Women’s Counter-Strike Is Ready For A Breakthrough

Women’s Counter-Strike Is Ready For A Breakthrough

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 zacnyr@gmail.com

Top Photo: We Run This Place (now Team Secret) celebrate with the Intel Challenge trophy, by Kirill Bashkirov for ESL. Source


  • Oh I understand now. At first I was confused why esports would have a women’s team, but I believe chess has a similar system. Hold women’s only events to attract women to an otherwise male-dominated field. I hope the segregation isn’t too widespread and women as competitive as these awesome ladies bring the gender neutral divisions to 50/50 sooner rather than later.

  • 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.

    — Well summarised. Interesting to explore the differences in performance in esports between men and women (if such exists). I guess it’s not as evident as in physical sports such as boxing, athletics etc.

  • Is their seriously not a single female gamer out there good enough in CS:GO to be in a neutral team in the pro tour? I’d rather see that than segregated brackets.

    • I think the segregation is more about encouraging participation, but yes, you’d expect that where physical differences are either less evident or non-existent you’d ultimately end up with mixed teams if participation rates were similar.

      We recently heard about women requiring more sleep than men because their brains work differently (more of the brain is used at any one time) so it would be interesting to see if, given equal participation, representation on teams started reflecting this. Could we start to see the age-old argument that women suck at video games (compared to men) being disproven!?

      • The few teams that have tried competing in the open brackets got stomped out of qualifiers every time, so that seems unlikely atm

  • Me and the GF watched a couple of these games the other week, Emuhleet pulled off some jaw dropping awp shots 😀

  • Im e-sports ignorant but i know we have a womens league and a mens league, do we have an open league?
    Iv seen a few of these girls play on twitch and they have crazy skills, so happy I can stream games at work now

    • No such thing as a males league in e-sports, just so happens that male teams dominate the open leagues.

  • Pokemon tournaments don’t have female only devisions… Do they?

    *Quickly checks*

    No, no, no, they don’t! So why is there a gender wall in this tournament?

    • It is an Open league, but an unfortunate reality that currently there aren’t any women competative enough at the highest level. I think the article implies this but does not implicitly state it. What they are getting at is that by having a women’s league it encourages a larger talent pool and hopefully it will lead to women who can compete with the current best. It is an issue with most competative esports that rely heavily on reflexes and actions per minute style play.

    • Read the article.

      It’s to encourage more women to play. The end goal is that there’d be plenty of women playing in the open league and there’d be no need for women only leagues anymore.

  • I just don’t understand, look at scarlett in SC2. There are literally no female pro sc players, and not only is she the first woman that competed on a high level but she was arguably the best player outside of korea for some time. There was no womens only bracket for SC2. She dedicated herself and struggled for it. She didnt get that handed to her simply because she had a vagina like what CS is doing. Its honestly not doing anything for the girls except showing that there will be special treatment for them which in turn generates hate. I get wanting to attract women into esports, but doing this is just silly. If a girl likes CS or any game they most likely will watch tournies on twitch whether they are women or not. They will improve and get better doing so. But very rarely is someone that has no interest in games going to be on twitch yet alone seeing a random girls tourney, and signing up for the next dreamhack. Thats not going to happen. It creates a wall.

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