An in-game screenshot from Hearthstone - unsuitable for women? Image: Blizzard
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Men-only pro gaming events ended after everyone points out how ridiculous they are

A Finnish games tournament has raised the strange issue of a gender divide in professional esports - apparently, because the international body wants to be taken seriously.

Professional gaming - or “esports”, to give it its proper term - is one of those significant pop culture things that rarely gets its due in mainstream attention. The video games industry is bigger than Hollywood, and gaming cuts across almost every single demographic that it should probably be surprising that the professional version isn’t more well-regarded.

The International e-Sports Federation is a little like the FIFA of esports, and it’s very keen to establish its credentials as a serious, respectable sport, with athletes and icons and lucrative sponsorship opportunities. To that end it engages in what games journalist Ste Curran accurately described as “cargo cult” impersonations of “real” sports, like signing up to the World Anti-Doping Agency, even if it doesn't entirely make sense for people playing computer games.

One thing that the IeSF decided it really liked about those proper sports was the gender divide. If football and hockey and golf do it, why not us as well?

Karuta, a poster on reddit, linked to this image from the entry requirements for the Hearthstone tournament - it’s an online collectible card game spinoff of World of Warcraft - at the Finnish gaming event Assembly Summer 2014. Highlighted was this sentence: “The participation is only open to male Finnish players.”

Redditors were incredulous (and it takes a lot to get reddit incredulous when it comes to matters of gender equality), as was PC Gamer’s Phil Savage, who went digging. He discovered that, since Assembly Summer 2014 is a qualifier for the IeSF’s global Hearthstone championship, and since that’s male-only the Finnish eSports Federation couldn’t risk a female player taking part and winning, and being unable to qualify for the next round.

The IeSF’s statement was bizarre, too:

The decision to divide male and female competitions was made in accordance with international sports authorities, as part of our effort to promote e-Sports as a legitimate sports."

Yep. The IeSF sees all those other sports sticking to a sex-based division, and decided copying it was the obvious thing to do.

Lest this be seen as merely a 50/50 split, however, it’s also important to make clear that the games open to males (Dota 2, Starcraft 2, Hearthstone, Ultra Street Fighter IV) were different to those open to females (Starcraft 2 and Tekken Tag Tournament 2). It’s completely arbitrary, and notably excludes female entrants from an extremely-popular fighting game. Maybe it was too violent?

Thanks to Savage’s work bringing the issue to attention, the IeSF has now backed down (or “absorbed feedback”, in its own words) - those events that were previously male-only will now be open to all, while those events which were reserved for female-only contestants will remain female-only.

Gender or sex divisions in sports (and the two are usually considered the same by the authorities, which is an entirely terrible issue of another kind) have many defenders, who have many justifications. Take a sport like golf, for example, where female players are given tees that are further forward to compensate for their supposedly weaker swings. As of 2013 the gap between the average driving distance on the men’s tour and women’s tour is about 40 yards (most holes are between 200 and 600 yards long), yet the distribution of average distances off the tee is such that there are many top male players with drives that are shorter than the longest female drives.

Those who argue against mixed golf tournaments point to those few top female golfers, like Annika Sörenstam, who entered male-only tournaments and flopped. Never mind that her stats placed her among the top performers for drive distance and shot accuracy, and that her nerves affected her putting (possibly because she was pursued by cameras and crowds throughout her round) - her failure was seen as further evidence that women cannot compete with him men under the same conditions.

There are all kinds of pressures working against female golfers, holding them back before they ever get to earn the chance to play with men. Its culture is dominated by wealthy, older white men, and cases of discrimination against women who apply to join golf clubs are rife. Augusta, one of the two most prestigious clubs in the world, only began accepting female members last year; the other, the Royal & Ancient in St Andrews, won’t get around to deciding on the issue until September this year.

When a teenage girl starts playing golf she will be taught to expect to be weaker, and will accordingly practice on courses using the shorter tees - and rarely with the experience of competing directly against male players of the same age. Many pro tournaments are technically open to all, but are de facto men-only because the entry requirements involve having a handicap or playing record that is based on past performance on the male tees, barring those who haven't had the opportunity to play that way. The average pro female player earns a fraction what the average male pro player does in tournament winnings, and at the top end of the scale sponsorship deals mean there’s simply no comparison - in 2013, Tiger Woods (who is nothing like the player he used to be) still earned $83m, while the highest-earning female player, Paula Creamer, won $5.3m. She was the 48th highest-earning player in the sport, and the only woman in the top 50. That money pays for further training and travel, of course, as well.

That is, golf and video games have some major similarities: the differences in ability, or interest, between men and women are attributed to a fundamental difference between men and women, and not the cultural handicap that comes from being a woman in a male-dominated industry. Switching from male-only/female-only to open-to-all/female-only is a good move for the IeSF - if they really want to encourage women to get involved, and not to feel alienated in a male-dominated environment, then female-only spaces have to be an option.

Yet it's interesting that the organisation also cited chess as an example of a sport with a gender division, and in a way the IeSF could probably look to it as a vision of what might happen in the future as the sport does achieve respect and recognition. Chess still has to deal with women who would otherwise be excluded by mixed rankings and tournaments, but it is also grappling with the problem of successful female players feeling stymied by the segregated system, as if pushing up against a glass ceiling. Integrate everything and women who cannot commit to chess because of wider societal issues, like childcare, will leave; keep them separate and the best female players will feel unappreciated and patronised.

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue