports World Championship will be held from November 12-17 in Baku, Azerbaijan.

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