The topic of female professional players in esports provokes discussion and debate whenever it is raised, yet so often seems to circle around the same basic premises and logic, regardless of how overly reductive or economically ignorant they prove to be. The basic gist tends to go that the female pros are not as skilled and thus don’t deserve to be paid as much or any salary, relative to male semi-pros who are better at the game but don’t make as much or any salary for their efforts.
Such complaints can all be quickly and easily argued away, but the implication is rarely explored of how the same logic pans out when taken beyond merely contrasting female pros with male pros. Apply the same rationale to the wider professional scene and you’ll soon discover such logic argues against high salaries for North American CS:GO players, Western LoL and SC2 pros and even all major esports games themselves.
Scrill for skill
With rare exceptions, female professional players in esports have proven to be less skilled and thus accomplished much less in terms of placings in the best open competitions. As such, it’s not difficult to see how some arrive at the simple argument that said female pros don’t “deserve” the salaries they currently earn, on the basis there are much better players, who happen to be male, who make less or no salary at all. The primary problem with that thinking is that it ignores the basic market realities within esports.
Female professional players in a game like CS:GO are not competing against the top level male players in the biggest competitions because they are not good enough to qualify. This a simple fact of the scene at this point in time. So the question initially becomes why they are paid salary at all. The answer is quite a simple one: they are marketable. A quick look around the world of marketing for all products will show that it is littered with women marketing products, especially when the product is for men. This has typically been explained bluntly as the concept that “sex sells”.
In esports, your average player and fan is male. Anyone attempting to point to studies suggesting up to 48% of gamers are female would be advised to investigate the details of said studies further, as they typically skew the definition of the term “gamer” to include your grandmother playing a free game on her mobile phone. That average gamer is also overwhelmingly likely to be heterosexual as well as male. Thus, using women to market to said gamer is both obvious and largely effective.
Would the almost entirely unknown male semi-pro player who is better at the game than any of our female pros be a more effective marketing tool in her place? Clearly that’s not the case and thus said semi-pro cannot command the same kind of salary or endorsement opportunities. The very best professional male players can and do exceed the marketing pull of any of the females in question, so in the vast majority of cases they do make more salary. When the male player is marketed in a commercial he is being marketed for how good he is at the game, in part, and how popular he is, but the female player is being marketed for how good she is at the game – with the best female players in the female scene typically receiving the most endorsement opportunities – and how popular she is too but also the appeal of her sex. Being attractive is marketable, regardless of your sex, and there is a lot more to being marketable than solely sex appeal, including for female pros.
Limited opportunities for a reason
Even if the imagined average semi-pro who is better at the game were marketable he would be competing against other male pros for endorsement opportunities and the appropriate salary that comes along with it. That’s also because the tournament circuit for female CS:GO, to give specific examples, comes out of marketing budgets which are allocated solely for female competition. There is no option to simply lump them in with the prize pool for a male tournament thus increase it or make a separate tournament which is open to all sexes. Without said female tournament and its players, that money will not exist within the esports space.
The big tournament organisers have already pitched for their budgets for open competitions and female competitions end up being a different matter entirely and can even come at the request of big sponsors, who want to display to the world how much they care about women’s empowerment and other such socio-political themes.
You are not arguing over where the sponsors’ funds are to be allocated. That is not up for discussion. Personally, if this money can only exist within our scene for women then I say good for all the women who can get their share of it. We can argue the mentality and thinking behind it all we want, but there are basic facts outside of our control at this time.
The males of CS:GO
Beyond the frankly childish angle of whether females in esports “deserve” their salaries, which are based on concepts like supply and demand anyway, there is the question of whether they make these salaries solely due to being female. “You only make that salary because you’re a woman and if you were a man of the same skill level then you’d make a lot less or nothing at all”, is how the argument is often phrased.
