Women in esports compete alongside men in SKYLLA

Bad Monkey Gaming took home first place at the 2015 Intel Challenge Katowice. Provided by Bownik/ESL

Decades ago, gaming might have been considered one of the last remaining boys clubs, especially among industry outsiders. In the past few years, statistical trends show otherwise. As of 2014, more than 52 percent of PC, console and handheld gamers were women (up from 49 percent in 2011), according to the Guardian, the British newspaper. Today, there are as many women playing competitive video games as men. Much of this growth is owed to the impressive strides women have been making in the esports community.

Maria "Remi" Creveling, of the recently disbanded Renegades, became the first female to compete on a professional League of Legends team in the League Championship Series this past winter. StarCraft II's Sasha "Scarlett" Hostyn, known as "Korean Kryptonite" and "the Queen of Blades," has earned more than $100,000 in prize money and placed first in the 2012 World Championship Series. Stephanie "missharvey" Harvey of Counter Logic Gaming Red has won gold in five Electronic Sports World Cups in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive while maintaining a game designer position at Ubisoft.

However, the competitive scene still remains predominantly devoid of top pro female talent. In order to help rectify this, a number of girls-only tournaments have popped up over the years: Intel Challenge Katowice, National ESL: Iron Lady, Copenhagen Games, ESL Female Open, GO North America, the recently announced StarLadder and Esports World Convention Women. But while they act as an important platform for women to compete, they also serve to spotlight the existing skill differentiation between men and women. For many female gamers, it's a crutch they wish they could do without.

Esports has had a complicated history with female-only gaming. Team Siren, immortalized on the Know Your Meme webpage, made waves on Reddit back in 2013 when the women on the team announced their intention to eventually qualify for and compete in the North American League Championship Series. Though the messaging behind the video was admittedly heavy-handed, the response to the video was largely negative. The girls later copped to intentionally filming the promotional material in a cheesy style, but expressed dismay that filmmakers had chosen to portray them in such a negative, clueless manner.

"It was more like us talking about why we played League and why we want to do this," Yoonie, the team's top laner, said in a YouTube video posted after all the community backlash. "Instead, they took little bits and pieces from it and they made it into a video that wasn't really what we wanted it to be."

The girls disbanded after four months, citing internal issues. Some of the women were welcomed back into the community as streamers, but due to the largely negative online media legacy left in Team Siren's wake, no female League teams have tried to follow suit.

Years later, Remi began to compete in the North American League Championship Series and experienced pointed comments about her gender. Though industry professionals largely abstain from this kind of mud-slinging, a vocal minority continues to leave its mark on online forums and social media outlets, discouraging younger women from following in the footsteps of their tougher would-be role models. But this is the nature of women-only branding in almost every industry: It attracts haters from the darkest corners of the Internet.

So how do you solve a problem that has no direct solution? Petya Zheleva, a former pro gamer, believes that to beat them, you have to join them. Zheleva, along with Tom Lemke, the vice president of business at Unikrn, founded grassroots European tournament SKYLLA, a Counter-Strike: Global Offensive tournament that invites pro female teams to compete alongside their male counterparts. Unlike other co-ed tournaments in which women have trouble qualifying due to a skill gap, SKYLLA invites lower-tiered male teams to compete. Over eight months, organizers will host seven tournaments, giving all sides some much-needed practice and exposure.

"This is still the ultimate goal: to foster an environment for women to play competitively," Lemke said. "But at the end of the day, we still needed to deal with the potential backlash in the community. It's a stepping stone, a benchmark for everyone attending. And the response from the community has been very positive so far."

But Zheleva isn't looking to hold hands. In fact, while the men are invited to join, four of the female teams have to go through open qualifiers to participate.

"There is no special treatment. Why is it special treatment?" Zheleva said. "There will always be people [who claim this]. We can't really compromise with everyone. There are as many opinions as there are humans. We're going to keep working on this project to see if it's going to work, if there is a reason to continue to support this community. In the end, it's all in their hands. We can't force them to play in our tournament. We can't force their progress. It's up to them to decide. We're just here to provide the grounds."

According to Lemke, women online have already started responding positively to SKYLLA. Seeing established female gamers compete encourages other women to follow suit. Both Lemke and Zheleva assert that role models are vital to the growth of the female competitive scene.

"This is something I'm very proud of," Lemke said. "People would post online, 'I would like to compete in the SKYLLA tournament. Would someone join me?' Within a couple hours, they'd found their matches and formed a team. This is pure magic."

After a two-month development period and nearly a month of competition, SKYLLA's first champion was crowned. Swedes AK 47, an all-male team, walked away with a grand prize of $1,500 (the prize pool was $2,500). Though the tournament's viewership on Twitch is modest (the number of views just passed 200,000), Zheleva is optimistic about their future growth. The former pro says the tournament had its highest viewership on mixed-gender matches, which bodes well for the future of female esports. Zheleva's team is hoping that SKYLLA can serve as the minor league system for bigger tournaments and that, in a distant future, they can expand their reach to other esports.

"Back in 2005, 2006, when teams started to form their lineups, mixed teams were a fact," Zheleva said. "If this is something that's achievable in a few countries, why is it not achievable for the entire community -- for the entire scene?"