By Jared Good, Esq.
Although Esports are oft debated on whether they are a true “sport” by the conventional metrics, they still are plagued with the same issues that face the “traditional” sports; namely diversity and inclusion; doping (medicinal and mechanical); and opportunity to compete. The focus of this article will focus on the first main issue, specifically gender and religious inclusion. If I were to ask you to imagine the average esports professional player, a very large percentage would immediately picture an individual that is male and likely between the ages of 15-25ish. This is obviously a largely generalized and gender-norm subscribing view that plays to the idea that only men play video games, which is a very outdated belief as stats taken from 2021 indicate that upwards of 41.5% of video game players in the United States are female.
Religion in video games is another area that has provided contention over the years with how various religious themes are depicted. Admittedly, there is not a hefty discussion of religion involved in the world of esports, but to build the foundation for what role religion plays in the esports sphere, it is necessary to understand the premise of religion in gaming at-large. For years the gaming industry has faced controversy for presentation of real-world issues and ideas in a manner that lays bare the hypocrisy of everyday life, while simultaneously stripping away the façade of eternal goodness and exposing true evils that exist. It’s no wonder that video games are always targeted as evidence of increased violence in society, even when numerous studies have rebuked those findings. Understanding these basic ideas is paramount to addressing issues with religious inclusion.
Gender and Esports Today
As the popularity of video games began to rise through the 1980s, the advent of competitive gaming was almost a foregone conclusion. In the 1990s this came to fruition with the creation of the numerous world championship competitions. Popularity exploded primarily in East Asia at the start, with South Korea becoming the major power in the world of eSports development, a trend that has continued through the past two decades. eSports remains heavily male-dominated sphere, with studies showing “women compose 35% of eSports players, but only 5% of professional players.” Rogstad. Many commentators have argued that this is a symptom of a larger culture of toxicity and masculine hegemony. Think of the current situation that has plagued Activision Blizzard over their alleged “frat boy” workplace, that was allegedly strife with sexual harassment and an almost pseudo-quid-pro-quo culture.
An interesting analysis done by Emily Hayday and Holly Collison looked at a combination of factors to examine how social factors limit access to women in the eSports world. They acknowledge that eSports presents a unique opportunity to create a truly skill-based sporting environment, where physical traits do not play an outsize role, but there are several necessary corrections that must be made. Hayday and Collison reference the existence of “exploitative companies,” “sexism being … accepted … supporting that culture,” and a readily apparent existence of “communities [that] are much more fractured than real life.” Hayday & Collison. In their interviews, they found a common theme of tribalism. Specifically, a respondent stated that “[t]here’s very distinct separate tribes … generally split by game [and] by company …,” which works to divide the existing infrastructure and opportunities, that otherwise could allow for a stronger and more cohesive grouping. Id.
An important avenue to examine is the idea of treatment discrimination within the eSports world as currently exists. Treatment discrimination is defined as “people who are different from the majority in a particular setting, generally are treated more poorly than their majority counterparts.” Darvin et. al. Studies conducted have shown that online interactions between male and female eSports athletes vary widely. Whereas males tend to receive more comments and remarks centered around their performance, females tend to receive far more comments that were objectifying and/or focused on the idea that “gaming  incongruent with feminine identity.” Id.
This discussion segues perfectly to a real-life example of the struggles that female gamers face within the eSports world. Wang ‘BaiZe’ Xinyo made waves as a trailblazer on the eSports circuit, becoming the first woman to compete in a Hearthstone Championship Tour event in 2017. Schelfhout et. al. During the leadup to the finals, BaiZe was actually defeated in the knockout rounds of a qualification tournament in Shanghai, but a visa issue prevented one of the qualifiers from being able to enter the US and BaiZe was awarded an alternate spot. Immediately following her qualification, media attention centered on her presence as a female, rather than as someone genuinely skilled and able to compete on a world stage. Id. BaiZe’s competitors made similar remarks, being able to only offer up that she was a female but nothing about her talents. This balancing act that female gamers face, without question, hampers whether females feel as if they can succeed or even feel included in an otherwise hegemonic male space. BaiZe herself made statements that reaffirmed her sentiment, saying “[m]y opponents joked that they lost to me because they were giving me an easy pass, because I was a woman. Or [they would complain] losing to me (a woman) was too humiliating.” Id. It is not a stretch to say that these sentiments are reflected by female gamers at-large. Given the perpetual view that video games are a male-dominated activity, women who want to participate are required to work twice as hard to earn the same level of respect and respect that would otherwise be easily given to a male player of the same caliber and skill level.
For the eSports to work through the incredibly gendered identity that exists currently, these old institutions and views need to be torn down and replaced with ones that actually reflect the market and statistics.
Intersection of Religion and Video Games
Video games have approached the concept of religion in various ways: having religious identity play a role in the development of a character; religion being an underlying factor that does not play a key in the storyline; or games where religion is mentioned in passing, but is otherwise nonexistent. Admittedly, the world of eSports does not have a large library of literature revolving around the mixture of eSports and religion. But before getting to the eSports portion, it is necessary to discuss religion and video games.
Religion can be easily shown in a video game, with games like Elden Ring having a large emphasis on skills like “holy” with character classes involving religious figures (i.e., nun/priest), to games that only depict religion through the presence of churches/mosques/synagogues and/or religious objects. In an in-depth analysis done on this idea, a set of framework groupings were established that provides great insight.
