On the night of March 12, Guo Yujun, who goes by the gaming handle Nüqi, had a minor breakdown. It was the first time the 23-year-old professional esports player had attended King Growth League, one of the tournaments for Tencent's wildly popular mobile game, Honor of Kings. Guo is one of the best female players in China, but she lost her first game by a large margin. She recalled sitting on the floor of a training facility in Guangdong afterward, looking at her sneakers, murmuring to her coach, "I'm feeling kind of lost now."
The next day, Guo and her four teammates — together, Team Fire — ascended the stage to compete again. Fifteen minutes later, she had notched her first win against an all-male team on the national stage. It marked the first time a team with more than one female player had won in any professional HoK games. Fans in attendance, though sparse, cheered while the winning players cried. "These were happy tears," she said in a team vlog posted on social media.
But Team Fire does not look headed for a fairy-tale ending. Established in October 2020 to build the first professional mobile esports club for women, Team Fire has dropped six games in a row. Its chances of entering the major leagues are now minimal, it's been unable to fulfill its vision as an all-women team and frustrations are mounting. The team is not only racing to build its skill level to take on the best; it's fighting a business and cultural environment that has been hostile to female gamers for decades.
'Most girls can't stand it'
Gender discrimination has a long history in global esports. It inherited many of its biases from traditional competitive sports, then fused them with a belief that only men are interested in video games. While many female players have proved they have the interest and the skills, many more are deterred by the massive gender gamer pay gap, rampant sexist comments in the gaming community and the lack of available role models — not a single woman ranks among the top 300 highest-earning gamers worldwide.
In China, more and more women are being drawn into mobile gaming. From 2014 to 2016, the proportion of women among overall mobile gamers rose from 24.9% to 49.4%, according to Beijing-based analytics firm TalkingData. By 2020, there were over 350 million female gamers in China, the majority of whom play on their phones. But professional female players remain rare. And gamers frequently invoke misogynistic tropes that could resemble those used 100 years ago.
"I don't want to elaborate on how inconvenient it is to have a girl in a room full of boys," reads one top answer on Chinese Q&A site Zhihu, discussing the lack of female HoK players. "Most girls can't stand such arduous training. Periods make it harder." One gamer wrote a long quantitative analysis to demonstrate why "female players just suck at games." A 2019 article published in Sina News's esports vertical listed reasons including: "hormones have determined that women are less confrontational" and "with their looks, they can make more money as YouTubers than professional players."
Added to these dynamics are widespread cultural expectations that women work less arduous jobs so they can fulfill what are viewed as their domestic responsibilities.
Talking about these issues isn't popular among Chinese gamers. A common refrain is that gaming is inherently "gender-blind," so that only current performance matters. In July 2019, as video of an interview with a female esports player made the rounds on social media, most top comments mocked the player for denouncing gender bias. "Just tell the truth: You are bad at gaming," reads one popular response. "Women can become streamers as long as they are pretty. Is that also gender discrimination?" asked another.
Mobile isn't special
At first blush, things look like they could be different with Honor of Kings, in which players form two teams of five to fight on a battlefield, defend their home base and occupy that of the other side. Released by Tencent's flagship gaming studio TiMi in 2015, it remains one of the most popular mobile games in China with half a billion players. It's a cash cow, generating the second-highest revenue among all mobile games worldwide in 2020 and even collaborating with brands like Burberry. It's an easy game to pick up, and because it's mobile-first, there's no technological barrier to becoming a fan. Third-party analysts estimated in 2017 that 54% of HoK's players were women. Tencent declined a Protocol request to share its current internal data.
Yet gender bias runs wild in HoK, too. When searching for new players for online battles, male HoK gamers often joke that they will have to disadvantage themselves in order to "make things fair" for their female opponents. When someone is not playing well, "you play like a girl" is a common insult. Despite a balanced total user base, HoK's competitive scene is almost entirely male. In the six-year history of the King Pro League — the highest-level HoK tournament with sponsorship from companies like BMW and Coca-Cola — just one female player has taken the stage, and then only for one game.
HoK also rewards interactions with strangers via a secondary in-game points system. In the professional world, this system, roughly translated as "Battle for the Pinnacle," provides an important indicator of competitive skill.
"But most girls candidates don't like to participate in Battle for the Pinnacle, and I have no idea why," the team's founder, Linda Zhang, told Protocol. She guessed it's because men are more eager to compete for points, while female gamers prefer to spend time with real-life friends. What she didn't mention is that gamers are far less likely to be exposed to sexist comments when they only play with people they already know.
Enter the leopards
Team Fire, whose Chinese name translates as Fire Leopards (火豹), was created to change all this. Zhang, its founder, had been a casual HoK player. In 2018, she quit her corporate job in the consumer goods industry to become the marketing director for one of China's best HoK clubs. In 2020, she sensed a surge of interest for female players and took another leap of faith.
When Team Fire launched and announced it would participate in the spring tournament, the team didn't even have enough players: just Guo and one other gaming veteran. Zhang was confident she could recruit enough hidden talent.
"Looking back, [that] assessment might have been too optimistic," Zhang said. When her club collaborated with Tencent to recruit female fans to go pro, she says they received over 10,000 applications. But after rounds and rounds of screening and intensive training, only several candidates emerged with competition-level potential.
Team Fire doesn't yet have enough players to form an all-female team for high-level games. Instead, it opts for a hybrid model: For the spring tournament, it registered four female players and five male players. This approach may continue for years, Zhang said, until Team Fire has trained enough female players.
"First things first, we have to [address] the lack of female players in professional [HoK] games. From there, we can build a platform that will attract more strong and ambitious girls to join us," Zhang said.
A vicious cycle
Guo transferred to Team Fire last year when it launched. Prior to that, she had won almost every high-level game held for female players, but she rarely had the chance to play against her male peers. "There wasn't much pressure, because [among female players] I felt I had no competition," Guo told Protocol. "It felt like I didn't even need any training to win."
Her life is different now; Guo spends most of her waking hours training for games. Every night before she competes, she still finds it hard to sleep.
In conversations with Protocol, both Guo and Zhang were painfully aware of the skills gap between their team and the competition — and they never hesitated to blame themselves for it. But their situation is also the years-long result of huge imbalances in the resources invested in male and female players.
Esports are being taken more and more seriously in China, where national and local governments all have announced favorable policies to attract talent. Shanghai's government is supporting the construction of a $898 million esports arena while Beijing is doling out millions of dollars' worth of subsidies to esports tournaments and teams. For aspiring male players, the path to success is visible; there are countless examples before them who made big money through a professional career.
But Guo and other female players feel like they aren't given enough opportunities to train themselves and showcase their skills. In China, there are very few games created just for female players, and the cash rewards are usually low. With scant incentive, most female gamers won't ditch their original career or studies to go pro; with few visible examples of successful women pros, few investors will bother to fund an all-female team. The result is a vicious cycle. Many female players eventually transition to become sports announcers or livestreamers — lucrative jobs that often value looks more than expertise and appeal to the majority-male audience.
"All-female teams have no tournaments to attend. When I was still in the previous club, they were just paying me to do nothing," Guo said.
"If there are more tournaments and teams for females, that section of the market will grow too," Lisa Cosmas Hanson, president of the gaming intelligence company Niko Partners, told Protocol. She believes that as esports become more mainstream for women that sponsors, media coverage and advertising revenue will come. "As with all sports competitions in history, it seems like the initial path was laid for males, and females march along after."