Shining a light on Women in eSports

Meg Sunshine is an university student and eSport pro gamer who has set up a Women in eSports Network. Through this network and her Diversity and Inclusion Officer role, Meg hopes to help change the toxic culture in this space as well as provide positive role models for upcoming girls and women who want to get into eSports.
Photo of Meg Sunshine

Speaker 1: Welcome to the inclusive growth show with Toby Mildon, future-proofing your business by creating a diverse workplace.

Toby Mildon: Hello there, thank you ever so much for tuning in to this episode of The Inclusive growth show. I’m Toby Mildon, and today I’m joined by Meg Sunshine. Now, I met Meg on LinkedIn, which is where you meet all great people, and we got talking about diversity and inclusion, and Meg has got a really interesting background, and she does some really interesting things around diversity and inclusion in eSports. So Meg, it’s great to have you on the show today. Thank you for joining me.

Meg Sunshine: Thank you for having me on. It’s nice to talk to you again.

Toby Mildon: So Meg, could you just let us know a bit more about who you are, what you do? And what brought you to this point in time? 

Meg Sunshine: Yeah, so it was all very unexpected, it kind of happened quickly, obviously, I played a lot of games when I was younger as a child, but it kind of fizzled out ’cause obviously, as I’m gonna discuss, no one really expects girls to go into professional gaming or however you wanna say it, but at university, I got really into playing in tournaments, which I now play in for six hours a week actually, and I noticed obviously a lot of toxicity in the scene and a lot of lack of female role-models to look up to, so obviously as soon as you get into something, you wanna see someone who’s better than you, who is more successful than you, that you can be inspired by… And I didn’t really have that. So since then, I’ve been really, really involved in initiatives that get women into eSports, ’cause I feel like there’s honestly a huge lack of it… Yeah, and it’s definitely a problem.

Toby Mildon: Absolutely, and you’re at Manchester University… Or in fact, you’ve just graduated, haven’t you? 

Meg Sunshine: Yeah I’m… About to graduate soon.

Toby Mildon: And what is it that you’ve been studying? 

Meg Sunshine: So I study English literature, which I know seems very strange for someone going into eSports, but it did just seem like the natural path for me.

Toby Mildon: That’s cool. So what has your involvement in the Manchester University eSports society been? 

Meg Sunshine: So I’m the Diversity and Inclusions Officer at The University of Manchester E-sport society. I have also recently been elected as president for the remainder of the year…

Toby Mildon: Oh brilliant.

Meg Sunshine: Which is really exciting…

Toby Mildon: Congratulations. [laughter]

Meg Sunshine: Thank you. Yeah, it’s… The University of Manchester’s largest society, so it has over 1600 members in our Discord… And being on the committee had just made me take eSports extremely seriously. And I actually see it as a viable profession now, alongside this, though I started in the society as a player for the University of Manchester. So there are these UK-wide tournaments called NEUL and NSE. I was doing a good six hours a week playing in tournaments, like I said… And I still do to this day…

Toby Mildon: Oh wow.

Meg Sunshine: But when I first joined, I was really, really nervous. I remember drafting a message asking if I could join the team, and I read it over and over again like the million times, ’cause I was just so scared to talk because there’s so many members, but there’s really not a single female member, you could… Or that I could see insight at the time. It’s obviously a very male-dominated hobby to have, and the way that gamers have a reputation of being quite toxic so I was really scared of being ridiculed, there’s a lot of harmful presumptions about female gamers, which are just horrible to be confronted with.

Meg Sunshine: So I didn’t wanna have to go through that, but I learned early on that it was quite a toxic community. At the time I got into gaming, I was… At a very anxious point in life, I was way too scared to join voice chat and any of my games, I had to… I said this in a talk before I did in front of some people talking about women in eSports and I’ve mentioned how I used to have to stare at my wall and muster up the courage to say… “Hi.” In voice chat, nothing special, literally just “Hi.”

Toby Mildon: Yeah.

Meg Sunshine: I was so nervous, I was actually shaking, but I do feel like the exposure to all this discrimination and forcing myself to get involved despite that and speak up for myself has given me thicker skin and more confidence to speak up for myself, but it also just inspired me to seriously wanna help change the gaming community and eSports industry, ’cause I do want it to be more accessible for people.

Toby Mildon: I’m really shocked that that kind of culture has emerged within eSports given it’s a fairly new genre really, isn’t it? 