Game Content: this concept refers to games whose purpose is to instruct about a specific religion or teach characteristics that match desirable trats of one or more religions
Game Context: this concept refers to the environment, symbols, rules, and characteristics (of players and worlds) that represent explicit or implicit religious tones in a game
Game Challenge: this concept refers to the challenges that are presented in a game such as undertaking a god role, being good or evil, and representing characteristics of a religion’s deity (e.g., creating or redeeming)
Player Capital: this concept refers to the moral beliefs, the explicit and implicit feedback from others, and the religious essentials that a player brings to a controller regardless of gameplay
Ferdig. Obviously, this framework is not foolproof, as there could be games that fit more than one category, or some that may not fall into an existing grouping and thus, requires a new category to be established. But, at its base level, it provides a solid way to analyze how the usage of religion in a particular game impacts the gameplay itself.
Another unique aspect of religion and video games, is how the game themselves can act as a pseudo-religion. Given the expansive worlds within most video games, and the freedom of choice/opportunity that is given to a player, a game can give their own religious experience. The existence of a mythic history, heroes with backstories that have religious undertones: whether someone can be “saved” or “redeemed,” or whether their actions make them doomed “to fall.” Boren. Though, it is not the game itself that contributes to a religious sentiment, it’s the custom and ritual that goes into the gaming experience itself. Gaming can create feelings of something beyond the earthly realm, similar to what is experienced by individuals who partake in religion. Does that mean that the game itself is a religion, no, but it can create an almost religious experience for those who partake.
Halo, like Elden Ring, directly incorporates religion into the gameplay with the existence of the “Covenant.” Although at first glance, one would argue that Halo likely wouldn’t have a large religious connotation, given its focus on killing aliens and wholesale violence, but that wouldn’t be the case. Underlying the Covenant’s beliefs, was a focus on the worship of ancient beings called “Forerunners.” The lore entails that “the Forerunners discovered a
way to transcend the physical world and become divine beings by building and activating
seven huge ring-shaped devices called Halos.” Corliss. Religion in video games is incredibly intertwined, even where it otherwise wouldn’t be thought to have a place.
Turning now to how religious beliefs impact an individual’s ability to play video games both casually and in an eSports world. Most gamers who grew up playing video games during the increase capabilities of online lobbies (so Xbox Live circa 2010-2014) can attest to just how toxic the video game subculture can be. There are plenty of stories of individuals being subjected to racial and gendered insults, remarks about one’s sexual orientation/gender identity, or religious hatred. In studies done by the Anti-Defamation League, they found that “53% reported being targeted based on their race, religion, ability, gender identity, sexual orientation or ethnicity.” Weinreb. Specifically, those who were targeted for their religious views, commonly Jewish or Muslims, “19% … report being harassed because of their religious viewpoints.” Id. footnote 126.
eSports has been ripe for instances of racial, homophobic, transphobic and misogynistic scandals over the past several years, but there hasn’t been any specifically directed towards someone because of their religious beliefs. In-fact, in my research, I was only able to find a single article even discussing religion and eSports mixed. The author discusses the goals of a man named Mark Stockhoff, who aims to combine the competition and enjoyment of eSports, with the teachings and community of Christianity. Hickey. His organization works closely with the existing Fellowship of Christian Athletes, to diversify opportunities for kids and young adults, whom may have otherwise not have considered themselves athletes or felt as if they had a community to be a part of.
Although religion hasn’t faced the same extent of instances of harassment or negative treatment, with the type of visibility that has occurred with gender, racial, and sexual orientation/gender identity, this does not mean it is any less important or prevalent. As eSports continues to develop, it will begin to come into contact with issues of rising religious animosity towards individuals of the Jewish and Muslim faiths, and as such, the eSports world will need to determine how to approach these issues and remedy to procure an inclusive and open opportunity for all those that love video games.
Boren, Joshua K., “Playing God: An Analysis of Video Game Religion” (2016). CMC Senior Theses. Paper 1424. http://scholarship.claremont.edu/cmc_theses/1424
Corliss, Vander I., “Gaming with God: A Case for the Study of Religion in Video Games”. Senior Theses, Trinity College, Hartford, CT 2011. Trinity College Digital Repository, https://digitalrepository.trincoll.edu/theses/5
Darvin, Lindsey; Vooris, Ryan; and Mahoney, Tara (2020) “The playing experiences of esport participants: An analysis of treatment discrimination and hostility in esport environments,” Journal of Athlete Development and Experience, DOI: 10.25035/jade.02.01.03
Ferdig, Richard (2014) “Developing a Framework for Understanding the Relationship Between Religion and Videogames,” Heidelburg Journal of Religions on the Internet, https://doi.org/10.11588/rel.2014.0.12158
Hayday, Emily; Collison, Holly (2020) “Exploring the Contested Notion of Social Inclusion and Gender Inclusivity within eSport Spaces,” Sport for Development: Opening Transdisciplinary and Intersectoral Perspectives, https://doi.org/10.17645/si.v8i3.2755
Hickey, Brad (2020) “Digital Distraction or Digital Discipleship: Esports and Christian Life,” In All Things, https://inallthings.org/digital-distraction-or-digital-discipleship-esports-and-christian-life/
Rogstad, Egil (2022) “Gender in eSports research: a literature review,” European Journal for Sport and Society, 19:3, 195-213, DOI: 10.1080/16138171.2021.1930941
Schelfhout, Sam; Bowers, Matthew; Hao, Y. Andrew (2019) “Balancing Gender Identity and Gamer Identity: Gender Issues Faced by Wang ‘BaiZe’ Xinyu at the 2017 Hearthstone Summer Championship,” SAGE Journals, https://doi.org/10.17645/si.v8i3.2755
Weinreb, Brandon I. (2021) “Esports and Harassment: Analyzing Player Protections in a Hostile Work Environment,”California Western Law Review: Vol. 57 : No. 2 , Article 14.