Gabriella Boal, Maxwell Ionno Published

Diversity In Online Gaming: Gender, Race And Money

Angel Garcia plays Valorant with the WVU esports team in March of 2023 on the main campus in Morgantown, West Virginia.
The popularity of esports has exploded in recent years, but access can be limited by issues of gender and socioeconomic status.
Maxwell Ionno/West Virginia University

The audio above originally aired in the May 31, 2023 episode of West Virginia Morning. WVPB reporter Chris Schulz spoke with student Gabriella Boal to discuss this story.


Alexa Rummel, captain of the Rainbow Six Siege team for West Virginia University’s (WVU) Collegiate Gaming Club, sits down to play at her PC, alone in her room, and worries that she will be scrutinized for how she sounds. There are only four female-identifying players across all the varsity esports teams on the campuses in the WVU system.

None of them are on the main campus’s varsity teams.

Esports are competitive, multiplayer video games played at a high level. They have exploded in popularity as a spectator sport in recent years. But barriers to access, primarily gender discrimination and cost, have kept many from competing in the games they love to watch and play.

Women In Esports Gaming

Because esports and digital gaming occur online, players are just names on a screen. Their identities are hidden unless they choose to reveal them by showing their faces or speaking into a microphone. Discrimination or bigotry should not be a big problem for gamers, but women report a fear of revealing their identities because of ridicule and harassment when they attempt to communicate with others during games. According to a study from the website FandomSpot, 93 percent of women who have disguised their gender online do so because they have been sexually harassed while gaming

Rummel said her experiences prior to joining the WVU team were “incredibly toxic” and demoralizing. When asked about the difference she feels when playing Rainbow Six Siege with the team versus on her own, she said it’s a lot more civil.

“Siege ranked can be incredibly toxic and demoralizing if you’re not playing with your friends,” she said. “It’s a great game when you’re having fun and when you’re with a group of friends, but being alone with strangers is nothing compared to being in a squad let alone doing competitive.”

When Rummel is playing the game solo, she avoids using her microphone to avoid harassment from other players.

“It’s hard trying to join a private (non-collegiate) team as a woman in Siege, I think. I’ve been turned away just because they found out I was a girl. I’d do better than half of their current roster and still get turned away,” Rummel said.

Women’s experiences in gaming circles have been subpar overall, even though there are nearly equal numbers of men and women in gaming. Women in Games Argentina, a network for women in gaming, conducted an experiment online where male players used voice modifiers to sound as if they were female players in order to gauge the reactions from the other players on the team. The experiment was called “#SwitchVoices,” and professional male players noted a significant difference in the way they were being treated after turning on a voice modifier. They were met with aggressive verbal harassment. 

This is common for women playing open-mic varieties of games like Valorant, Rainbow Six Siege, Overwatch, Call of Duty, among others, where players in the game are able to freely speak to each other if they wish. 

Companies like “the*gameHERs” are working towards creating a more inclusive space for collegiate female gamers, and tournament organizers are working toward the same goal on the professional level. But in the collegiate sector of esports, women make up only 8.2 percent of players, and only 4 percent of coaches

According to a study by Nicholas Taylor and Bryce Stout from North Carolina State University, club-level esports teams are doing invaluable work towards diversity and inclusion in esports, especially teams that have female-identifying leaders. However, that representation is lacking at the varsity-collegiate level. While the club level of esports on WVU’s main campus has representation, the varsity-collegiate level of the sport on the campus is falling short. 

There are two transgender female players on the WVU Keyser Campus, and two female players on the WVU Tech campus, but there are no women on the esports team at the main West Virginia University campus in Morgantown. The recruitment process for the Morgantown team is not readily available online, nor is the official roster for the team.

In contrast, the two other campuses have their recruitment questionnaires readily available online.

Five people stand in teh line with their arms crossed, bathed in yellow and blue light
Erin Burns, Logan Riggleman, Connor Nichols, Shawn Baker and Rebecca Scott form the WVU Potomac State esports Valorant team.

Rebecca Scott, a WVU Potomac State esports Valorant player, believes that diversity and inclusion in gaming will come from the leadership at the top. 

“I think until we see more equality and more female representation at the executive level, at the decision-making level that we may not see those changes,” she said. The executive level are the major teams and corporations featured in events like VALORANT’s Champions Tour as well as companies like Team SoloMid, 100 Thieves and Team Liquid

Rummel has personal experience with being looked over simply because of her gender. 