Meg Sunshine: Yeah, yeah, it is definitely growing, but we’re not growing our ideas with it, clearly it’s staying really rigid, but from this, I did get involved in a company called HOST Salford in Media City. Which is kind of where I was able to really do the Diversity and Inclusion… Route in eSports, so they just built an E-sport studio and alongside it the CEO, Mo Isap, asked if I would co-found a women in eSports network which I thought…

Meg Sunshine: I was so pleased that they were doing that, I remember when they asked me I was just so happy ’cause I was worried, obviously, you see an eSports studio be built and you don’t know where they’re gonna really be going with that, but it was so rewarding and successful ’cause I could combine the hobby of eSports and my passion within that for inclusivity together, and it’s crazy that I went from being too nervous to say hi in the team of five strangers to giving this long speech in front of a room full of important people in eSports about diversity and inclusion. And it just made me realize how far I’ve come through eSports, and I just want the same for other people, Really.

Toby Mildon: Absolutely. And I know that… There are other diversity aspects that we could consider as well, because when I worked at the BBC, I knew somebody who was involved in gaming, and she told me about this organization called Special Effects, which helps disabled people play games by adapting controllers and things like that…

Meg Sunshine: Yeah.

Toby Mildon: So have you got involved in disability inclusion in eSports as well? 

Meg Sunshine: Yeah, I haven’t done as much as I would like to, but I definitely follow it a lot, and I follow Special Effect on LinkedIn and everywhere, I think they’re great. I’ve watched a few documentaries of people who have had the custom set-ups made for them, and it is one of the main reasons that annoys me how eSports isn’t as diverse it should be, because if you think about it, it’s really accessible for everyone. The one thing you need is your brain, you know. It should be accessible for everybody, and just people aren’t making the moves that need to be made to make it like the community that it really could be.

Toby Mildon: Absolutely for disabled people, eSports is a great way to get involved in a competitive sport, because I’ve got a physical disability. I can’t play football, but with the right computer equipment and adaptations, I could get involved in a tournament online or something.

Meg Sunshine: Yeah. I actually used to play a lot of sports. I used to be a proper like gym goer. And then I kind of only really got into eSports when I got randomly diagnosed with adolescent idiopathic scoliosis, but quite severely. And I just got way too scared to play any sports really, ’cause I was worried about making it worse and everything got really painful. So I kind of stopped that altogether, and I missed the community and the social aspect.

Meg Sunshine: I went from having this routine where I felt like I belonged somewhere, and I had something to do every day, to just having no… I felt like I had no purpose, really. So when I discovered gaming and eSports, I kind of felt like I got that part of my life back without having to be in physical pain and force myself to limits that I couldn’t go to. But it kind of does mirror sports obviously it’s like eSports. So I really love it for that.

Toby Mildon: Exactly. So under the right conditions, eSports could create a real sense of belonging, for people and get involved in the community. So given that, why do you think that these inclusion issues have had occurred within the eSports community? 

Meg Sunshine: I do feel like it’s largely self-fulfilling prophecy. There’s this presumption obviously that women aren’t as good as gamers. Some people even say it’s biological, which has obviously been disproven, and this just has no basis to it. But it’s like it impacts their performance. When it’s in your head that you’re bad, your teammates are constantly telling you your bad, it is gonna affect you and the only problem really is that… Women don’t perform as well all the time, but that’s only because they don’t play as much as men do. But I don’t think that this is actually, a coincidence.

Meg Sunshine: I think there’s obviously a reason they’re not playing as much because there’s constant harassment, and it’s just they really do say anything. The anonymity of eSports is also a big problem because obviously if it was real sports, the confrontation, the face-to-face would kind of make you turn it back a bit, but because of the anonymity, they really do say anything. It is horrible. There’s also… The way it’s structured, with the big tournaments, it is still gender divided, which doesn’t really make much sense to me because there are women at the top in every game.

Toby Mildon: Yeah.

Meg Sunshine: But at the same time, there’s like no… There’s no women in the top 300 earners for pro players either. It is really annoying to see because there are so many, so many great female gamers, but they’re just not given the support to break into the industry really, or encouraged by anyone.

Toby Mildon: Yeah, yeah. I mean I suppose… I might be perpetuating a stereotype here, but I’m assuming that a lot of the eSports is played by younger people. And I was hoping that younger people would be a bit more on it when it comes to inclusion and creating fairness within eSports. Is that kind of an incorrect assumption to have? 

