This is the unexpected future of gaming: Four young Hong Kong women casually dressed in oversize hoodies, each holding a stuffed panda and smiling timidly into the camera. Gaming, as with many sports, has long been dominated by male players. But these women are members of PandaCute, Hong Kong’s first all-female gaming team, founded in October 2016, and — despite the silly name — they’re part of a revolution in Asia’s gaming industry.
PandaCute is in good company. LLG and NTG are both Shanghai-based all-female gaming teams, founded in 2015. In 2018, Aqua joined IM Athena in the ranks of exclusively female gaming groups in South Korea. Paving the way for the success of these groups is a trend toward equal pay opportunities for women in the gaming industry in East Asia. In 2017, PandaCute signed a three-year contract to become full-time professional gamers, and others have followed suit.
The rise of women in Asia’s gaming industry is no accident — and, in part, it’s fan driven. In fact …
South Korea and China have the highest percentage of hard-core female esports fans in the world, far more than France, the U.K. or the U.S.
Women make up 32 percent of South Korea’s longtime esports fan base, and 30 percent of China’s. Those numbers, from a March 2019 Nielsen Esports Fan Insights survey, stand in stark contrast to the rest of the world. Globally, 22 percent of those who have been esports fans more than four years are women. In France, it’s 23 percent, and in the U.K. 25 percent. Meanwhile, the U.S. lags dismally with just 17 percent. While exact analogous statistics on Asia’s female esports fans in past years weren’t collected, comparisons with older figures indicate that the female fan base has grown.
Nielsen’s survey also suggests the way female spectators interact with esports differs from the way men do. Women appear to be more drawn to the social aspect of gaming, with 21 percent of women watching esports to connect and socialize with fellow fans, compared with 19 percent of men. A far greater number of men watch esports to learn tips and tricks — 42 percent compared with 34 percent of women — and to become better gamers (38 percent of men versus 28 percent of women). In line with this, female spectators say they far prefer watching esports via live rather than prerecorded feeds.
While the rise in all-female professional gaming teams in East Asia is significant, the real drive is further down the chain — starting more generally with creators of gaming content through streaming. A 2018 study by PayPal found that China is the most likely place for female gaming content creators to be paid. In fact, they are more likely to be paid than their male counterparts, with only 14 percent of women in the field going unpaid for their work compared to 22 percent of men.
In the U.S., the figures tell a different story, with 47 percent of female content creators going unpaid compared with 24 percent of male content creators. Similarlarly, in Canada, 61 percent of women and 38 percent of men aren’t compensated. Globally, on average, 43 percent of women and 38 percent of men aren’t paid for their work in creating gaming content.
As more women are attracted to esports at a young age, they face a better chance of breaking into the upper echelons of the industry further down the line.
Gaming markets in China and South Korea have strong platforms from which to promote gender equality. The most important is accessibility, with female gamers across the globe preferring mobile platforms, which particularly thrive in East Asia. China not only has the largest mobile gaming market in the world; 57 percent of its gaming industry also was composed of mobile games as of 2018.
China and South Korea may be way ahead of the curve in narrowing gaming’s gender gap, but it reflects a general global trend, albeit a much slower-moving one. A 2016 study, for example, found that just 15 percent of U.S. esports viewers were female, compared to 17 percent now.
A history of gender bias in gaming still plagues the upper echelons of esports, says Kale Morton, an esports commentator and Australia-based analyst. “To become the best is pretty much impossible unless you have been working on your skills as a gamer from a very young age,” he says, and with young girls being told video games are for boys, they have historically been deprived of such opportunities. But, Morton says, those attitudes are changing. As more women are attracted to esports at a young age, they face a better chance of breaking into the upper echelons of the industry further down the line.
The Nielsen survey also suggests that gender parity is greater in markets with a longer history of organized esports industries and that newly engaged spectators in these markets are increasingly likely to be women. With female audiences in China and South Korea larger than those anywhere else in the world, they are in prime position to continue to lead gaming’s female revolution at a grass-roots level … and to begin to change the outlook further up the ladder.