If the logic goes that missharvey, a multiple time women’s world champion in Counter-Strike and one of the most recognisable names in the entire player base outside of the most famous male players in history, only makes her salary due to being female then let’s apply the same logic when comparing male pros. New Team Liquid member and major champion Jake “Stewie” Yip would find himself far below many top European players on a list of the best players in CS:GO, yet earns significantly more salary than a number of those top European players. Does that mean Stewie only earns that salary due to being North American?
No, it is a factor in why he is able to earn at the level he does, a qualifying factor one could say, but that he is one of the most most marketable NA pros and that NA as a region has more sponsorship opportunities and money to be earned, relative to many European countries, is more significant when ranking the factors at play.
Likewise, the Korean team MVP PK makes more salary than some EU MDL (Mountain Dew League) players many reading this article will barely have heard of or care to watch. Is that only because they are Korean? Well, certainly if they were not Korean then they would not make the exact salary they do now, but again they have to be the best within their region, in terms of marketability, and that money would not be available to the EU MDL pro if not given to the Korean, being as how it generated in part due to the home region of the player in question.
The wider world of esports
During StarCraft2’s prime as one of the biggest esports games, from roughly 2011-2012, it was famous that a number of Western male pros earned much more base salary than South Korean male pros who were significantly more skilled than them and who regularly placed ahead of them in big open competitions. That was a mixture of marketability on the part of the players in question and, connected, the earning potential within their region in terms of investment and sponsorship opportunities.
Did HuK only garner his hefty salary, one of the best in the game, during his down year of 2013, because he was North American, as opposed to some better South Korean player few outside of the most hardcore Western fans would know, but who was playing in a region which cared less about SC2 and thus couldn’t generate anywhere the same kind of fan or business interest?
How about the current League of Legends scene? Right now there are players for North American teams in the LCS (League Championship Series) who make much higher salaries than some of the best Korean players. Again, in games like LoL and StarCraft Koreans are significantly better and place higher more frequently in open competitions than Western players. Does Bjergsen only make a larger salary due to playing in North America as opposed to BDD, a superior player at the same position and in the best region in the world but one which was been less able to generate revenue to spend on salary for him?
Look at all the games
Many would and have argued over time about which esports games require the most skill and allow one to best express their ability inside the server. Many would argue a game like CS:GO is more skilled or allows one to express their skill more than a game like League of Legends. Yet there isn’t much of an outcry about the best CS:GO players making much less salary than the likes of Faker, Bjergsen and other such LoL household names. Do those LoL players “only” make that salary due to playing League of Legends? Hopefully the point has been driven home enough that we can rest that rhetorical theme.
This column could have been written on this topic in 20 or 30 years, when the esports industry might be generating massive profits and be a sustainable business opportunity. As it stands right now, the entire esports industry still runs largely on sponsorship dollars. Even the biggest tournaments, teams and players are largely funded in their day-to-day operations by being a part of some bigger company’s marketing budget. Esports is marketing, right now.
The best CS:GO player doesn’t make his salary because of some measurement of his pure skill within the game. If we were to rank the factors leading to his eventual salary they might go something like this:
1. The region the organisation he plays for comes from.
2. The business aptitude of the management figure who negotiates the budget from which his salary comes.
3. The player’s market value – What others will pay for him and thus what you must pay to secure his service
4. How well liked the player is and his general appeal to the audience
5. The player’s success and aptitude for the game – indirectly plays into the above factors
Clearly, there are world champions who are not particularly marketable or from regions with much opportunity to be marketed to the extent of making the best salary. Likewise, there are washed up pros whose game left them years ago but who still command large followings and thus are highly marketable. Without sex or gender entering the equation, though, few see any glaring problem a disparity in earnings between different groups of players and simply accept the status quo. What’s more, there are streamers making much higher salaries, even from teams, than professional players who are much better than them at their game of choice. The general audience seems to be able to grasp why Shroud is a more marketable player than a better but less popular Fortnite or PUBG player.
Female professionals in esports earn their salaries because of who they are and how in demand their skills or other marketable qualities are. In that sense, they are no different than every other professional in the esports industry.