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Battling gender bias in Chinese esports

Battling gender bias in Chinese esports

This week in Protocol Gaming, your weekly guide to the business of video games: how Team Fire is trying to fight the gender bias in Chinese esports, Microsoft might buy Discord, and why the future of voice-overs could well be artificial.

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The Big Story

Team Fire is challenging the gender bias in Chinese esports

In China, esports is going mobile, and that presents a new opportunity for female players to claim a male-dominated industry. Protocol | China talked to Team Fire, the first female professional team to ever compete in — and win! — a national tournament organized by Tencent around its hit mobile game Honor of Kings.

You may not have played it, but Honor of Kings is a big deal. Released by Tencent in 2015, HoK (sometimes known as Arena of Valor overseas) was the second highest-grossing mobile game worldwide in 2020.

  • It now has over 100 million daily active users. Most of them are in China, hence the low name recognition elsewhere.
  • It's become a major esports game. Each year, HoK's major league games are watched billions of times online and the winning teams garner millions of dollars' worth of prize money.
  • You can even get a Burberry outfit in HoK, as part of a collaboration released this week.

HoK generally has a very balanced gender ratio among its players compared to traditional desktop MOBA games: As of 2017, third-party analysts said women made up 54% of HoK's players. (That's the latest data that's available.)

  • Why? The wide adoption of smartphones in China has democratized access to gaming. Some features of HoK, such as shorter session times and stronger social interactions, are also designed to pull in female players who weren't traditionally gaming enthusiasts, analyst Lisa Cosmas Hanson of Niko Partners told Protocol.
  • Yet gender bias still runs wild in HoK. Female gamers are often looked down upon and mocked. Gamers, mostly men, sometimes cite (unsubstantiated) reasons like biological differences and societal acceptance to argue why men are "more suitable" for esports.

In stark contrast, the competitive scene of HoK is almost entirely male. In the six-year history of its top-level championship, just one female player took to the stage, and only for one game.

Team Fire is hoping to change that. Created last October, it's the first mobile esports club for women in China playing on a professional level. Team Fire's founder Linda Zhang, a seasoned marketing specialist who entered the esports industry in 2018, told Protocol that she sensed a shift in market interest for female players in 2020 and decided to build the team.

  • Tencent is on board with the idea of promoting female representation in its esports games. It organized an all-female HoK championship in 2020 and helped Team Fire recruit its players.
  • Nonetheless, recruiting competitive players has proved to be difficult. Zhang told Protocol that of the 10,000 applications received, only about five candidates emerged with competition-level potential.
  • As a result, Team Fire opted for a hybrid model: For the spring tournament, it registered four female players and five male players. The team will stay mixed-gender until they have trained enough female players.

The team's success has been mixed so far. Currently, Team Fire is participating in the spring tournament of HoK's minor league. On March 12, it made history as the first team with more than one female player to have won in a HoK tournament game.

  • However, there's been no fairy-tale ending: Since its first win, Team Fire has dropped six games in a row. Its chances of entering the major leagues are now minimal.
  • The club is finding itself in an uphill battle, fighting not just the gaps in its skills as a new team, but also a business and cultural environment that has been hostile to female gamers for decades.

Looking back, it's not surprising that a female esports team emerged in China. Every few years, a new team profile in English or Chinese would pop up, hoping to take a new generation of female gamers to the top.

  • Before Team Fire, there were Rare Element Girls, Twin Flower Girls, Love Laughing Girls… Then, as the initial buzz has faded away, so have these teams.
  • In China, championships for female players are few, cash rewards are low and not enough investors bother to fund training for an all-female team. The result is a vicious cycle.
  • "If there are more tournaments and teams for females, that section of the market will grow too," said Cosmas Hanson. "As with all sports competitions in history, it seems like the initial path was laid for males, and females march along after."

So Team Fire still has much ahead of it. "For traditional esports clubs, their only goal is to win the games. But for our club, you can expect that some games are just un-winnable," Zhang said. That means a big part of her job is just convincing her players, male and female, that it's the long game that counts.

  • The team's best — in fact, likely China's best — female HoK player, Guo Yujun, is also grappling with her new reality, she told Protocol: "I don't know how to express it. There is still some inequality, but much less now than before … There are many worries, but the only solution is to improve my skills first."
— Zeyi Yang

Overheard

  • "50% day-to-day sales bump mid week suuuuuuuuure feels like a stimmy-check bump to me." —Rust's Anton Hand said VR sales are booming, and the stimulus checks might be the culprit.
  • "It's important you hear this from me directly: The allegations of harassment, discrimination, and retaliation involving me are not true." —Riot CEO Nicolo Laurent denied Sharon O'Donnell's claims of harassment, as a third-party investigation commissioned by Riot found no evidence of wrongdoing. Alienware had already cut ties with Riot over the allegations, though.
  • "You have more neurons of your brain dedicated to controlling your wrist than any other parts of your body." —Facebook Reality Labs' Thomas Reardon explained to Protocol why the company's building wristbands capable of measuring electrical signals sent from the brain to the hand to control its future AR glasses products.

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Shakeel Hashim

Look out for

VOs getting easier by the minute

AI-generated voiceover startups have been percolating for a while now, but we might finally be on the cusp of them hitting the mainstream. Shreyas Nivas, CEO of the excellently named Replica Studios, said: "In a few years, there's going to be a very high chance that if you hear a voice, it's going to be computer-generated." Listening to the demos on Replica's site, that might be plausible. Though they're not quite perfect, the AIs are pretty darn good. Maybe Peter Dinklage-esque debacles are behind us.

Shakeel Hashim

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