“It’s hard trying to join a private (non-collegiate) team as a woman in [Rainbow Six] Siege,” she said. “I’ve been turned away just because they found out I was a girl. I’d do better than half of their current roster and still get turned away.” 

While the number of women in the gaming industry is nearly equal to the number of men, there are few that succeed at the professional level of esports. Dota 2 is the top-earning competitive game for esports. It is a five-versus-five team game, and players have won $235,000,000 since its release, but only 0.002 percent ($6,300) has gone to women. 

The website “Esports Earnings” shows that there are no women in the top 400 esports earners. A trans female player named Sasha Hostyn was the top female esports earner, coming in 452nd place worldwide for the game Starcraft, a single-player game. The next female player on the list was ranked 1010th in earnings worldwide. 

No women have ever won the biggest prizes or trophies for any esport. Currently, no women are competing in the championships that are considered the “biggest.” For example, Valorant Champions is the largest championship for Valorant players, but women have yet to appear there. There is a completely separate championship titled “Game Changers” that only features teams made up of women and marginalized players.

“Women in esports are not present enough, and men are always harassing them. This makes them not want to play the game,” Angel Garcia said. 

Garcia competes at the intercollegiate varsity level on the esports team on the WVU’s Morgantown campus. He noted that college sports that get funding do so because they comply with Title IX, so esports teams on campus are likely to continue at the club level unless things change. 

“It can only grow so much with only men, and that is why it hasn’t gone to that next level because there aren’t enough women involved. Women are the missing link in securing the future growth of college esports,” he said. 

Until the reaction to a woman using her microphone in-game changes for the better, overall representation will not change.

Pay To Play

As Garcia sits down to play Valorant, he is aware that he is the only person of color in the room. He knows from experience that economic disadvantages play a role in the lack of diversity in esports. 

Though gender wasn’t a barrier to entry for Garcia, affordability was. His first console was an Xbox One, an affordable option to get started in esports. Depending on the game in which players compete, gaming setups can be very expensive. The average price of a gaming console can be between $300-$500, and if the game requires a desktop computer (PC), that could have players shelling out thousands of dollars to be able to handle modern games. 

Just like a sports car is faster than a minivan, a high end PC will be faster than your average home computer used for typing emails. Esports athletes require top performing PCs to have the best advantage against their opponents. If they play a game with a new release every year, such as EA Sports’ Madden franchise, it could cost $60-$70 every year to stay up to date. 

From a competitive standpoint, outdated games are worthless since almost all of the playerbase migrates to the new game. Some competitive games can be free to play, which means it costs nothing to download the game and play. But for these games, better services may be locked behind a paywall which can prevent players without the means to upgrade from having a chance to play at higher levels. 

“The main diversity I saw in gaming was really the privilege differences when it comes to having a good set up,” Garcia said.

In Morgantown, WVU game design professor Heather Cole launched a nonprofit organization, MonRiverGames, to be an equalizer by giving access to the game design world. She wants to create a space where disenfranchised groups can experience game creation and the industry on a smaller scale. The hope is to make the space affordable and very accessible to people who maybe can’t experience the large gaming community in their beginning stages of gaming.

“I built this as a launch board or ‘starter’ studio for students and early career professionals. I wanted to make an opportunity exist that our area currently lacks,” Cole said. 

If the organization does what she hopes, it will keep students in the state of West Virginia. 

“Hopefully, with time and our support, independent game studios in the region will grow,” Cole said.  

MonRiverGames is an organization that is trying to solve two problems at once: getting more women involved with gaming, and making it accessible to people who might not have the funds to break into the gaming industry.

The Future Of Collegiate Esports

Esports has been around since the 1970s but has expanded exponentially since 2010. Unlike traditional collegiate sports, which are governed by the NCAA, collegiate esports have no governing body that would advocate for diversity and equality.

The West Virginia University Morgantown Campus esports program is wrapping up its first full year with teams for Rocket League, Valorant and NFL Madden. The current state of the state’s varsity university teams, while having some representation and diversity, suffers in comparison to the club teams at those same institutions. Some collegiate esport teams branch out and add games that have a more gender diverse playerbase once they establish their program and start to grow. 

The University of South Carolina-Sumter’s esports program began with an all-male roster in 2015, but when the team added “Overwatch” to its competitive games, its diversity rate became 50-50. The school now has one of the only programs in the United States that has an even split in its esports programs. 

Josh Steger, director of Esports at West Virginia University, has said he has plans to make a women’s team, but there is nothing in development as of now.