Female high school e-sports teams are blazing a trail for girls in games

As a young girl, Claire Hofstra eagerly watched her older brother play Pokémon and started playing against him. Their competition later escalated to playing Super Smash Bros. together.

Now going into her junior year at Hathaway Brown School in Shaker Heights, Ohio, Hofstra is facing off against more than just her sibling: She’s co-captain of the school’s varsity e-sports team.

In the 2018-2019 school year, Hathaway Brown School became the first all-girls school to organize a varsity e-sports team. E-sports is organized competitive gaming among professional level players, who can play individually or in teams. Now, student-athletes from across the country — including Hathaway Brown — are working hard to encourage more young women to participate in gaming events.

“I understand that many schools are trying to push for an e-sports team but it can be tough if you’re a girl because of the usual ‘male gamer’ stereotype,” Hofstra told Digital Trends.

The Hathaway Brown team is part of the Mischief League, which advertises itself as “a free community-based, inclusive e-sports league” on its website. Players on the Hathaway Brown team compete against other Cleveland-area schools in games like Dota 2, Minecraft, Liftoff, and Brawlhalla. At the time their season was cut short, Hofstra says the team was undefeated in the Mischief League.

For each game, there are individual captains that report to Hofstra and Morris. The role of the individual captains is to manage practices, scout opponents, create a strategy for matches, and analyze the previous day’s game.

The Hathaway Brown team practices two to three times per week during their lunch hour. On the day of the match, the teams typically play three games in their respective schools and libraries to determine a best-of-three winner.

For top e-sports players, the benefits can be very lucrative. The 2019 prize for The International, an annual e-sports championship for the game Dota 2, was over $34 million. In recent years, colleges have also started offering partial scholarships.

In their debut season, some of Hathaway Brown’s teams struggled at first. But eventually, they broke through with a well-earned win. Co-captain Kaila Morris said that moment — when players jumped out of their chairs and hugged in celebration — remains one of her favorite memories of the team that year.

Despite the early struggles, the team drew more interest from other students as the year went on. There were nine students on the Hathaway Brown team during its first season, Hofstra said. But this year, the number of competitors jumped to 22.

“After last year, a lot more HB students expressed interest in joining the team — so many, in fact, that we couldn’t have all of them in the ‘front lines’ of the Varsity team,” Morris said. “So that was really exciting because we saw a lot more girls not being afraid to step up and join this new, emerging thing, whereas last year, we sometimes struggled to get even the minimum amount of players required for a game.”

Morris noted that Laurel School, another all-girls school in Shaker Heights and Hathaway Brown’s rival school, has also created a gaming team.

Nationwide, other schools have been putting together all-female e-sports teams.

Troy High School in Fullerton, California made headlines for being the first all-female high school e-sports team in the U.S. in 2019. The team is still going strong — and trying to convince more girls to join in their hobby, according to team member Angel Jung.

Members of the Hathaway Brown e-sports team Claire Hofstra and Kaila Morris

Getting girls into gaming

For some young women, the stereotypes of “gaming” and hostility from others in the hobby have pushed them away from playing video games competitively.

According to a 2019 Entertainment Software Association report, 46% of gamers are female. But of those, a 2019 study from Interpret found that only 35% of e-sports gamers are women.

Many games themselves lack female representation as well: Out of 76 featured games at the annual E3 gaming convention in 2019, only seven were centered around female heroes, according to Wired. Three times as many featured male heroes.

That lack of representation makes it harder for women to find a place in the hobby. Young women who play games are often subjected to harassment while online.

Hofstra said she is afraid to disclose that she is a girl while playing because of a fear of backlash from other gamers. Jung agreed, saying she and other female gamers she knows have been affected by gender stereotypes.

There has been progress, though. Jung was playing Valorant recently and was pleasantly surprised to be matched with a team of all girls. The increasing representation has paralleled more accepting attitudes towards female gamers, she said.

“More and more people are starting to disregard such stereotypes and understand a female is just as capable as a male,” Jung said. “Gender shouldn’t be a judging factor in gaming and it’s nice to see others who respect that.”

Planning for an uncertain future

This past school year, Morris has focused mainly on developing the team’s business side, working to sell concessions with the other sports teams, manage their team’s Instagram account, and create promotional videos. Before the coronavirus pandemic canceled in-person schooling, Morris had planned a fundraiser for the varsity team.

Though they were saddened that they couldn’t host a championship either, Hofstra and Morris have savored the memories their team made over the past school year. During a stressful finals week in December, the co-captains called off practices so the students could dedicate time to studying. But even with no official gaming, many members decided to gather in a classroom to play card games to relax.

“E-sports brought a lot of us together even during the most stressful times at school,” Hofstra said. “During lunch, everyone gathers in the game lab to play Super Smash Bros Ultimate or Just Dance to take their mind off of school and relax.”

For Hofstra and Morris, the future of the team is uncertain because of COVID-19. Even if they can return, they’ll need to abide by safety measures like cleaning all surfaces on their computers.

But the girls are committed to expanding their team’s outreach and letting other students know about the benefits of e-sports, like meeting new people and earning scholarships for college.

“Gaming is something for everyone,” Morris said. “I didn’t think I was a gamer and I could find myself a home there but I did. It’s not all about the games — it’s also about the fun, team building, and excitement.”

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