Meg Sunshine: It really does depend on the game, I suppose. However, at the top, it does tend to be older people. So I’d say between the ages of 17 and 23 or something like that. But again, it’s not even just the people who are toxic, it’s also the fact that when they are, no one else stands up for it, ’cause they’re like, “Well, this is… It’s not my problem. Why should I say anything?” And that’s always worse because you just feel so unsupported, and then you wanna stop playing because you’re logging in for a hobby, and you’re just getting harassed.

Meg Sunshine: And then that obviously makes you worse than your male counterparts, and then people just say that you’re only bad ’cause you’re a girl. But really, why would you be putting the practice in when it can be so damaging to your mental health to log in and do that. And also it’s difficult to see the end goal because there’s such few female role models there.

Meg Sunshine: A lot of people in the industry compare it to the four-minute mile being broken, no female pro players can feel like they can do it because no one has paved the way for them. And the tournaments obviously being gender divided for whatever reason, they’ve done that for, it means the female tournaments there’s a lot less viewership, so financially, there’s a little less incentive to go into it. It’s much more of a turbulent thing to give up your day job to go pro, which takes anywhere from eight to 14 hours of practice a day when you will still be making dramatically less amount of money than the male pros, even if you’re at the same level.

Toby Mildon: Right. There’s a lot of systemic stuff going on, but it’s kind of perpetuating the problem.

Meg Sunshine: Yeah. That it’s not harmless either the things that people say in voice chats and stuff, because it goes deeper. It’s created this domino effect of all these issues in the eSports community. So I feel like these kids are playing games being toxic, no one’s stopping them. Obviously, there’s not really much parental or external control ’cause it’s quite a personal thing, playing games, people aren’t gonna hear what you’re saying apart from people in the game. And then when they’re suddenly pro players at a very young age, and this is a stereotype, but I know from my experience that a lot of the gamers do tend to be more shy and less sociable.

Meg Sunshine: But then suddenly they’re being praised, they’ve got this god-like status in the community. And I think there have been a lot of instances I’ve seen in the community where the pro players don’t know how to deal with this new fame, and they’re taking advantage of female fans. And there have been lots of instances of sexual harassment and sexual assault just ’cause they get this god-like status that nothing can harm them, and they’re not trained in how to… They are not given much support in how to navigate this, and it just leads to some really bad things.

Toby Mildon: Yeah. It sounds really tricky, and…

Toby Mildon: But as you’re describing that, it was, as you were saying, when eSports players find themselves rise to a certain level of fame. Not knowing how to deal with that, it’s like there was these stories of Love Island contestants not knowing how to deal with their newfound fame or having to… Or knowing how to respond on social media and then getting themselves into all sorts of trouble afterwards. It’s just the same thing is happening online in the digital world as well.

Meg Sunshine: Yeah, definitely, definitely.

Toby Mildon: So what do you think needs to happen to improve diversity and inclusion within eSports? 

Meg Sunshine: So I do think that there is some positive change happening more recently as more people in the community have been speaking up. There was a big scandal recently with Activision Blizzard, which is one of the main game developers, they own a lot of the big games, and a lot of the staff are speaking up about inequalities in there, and sexual harassment and stuff, which then trickled down into the community when women were opening up more about their experiences gaming. However, yeah, no, I’m really hoping for 2022 and onwards that things do change.

Meg Sunshine: There’s been a good example of a ground-breaking positive change in the industry, this big organization called Cloud9 signed an extremely talented all-female Valorant team called Cloud9 White, who they’ve actually assigned them real funding and actual performance coaches with the aim of success as opposed to having a token female team, which creates the illusion of diversity, which is what a lot of organizations have done. So they kind of sign these female teams and then push them to the side and it’s really disheartening ’cause it’s like they’re just there to look pretty and sell merchandise and stuff.

Meg Sunshine: But yeah, instead they’re encouraged to compete and they’ve really been given a platform alongside the male team, the two teams Cloud9 White and Cloud9 Blue, which is the male and female team, they’re more seen as two sides of the same coin as opposed to two completely separate entities that shouldn’t be given the same respect. So the team has been a huge inspiration for others in the community as well, I see people really grinding to get good at games then get into it, they also have none of the female modesty and apologetic attitudes that I feel like are kind of socialized into from birth, which is nice to see the girls on the team are just saying, we’re good and we want competition and we wanna play other male teams.

