It's easy to look at eSports as another male-dominated section of the gaming industry, and by extension the tech sector. And it's true that the biggest winners of the most spectacular tournaments are typically young males. But there are signs that change is happening.
Nothing about competitive gaming is geared towards it being a discipline where men have a natural advantage – if you have fingers and thumbs, a great relationship with your teammates, the commitment to get ahead in high-pressure environments, and that small quality of being good at the game in question, there's no reason why anyone, of any gender, can't be a contender. At the recent Intel Extreme Masters event in Katowice, all-women Counter-Strike: Global Offensive teams battled for a not-inconsiderable prize pot of $30,000, with the mixed-nationalities WRTP (We Run This Place) defeating CLG Red (Counter Logic Gaming) to take first place.
It sounds like a lot, but WRTP's prize money's not up there with what the best all-male teams are winning. For example, the CS:GO champions at IEM Katowice, Fnatic, pocketed over $100,000. But it's clear progress, and provides hope that gender equality in representation and reward in eSports can be achieved before long.
One area of eSports where there certainly is a high-profile woman doing her thing is in commentary, or shoutcasting. Lauren "Pansy" Scott is a 25-year-old Brit living abroad, in Cologne, Germany, where she's a regular on ESL coverage of World of Tanks, Battlefield 4 and CS:GO. She's been fascinated by competitive first-person shooters since 2003's Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory. Playing the Splash Damage-made game led to her attending events in Enschede, Netherlands, though those gatherings were so very far from the massive eSports tournaments we see today.
"Trying to convince my mum that it was a good idea to send 15-year-old me to Holland to play video games with a group of guys I met online was a tough one," Lauren tells me, on a break from her incredibly busy schedule. "But I made it there, and it got me hooked. But these weren't the kind of events we see today, with the whole stadium style and huge audience, massive prize pools and so on – this was far more turn up and maybe have a pint or two as your prize in the end. I was attending as a player, and I eventually went over to play Call of Duty 4 Promod, where I joined a 'professional' team and ended up picking up some decent results, almost making a name for myself."
Lauren's future wasn't to be in play itself, though, and she very naturally moved from active participation to animated observation. "Back then, there really was no money to support gaming as a living, and it was creating a huge rift between me and my family. I ended up moving out of my mum's, then my dad's, before my nan took me in. I had to get a job to support myself, as my family really didn't see gaming as being viable, but antisocial working hours caused more than a few problems. So, I eventually moved into shoutcasting for Call of Duty 4 – I already had a bit of a reputation for playing the game, and 'casting was a lot less draining on my time.
"Back then, Twitch was in its early days, so you'd have maybe 500 people tuning into a game. But years later, I received an offer from ESL to come on board as a multi-game 'caster, full time. I'd previously covered a few events for them as a freelancer, and I didn't totally fuck it up, so they wanted to give me a chance. What with my family issues at the time, I jumped on."
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Audience figures for eSports have rocketed. IEM 2015 attracted over a million online viewers concurrently, setting new Twitch records in the process. A year earlier, the Dota 2 International tournament registered over 20 million total viewers, while the League of Legends season finals achieved 32 million in late 2013. That's some way from a few hundred logging on to listen to Lauren calling the various plays of a CS:GO encounter.
"Seeing the eSports scene get to this size, it's everything to me. At the time, to walk away from my family, when we weren't on the best terms, was terrifying. So now it's good to be able to tell them that I'm doing great out here, and that all those years of me being a pain in the ass and being kicked out of the house were for something. I'm utterly proud of what we've achieved, now people like me are commentating to hundreds of thousands of people. I'm always a little nervous, because I don't want to fail at this point, having given up so much for it – but it's all worth it when you do events like the CS:GO coverage at ESL One Cologne, in a stadium, and people are rapturous for a game that I've loved for years.
"Outside of the live events, the huge stadiums, we don't really see the scale of the online audience that's watching. But I guess that's a blessing sometimes, as if you really thought about how many people were listening to you, you would end up utterly bricking it."
