The gaming market has grown exponentially in recent years, with Asia at the center. Asia’s gaming audience is increasingly diverse—although men still outnumber women in many gaming segments, the gap is quickly narrowing. Year over year growth rates of female gamers significantly outpace average growth rates for all gamers. In 2020, the growth rate for female gamers in Asia was nearly double the average growth rate. Women make up about 40% of gamers in the region, but in key markets like China and Indonesia the gap is much smaller with women comprising nearly half of the total gaming audience. Representation is nearly identical among mobile gamers, but in segments like PC and console gaming there is still some ground to cover. Female esports is important to the bigger picture of Asia’s gaming market as it attracts female players and spectators, and eventually bigger sponsorship earnings. Further, the presence of female esports is not only important to the growth of the overall gaming market but also gender representation in the industry.

Here we highlight the progress women have made in within Asia’s esports scene, as well as the ongoing challenges they face, and how female representation in esports is increasing through the presence of all-female teams and tournaments.

As women have become a larger part of the global gaming audience, they are inviting a broader interpretation of who games should be designed for. Women are playing casual and competitive games. This is supported by David Hedlund’s study on the typology of esports players which shows 36% of competitive players are female. In Niko’s 2020 China Gamer Survey, female gamers’ top titles were competitive games such as League of Legends and PUBG on PC and Honor of Kings and Peacekeeper Elite on mobile. On top of that, women play key roles in shaping the esports industry. For instance, in China, figures such as Pan ‘RURU’ Jie, the CEO of LGD Gaming, has been coined as the Chinese Queen Mother of Esports by bringing the team to earn major esports titles in Dota 2, League of Legends, Honor of Kings, Peacekeeper Elite and CrossFire. A Chinese player, Li ‘VKLiooon’ Xiaomeng won the 2019 Blizzcon Hearthstone Grand Master Globalthe first female champion in the history of Hearthstone tournaments. In Southeast Asia, female esports streamers successfully garner millions of followers, with notable names include Alodia Gosiengfiao (Philippines), Kimi Hime (Indonesia), and Misthy (Vietnam).

As esports predominantly caters to male fans and players, female esports players might feel they don’t belong on the team. All women teams provide opportunity for those who wants to develop and nurture their career in esports. In Southeast Asia, female teams have been growing with teams such as Indonesia’s Belletron Esports—which has more than 200,000 followers on social media—playing a key role in shaping the discourse on female esports activities. Similarly, in 2019, India’s Entity Gaming formed their first all-female esports team called Entity Athena dedicated to providing opportunity for female gamers.

The growth and expansion of female esports in Asia has also resulted in the proliferation of all-female tournaments. This is not only an opportunity of those who are players of esports but also sponsors to widen their target audience. In 2020, Vietnam has held their first all women PUBG Championship. On a regional level, Zeppeto held Point Blank Southeast Asia Ladies Tournament Season One and Two with a total prize pool of USD10,000 (Source: Niko Partners Asia Esports Tracker). One of the most prominent female esports organizations in Asia is the Singapore’s Female Esports League (FSL). Founded in 2012, the organization has reached millions. This year, FSL is holding their eight months long Valorant tournament from March to October. Furthermore, one of the most significant efforts that can be seen is the addition of women category to the 2021 SEA Games League of Legends: Wild Rift medal event, although this doesn’t mean female players can’t participate in other categories.

While women account for nearly half of total gamers in China, they are still underrepresented in the professional esports scene. Mobile esports is one area where we expect esports to grow for women in China, as more players are gravitating towards core competitive titles such as Honor of Kings. We note that there is a larger female audience at mobile esports events in China than other countries in Asia. We recently saw the formation of the first all-female team for Honor of Kings called Fire Leopard, which will play in the G-League and compete against all male teams. Team Fire Leopard has also worked with Tencent and VSPN to create the first female esports training program, which started at the end of last year. If there are more tournaments and teams for women, that section of the market will grow.

It should be noted that sexism and gender stereotypes are  still prevalent in esports, just as they are in the world of traditional sports. According to Indian scholar Kruthnika N. S., regardless of the skill, female gamers tend to face a higher number of negative responses and accusations. For example, SeYeon “Geguri” Kim, a 21-year-old professional Overwatch player, was falsely accused of using an illegal program to enhance her performance in game. Following the accusations, it was proven that she did not use any performance-enhancing programs (Source: Kruthnika N. S., ”Esports and its Reinforcement of Gender Divides,” Marquette Sports Law Review, Vol. 2, Issue. 2 (2020): 355). The situation can get worse as female streamers are frequently sexualized and harassed. Despite her achievements and important role in her team, former Liyab Hiya captain, Em Dangla, has faced discrimination and harassment for being a female player. Competitor Reia Ayunan was exposed to harassment and toxic behavior from esports fans.  While some victims choose to speak up, knowing it will only lead to further harassment, most others will avoid disclosing their identity as a female to make things easier. Creating more open and welcoming spaces in the world of esports, both through esports operators and regulators addressing harassment and discrimination issues, will create a safer environment for female players to thrive.

As with all sports competitions in history, it seems like the initial path was laid for males, and females march along after. It hasn’t been an easy road, but we are finally starting to see more female gamers enter the professional space and publishers and operators take a more active role in promoting female esports teams and tournaments. Challenges are seen as boundaries meant to be broken. Those already involved in the space are continuing the effort to mainstream female esports, increase gender representation, and broaden the audience for games and esports. Developers that diversify their games and are more inclusive will have a higher chance of attracting and retaining women players, that can eventually turn into pros. As esports becomes more mainstream for women, we will see more sponsors, media coverage and advertising revenue growth.

Salsabila Aziziah, junior analyst for Niko Partners