The end of March beckons, and with it the sounding of an eSports trumpet. All eyes in the scene will soon turn to Los Angeles for the World Call of Duty Championships, where the best teams battle it out to walk away with the biggest share from a hefty $1 million prize pool. Which, when you think about it, is a lot of money for shooting imaginary guns at imaginary things. It's more money than people get for shooting real guns at real things, but without the icky mess that comes with such behaviour, the kind that even Cillit Bang can't shift.
A million dollars isn't the biggest prize pot in eSports – the DOTA 2 International last year saw players compete for a $10 million pool, seeing winners taking home more per person than what you'd bank from winning the Super Bowl – but it's the largest in Call of Duty, which is about as mainstream as you can get when it comes to western eSports. Call of Duty is the jock of the eSports world, het up on machismo, exhibiting a winning-at-all-costs attitude, with matches played out in scratchy polyester shirts and powered by enough energy drinks to dissolve your liver.
Video games has always been seen as a bland safari full of white males running around shouting at each other between fist bumps, windmill high-fives and "slightly jokey, but not really joking" sharing of YouPorn links. But the demographic expanded from those out-dated perspectives quite some time ago. More women play than ever before (stats, here), and gaming is growing up, diversifying its content, extending its reach and maturing its demographic.
But when it comes to competitive gaming, women are still stuck in the metaphorical kitchen, making sandwiches for all the dudes on stage. Call of Duty seems to be particularly behind the times, with a dearth of notable female participants while other titles seem to be more welcoming of their talents, and have been for some time. You might think that's because CoD is a shooter, and "girls don't like guns", but there are top female players on Halo: Reach (spacey alien guns), Counter Strike: Global Offensive (cartoony mad-cap guns) and surprisingly even Dead or Alive 4, one of the most barely clothed beat 'em ups you can find today. (I know when I get into a scrap my clothes always get in the way. But, annoyingly, if you do strip off, it usually ends the fight by calming the other person down, a bit like putting a towel over a budgie cage.)
We've had years of gender stereotype bullshit shoved down all our throats, like "how to be a real man", "what characteristics women can't help but fall for in a man", or past-it ideas as to why women can't be on the army frontline or play football at the same level as men. (Something about if they fall over then all the other footballers would stop playing and bring them cold compresses and smelling salts? Clearly a match would just take forever to finish).
I know, I know, it's really the fault of us women for having dispositions jovially stitched together out of kittens and macramé owls. A "real" man would have known that kittens and string-like things don't go together. So thank God that video games came along, creating a world in which gender should really be irrelevant as everyone is on a level playing field whatever their genitals, physicality mostly becoming immaterial. I mean, as long as you hit the buttons in the right order, anyone could be a champion.
Perhaps the shortage of female players in CoD is due to its jock-like presentation. When done on a mega scale in the States, the whole thing has a very ESPN/Sports Center vibe, all ties, shouting, slick-back hair and late-night trips to casinos. Women, if they're even around, are generally girlfriends cheering their partners on, work in PR for the events, or are one of the infamous eGirls – the assumed-to-be-groupies cheer squad that attends events.
Alan Brice is a professional eSports commentator, well known on the global CoD scene having attended competitions the world over. He gives me his take on women in CoD: "I was made aware of a few girls [at an event] recently, and I genuinely couldn't believe some of the conversation that was forwarded to me – that they were going to sleep with as many pros as they can, to get their followers up. I hope they weren't being serious."
The problem is that this reputation precedes all girls looking to get into eSports – they most likely want nothing to do with the dicks of the male superstar players, but observers naturally assume all women in the CoD scene are more into that than thrashing the opposition on screen. This does the community, in CoD and beyond into the wider eSports industry, no favours whatsoever, and creates suspicion as to the motives of any girl's attendance of a pro-gaming competition.
Morgan 'Morgz' Ashurst, formerly of the Epsilon eSports team, is one of the few female Call of Duty players to have played both beside and against some of the best in Europe, and she's experienced this prejudice first hand.
"Luckily, people who've been in the scene long enough know that's not the case with me," she tells me. "But for the newcomers… Others see a girl, and they naturally just think, 'Oh that's another eGirl,' and that does make me feel extremely paranoid when I'm at an event."
To be taken seriously in eSports, whatever your sex, you need to practise as much as your peers, dedicating as much time as they do to getting better. But for women, there's another hurdle to get over: the evident gender bias. You have to brush off the online berating and pressure that comes from being a rare female in a male-dominated industry, and competitive environment. Manage that and you, too, can play some Call of Duty. But it's inevitable that many women are put off long before they reach that point.
"Even if I did approach a half-decent team with three guys on it, they wouldn't even get me in games to play with them," adds Ashurst. "They would automatically say no to me, just because of my gender." So even if you do put in the effort, there's every chance that discrimination will still rear its ugly head, preventing you from testing your mettle against male counterparts.
It always strikes me as strange that there should be such opinions in the gaming community towards women. Are these guys just scared that women might beat them at something supposedly "masculine"? Is being beaten by a girl at a video game the slightly more grown-up equivalent of someone pulling down your pants in the playground in front of everyone?
compLexity plays EnVyUs in the 2014 World Championship final
We're consistently missing the opportunity to work together towards a common goal here. Having more women in eSports would legitimise it further by losing the "nerd dude" stereotype, and more women competing could even mean more men coming down to watch – why do you think girls get in free at some clubs? More people in general means bigger prizes, more tournaments, a wider community, and increased opportunities to play against the best – all of which adds up to more diversity and, get this, delicious money for the eSports community. But does the CoD world even want more women?
"I just want to see more people playing, I don't mind if it's male or female," Brice says. "People have asked me this in my career many times: 'How do we get more women into playing?' And my answer is that I just don't know, unless you can have a wide change of attitudes to naturally bring more women into it."
One suggestion is to have more female-only tournaments and teams, but is this counter-productive? "Well, I don't agree with segregation, but I end up playing in female teams, mainly as it is just easier," Ashurst states. So the women who are already involved in eSports are segregating themselves to avoid dealing with prejudice in an already stressful situation. Until attitudes change in Call of Duty circles, and female gamers have a place to play (and fail, sometimes) without fearing the wrath of online abuse, then the male-dominated makeup of the professional CoD player base will never change.
Ashurst feels that she's over the first hurdle, at least; that she's now respected as a player, but it's taken a long time. "It's tough for new people," she says, "but not so bad for me now, as I've pushed to be taken seriously."
Call of Duty is an unstoppable machine. It's a product that shines a light so bright that even its casual fans and outright non-gamers are a bit blinded by it. It's one of the biggest gaming franchises to date – so ideally positioned to lead by example and really push gaming into its next generation of attitudes and player acceptance.
Whether it's through more female tournaments or simply the on-going promotion of healthier online interaction, anything that encourages more people to compete and play can only be a good thing for the CoD community – and, as an extension, eSports as a whole. Perhaps it'd just take a dedicated and open-minded few to really inspire a raft of women to pick up their controllers and open up a can of whoop-ass – or, at the very least, some sick no-scope headshots. They love that shit just as much as anyone born with balls.