Toby Mildon: Yeah.

Meg Sunshine: But everyone has to take responsibility, even if you’re not pro in eSports, even just the daily players you’ve got to speak up for other people who are being harassed, and then organizations have to make sure they are being fair about who they hire, because another thing that’s been said by a lot of people in the industry is that they don’t wanna hire women because it would be a distraction for the male players, they don’t want coed teams because they feel like the women would be too distracting and they don’t want romances and stuff, which is…

Toby Mildon: It’s ridiculous.

Meg Sunshine: It’s ridiculous. Especially when in video games, it’s so easy to compare skill levels because it’s usually done by rank to the exact number, and if you watch the game I play, you have a four-digit number, it’s so precise so you can really see that women are performing just as well as the men, so why aren’t there these platforms for them.

Toby Mildon: Yeah, and what do you think needs to happen about tackling that toxic behavior that you mentioned when people don’t call out misogynistic or homophobic remarks and behavior? What do you think needs to happen with regard to that? 

Meg Sunshine: I think that the organizations in the games really need to care more, assign more funding to actually looking at report requests ’cause obviously you can report the other players, but not a lot happens a lot of the time. And it’s happened that a lot of the players who have gone pro now, who obviously getting to that point when they didn’t know they were gonna go pro, they’ve said a lot of things and it’s then resurfaced…

Meg Sunshine: And the organizations just don’t really care at all because as long as they’re getting their money, they can push that to the side when I feel like it should be way more strict. They have so much money, it’s such a growing industry, it’s projected to be $1.8 billion in 2020. 2022, sorry and they’re just not allocating that funding to get more women involved and to punish those who are excluding them from the community and from achieving what they’re capable of.

Toby Mildon: Yeah, so what would you say to these companies? To your mind, the number one reason for why we need to make improvements and why we need to make a eSports more inclusive? 

Meg Sunshine: I feel like they have a lot of emphasis, these companies, on how fun it is to play the game and how you get the sense of community and how that’s really important to them, but they’re not really living up to what they say because not only are they missing out on players, obviously, because a lot of women are deterred from playing the games when it’s such a toxic environment, but they’re missing out on potentially… They’re kind of playing themselves because I know and others know that these women can perform amazingly and be pro players, but they’re really stuck in their ways, it’s quite archaic, and sad to to see, and I think they’re just not emphasizing diversity and inclusion enough, and that they don’t seem to care about it too much.

Toby Mildon: So the question that I ask everybody when they come on this show is, what does inclusive growth mean to you and particularly growth within the eSports community? 

Meg Sunshine: I would say inclusive growth would be the deliberate inclusion of a wide range of people, but with actually good intentions as opposed to, as I said before, using minorities, for example, we see a lot of people using marginalized groups for their own personal growth, which is definitely not inclusive growth.

Meg Sunshine: So you see as a corporation, token people to tick their diversity quota, and once that’s done, they kind of push them to the side, whereas it has to be a genuine collective growth with the genuine intention of equality, no matter how different everyone’s abilities are, like having real honest hope in people and how they’re gonna perform and actually integrating them into a team rather than kind of exploiting that for your personal growth. I feel like there’s a facade of inclusive growth definitely in the eSports community, when really it’s all personal and financial growth with no real want for change.

Toby Mildon: Well, Meg, thank you ever so much for joining me on this episode. If the person listening to us right now wants to reach out to you and talk to you more about diversity and inclusion within eSports, how could they do that? 

Meg Sunshine: Yeah, so LinkedIn is the best way, and then I have my email and everything linked to that, so it’s just my name, Meg Sunshine. Yeah, it would be great to hear from people if anybody wants to talk about it further, or even if you have any general questions about the eSports community in general, yeah.

Toby Mildon: Fantastic. Well, Meg, thank you ever so much for joining me.

Meg Sunshine: Thank you so much.

Toby Mildon: It’s been lovely chatting with you and good luck with all of your eSports tournaments.

Meg Sunshine: Thank you [chuckle]

Toby Mildon: I hope you get to number one. [chuckle] And thank you for tuning in to this episode of the Inclusive Growth Show, hope you enjoyed my conversation with Meg today and lookout for the next episode, which will be coming shortly to one of the podcasting platforms that you listen to. Until then, thanks very much and take care.

Speaker 1: Thank you for listening to the Inclusive Growth Show. For further information and resources from Toby and his team, head on over to our website at Mildon.co.uk.

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