Just like commentators in any form of sport, keeping abreast of game developments and constantly adding to her many layers of research and experience keeps Lauren at the top of her profession.
"I'm a prep-heavy 'caster," she says, "and I always have been. I like to be able to depend on my notes, in case my brain just goes to mush. So, for any given event I'll create a spreadsheet that works on several functions, providing me with information that will help me be ready for a delay, or a fill that I might need to deal with. I'll have some simple information on there – the name of the event, the teams, the prize money and the structure of the games. But I'll have more in-depth stuff there, too, regarding recent performances, head-to-head results, players to note and map-specific results. Then there's my own hand-written notes, which are more about what I've recently observed within specific teams. I'll know about impact players, and what makes them come away with the best results. At the biggest events, I'll look for over-arching storylines that we can discuss, and see how they play out over the course of the tournament."
But even then, Lauren's not finished: "After all the written prep, I'll try to practice 'casting the specific teams that we have coming up, so I can put my prep into action and see how it flows by reviewing myself afterwards, by listening back to myself. Now, this is just what I do – I'm not sure if other 'casters go into such detail in CS:GO. Most of them are more than comfortable to do it off the back of just what they've recently seen."
This level of commitment has made Lauren known to an audience of millions. I wonder what it's like for her nowadays, when she gets on with socialising, with just being a woman in her mid-20s, knowing that she could well be recognised on any given evening out.
"I never really let my personal life and my work combine that much, but it's getting harder to separate the two. For example, on New Year's Eve I was out in Harrow on the Hill, which is as delightful as it sounds, doing the usual rounds of the old student pubs we used to frequent before I moved to Cologne. In one bar, the tender said to me: 'Are you one of those commentators?' My friends found it wonderfully impressive, but it's also hilarious. It's still a little strange for me, to be recognized, as I can be a bit of an idiot on a night out, as most of us can be. I can forget that I have to keep tabs on what I'm doing, as I'm not just a random girl with a gin and tonic, now."
I get the impression that breaks from her career are good for Lauren, despite the risk of being spotted and hassled for an autograph or photo. She tells me that 'casting is "draining on your personal life, and your time outside of gaming", and that 2016 has "already been insane with travelling and work, so I'm excited about the prospect of a break". But what's even clearer from our exchanges is that she's completely in love with what she does, with her living, and how she's part of a culture that continues to grow fantastically. "I constantly want to improve. I think the moment I'm 'content' with my commentating, that's the moment I'm out of it. When it comes to my craft, I want to do the best I can."
Despite the evolution of eSports, its position now as a gaming sector that myriad multinational companies want to get involved in, and media outlets the world over have begun to take very seriously indeed, Lauren's sure that it has a way to go before being appreciated in the same way as "traditional" sports.
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"I don't think we will ever get the global access of traditional sports, or at least for a long time yet. You have to think of it in this way: most people during school would at least play some form of sport, right, so having to suffer through those horrid attempts at playing netball or rounders, if you were truly unlucky, means that down the line you may accidentally find yourself watching one of these sports, with understanding already in mind. The generation that we have viewing the highest echelons of gaming already has that understanding, from their own personal gaming experience, and maybe in the years ahead that'll grow, and we will find a greater viewer base coming in.
"I do, however, believe we could do more work from the production side of things. I was watching the ESL ESEA Pro League Invitational with my aunt, who has absolutely no idea of eSports, while we were out in Dubai. She started to get the hang of it pretty quickly once she noticed the players and how player cams actually showed who was on the screen at the right time. This made it much easier to understand that these are real people doing real things, and get a concept of the whole picture.
"That just a small factor, though. At the end of the day, our viewers are already growing naturally, but I think there are small things we can put into place that could certainly help maybe the 'older' generations have a chance of finding eSports accessible."
Anyone wanting to sample eSports for a first time, with Lauren's 'casting assisting their education, can tune into the CS:GO Pro League finals in London on May 12th-15th. More information at the official ESL website.
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