While the explosive growth in popularity for Counter-Strike: Global Offensive has mostly made the Fnatics and the Na'Vis of the world into esports stars, the women's competitive scene has often been an overlooked cornerstone of the game. That's finally starting to change as they some of esports' biggest sponsors and organisations have started to give them serious support.
The announcement last Thursday that Team Secret, winners of the Dota 2 Shanghai Major, are expanding into Counter-Strike with a women's team is an indication of just how fast the landscape is shifting toward greater gender parity.
It's expected now that esports organisations will operate teams across more than one game, and it's no surprise the Team Secret would pursue Counter-Strike at a time when its popularity and viewership are higher than almost any other game. But it is remarkable that Secret chose to recruit the women's Counter-Strike team We Run This Place on the heels of their victory at the Intel Challenge in Katowice.
The new Secret team (formerly WRTP and Games4u) won the Katowice's women's event in absolutely dominant fashion, taking the $US15,000 ($19,723) grand prize without losing a single map. However, the women's tournament was also notable for featuring another instalment of what is becoming one of Counter-Strike's most enjoyable rivalries: CLG Red vs. Team Karma. CLG Red are some of the best-known players in Counter-Strike, a group of veterans whose history in the game stretches back over a decade and includes some of the greatest moments in CS:GO history.
A lot of that history and competition has been invisible to the broader esports world, in part because women's events are so rare. As Heather "sapphiRe" Garozzo, a backup for Team Karma and a Counter-Strike observer (think in-game camerawoman and director) for the ESL explained, it's hard for women's teams to get the opportunity to compete on the big stages.
"Before the Intel Challenge [this month], the last Women's event was in July 2015 at ESWC [Electronic Sports World Cup] Montreal. Women's events are generally few and far in-between," she said.
However, Garozzo added, even the scant few women's events that exist in Counter-Strike have done a lot to make women's Counter-Strike a competitive scene in its own right, one that's unique in esports.
"There is a reason CS:GO has the largest organised women's competitive scene in all of esports; because of the existence of Women's only events since 2003 — something that can't be said for any other esports title."
Despite those successes, and the growing notoriety of women's CS:GO teams, it's striking how many women involved in pro Counter-Strike are conflicted about women's leagues.
At a GDC panel last week on women in esports, CLG Red's Stephanie Harvey explained both the importance and limitations of women-only events.
"Women's tournaments are a stepping-stone," she said, explaining that the overall goal is greater gender representation and parity in competitive CS:GO as a whole. But what women's tournaments do, Harvey said, is "create a more inclusive community. ...It also creates a crucial platform for visibility."
Heather "sapphiRe" Garozzo casting the Intel Challenge at Katowice, by Kirill Bashkirov for ESL. Source
Garozzo is largely in agreement with this line of thinking.
"I do appreciate the sparsity of women's only events. I'm a strong proponent of their existence but also advocate for women competing with and alongside mixed and men's teams. I believe that women's only events have been an incredible stepping stone for promoting the scene, providing a more attainable goal for women to compete on big stages," she said.
"That being said, I don't want to see a day where all leagues and tournament organisers move towards women's only events. This would severely hinder our growth capability, both as individual and as teams. I long for a day where a woman plays and performs well on a tier one or two team, but that day is a while off due to the scene still being drastically smaller than the pool of male competitors."
There's also a cultural shift that will likely need to happen in esports before that day arrives. The Intel Challenge tournament in Katowice required over a dozen moderators to keep Twitch chat from turning into a sewer (and they were only partially successful). As encouraging as women's events are for women who aspire to compete professionally, they also engender a predictable backlash.
What really seems to get under the skin of the women who play Counter-Strike professionally, however, is the notion that somehow they are looking for handouts in an easier competitive environment, and taking prize money away from "more deserving" male players who might be more skilled.
Stephanie "missharvey" Harvey during a post-match interview at Katowice, by Helena Kristiansson for ESL. Source
This is not true, however. The "women's Counter-Strike" is only a formal division at special events. As Harvey pointed out at GDC, most of the time the women's teams are playing in gender neutral events, and they practice in the same public environment that anyone else does.
This is the goal for women's Counter-Strike. As Garozzo said, "One of the most rewarding experiences of my CS:GO career was playing with my female friends on LAN against NaVi and securing 12 rounds on de_dust2. It wasn't a win, but it gave me great joy to even be in the position to play against such a reputable team. I want to see more women experience this feeling.
"In time, it may happen but at current I just want to see growing support and an increasing talent pool of Women's competitors. That all being said, what Intel, Copenhagen Games, and ESWC have done for the women's scene is incredibly appreciated as their support has been vital in bringing more women players and fans of both genders into CS:GO."
All of these tensions between ideals and reality leave women's Counter-Strike in a challenging place. On the one hand, their community can benefit from having women's only tournaments to provide notoriety and inspiration to other women's teams and players. On the other hand, despite the utility of such events right now, a gender-segregated future would represent a disappointment for a women's competitive community that hopes to compete on equal footing.
Rob Zacny is a freelance writer and esports journalist. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Top Photo: We Run This Place (now Team Secret) celebrate with the Intel Challenge trophy, by Kirill Bashkirov for ESL. Source