A League of Their Own: Women’s Esports in Southeast Asia

In a 2017 interview with ESPN, Korean Overwatch League star Kim “Geguri” Se-Yeon described wanting to disguise her voice with a modulator so that male players would team up with her. This is just one example of the ongoing struggles faced by women in esports, in addition to far less prize money, fewer opportunities, and the ongoing tedium of dealing with trolls and misogynists. 

Outside of regions where esports is a recognized career, like South Korea, the field is still coming into its own. And while women face challenges entering the male-dominated world of competitive gaming no matter where they are, women in some parts of Southeast Asia have to deal with the specific struggles of taking on a still-novel career path.

But as societal expectations change — glacially, incrementally, painfully — women in Southeast Asia are finally finding a place in competitive gaming, even if it has to be in a league of their own.

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A Southeast Asian Perspective

Esports groups in Southeast Asia have been quietly working on increasing female visibility in a traditionally male-dominated industry. The gender divide is still dismal on a competitive level, but women and esports aren’t exactly a new combination for players in the region, thanks to the tireless work of organizations like Singapore’s Female Esports League (FSL). Women have been putting in the work, quietly gathering accolades, and nurturing all-female competitive teams, albeit in less flashy roles. Players like Dawn “pinksheep” Yang and Cynthia “w4ndeRz” Rose Santa Maria helped to lay the groundwork for future Singaporean women gamers.

Today, we have Tammy “Furryfish” Tang, the 35 year-old founder of FSL, who has been paving the way for young women in the esports world since the mid-2000s. Tang is a professional gaming veteran, and runs FSL with her friend and ex-teammate, Dota streamer/player Kimberlyn “Kimchi” See. Tang, long retired from the competitive world, is also one of the co-founders of Asterisk*, a Singapore-based women’s gaming organisation.

FSL started as a grassroots one-woman show, but today, it has a daily reach of nearly six million. Surprisingly, most of FSL’s core audience demographic is men — a whopping 69 percent of their viewership. The league’s top game is Mobile Legends Bang Bang, a rabidly popular MOBA in Asia, but they also have League of Legends and Dota 2 teams. In 2019, the league was snapped up by a esports consulting firm, SelectStart, which allowed Tang to take things to the next level. FSL currently has 144 teams in nine different countries across Southeast Asia. But there’s still a pronounced cultural divide between esports in the east and west— for instance, in 2017, FSL held a tournament in North America and only managed to get eight individual women players. Instead of team matches, they had to play 1v1.

Singapore is a little behind the rest of the region when it comes to esports. Despite its image as a forward-thinking bastion of modernity, it’s still conservative when it comes to gender roles and “respectable” career paths. In recent years, the government has started to pay more attention to gaming as a way to engage with younger generations. But Indonesia, Philippines, and Malaysia all have established esports circuits, as well as far bigger populations to draw talent from. Japan and Korea exist in their own highly-developed bubbles. Some of these countries formally recognize the achievements of their traveling esports teams, like the Thai Embassy in Singapore, which hosted a Thai team that won a Singapore-based competition. In Tang’s experience, no Singaporean ambassador has ever done the same for traveling Singapore teams. 

Nonetheless, institutional support for esports is growing — this year we even have the equivalent of an esports summer camp that focuses on community-building and mentoring. And as more women engage with esports and gaming careers, changing demographics are altering the face of this traditionally male space. For Jayf Soh, head of Singaporean esports organization Resurgence, the lack of competitive women players is partly about reach. “The existing infrastructure within the country makes it difficult to reach players in their prime,” he says, citing the 17-to-21 age bracket as prime time for esports. “When people realise that esports is something they can do, they are often behind the curve in terms of experience and age… perception is a large part of why many female gamers don’t realise that esports is a route they can pursue, let alone commit their full attention to.”

Nonetheless, Amanda “Badabing” Lim, a streamer for Resurgence, is optimistic about the future: “The high points are when organisations, like Resurgence, believe in small streamers like myself and want to push us further.”  

Following the Female Esports League

This is my first foray into the world of competitive mobile gaming, but I have a Tang, a veteran guide at my side. When we meet, she tells me encouraging anecdotes about past competitions, like when one heavily pregnant League of Legends player flew in from the Philippines, or when a visiting Thai team included someone’s grandfather who tagged along as a one-man cheer squad; the team in question ended up winning the competition, improving steadily from match to match. 

I get to meet a handful of regional teams at a welcome lunch for FSL’s Elite Mobile Legends tournament. We convene at Boon Tong Kee, a legendary Singaporean restaurant known for our unofficial national dish: Hainanese chicken rice. In one corner is the Bren Esports team, Victress, from the Philippines. As part of the Bren Esports machine, Victress has the most polished branding and marketing efforts of the lot — a cameraman hovers near Victress captain, Lou, as she prepares to shoot a video. There’s the fairly intimidating SFI Queen squad from Indonesia, the biggest group of the four teams, complete with managers and assorted crew. Myanmar’s Venus Vixens are polite, soft-spoken, and mostly keep to themselves. Fashionably late to the party is Team Grumpy, a brand-new Singapore-Malaysian joint effort that only met for the first time two weeks before the competition. 

On the final day of the tournament, Team Grumpy resurrects itself from a one-and-a-half-day losing streak to seize the championship title, and the modest cash prize of $1,000. This definitely isn’t about the money, but building credibility for future tournaments. On the whole, women’s tournament prize money doesn’t even approach the numbers awarded to male players. Male Dota players like Kuro “KuroKy” Takhasomi bag millions per game, while the top-earning female esports player in the world, StarCraft 2’s Sasha “Scarlett” Hostyn, has earned a little over $330,000. 

Millions aside, esports is a full-fledged ecosystem, and being involved in the business doesn’t necessarily mean competing and winning money. As Tang points out, there are marshalls, casters, organizers, streamers, and other support roles required to make these tournaments happen, and plenty of these people are women. 

But when it comes to top-tier competitive gaming, it’s undoubtedly an old boys club. Tang started FSL in 2012 to change the odds. “If you look at normal statistics, it’s almost equal… there are just as many females playing games,” she said. “The league is meant to overcome that. We want to see female players ascend to that level. They don’t have to play on an all-female team, they can play on mixed teams, they can play solo, whatever. We just want to help them overcome the barriers and get there.”

Deborah “Wolfsbanee” Sim

From LAN Shops to Pro Tournaments

For Tammy Tang, in the beginning it was all about Warcraft. “When I was [ten years old], my friend gave me a Warcraft 2 CD, and I got hooked on that genre,” she recalls. “I remember playing it every night, after I finished my homework, and after dinner.”

As a teen, she worked in her friend’s brother’s LAN shop, back when Singapore didn’t have puritanical regulations against kids wearing school uniforms into what the government viewed as dens of online sloth. “Now when I think back, I realize that my friend’s brother was just paying me to sit there and not do very much,” she says with a smile. “He just let me play.”

In the early 2000s, Tang went to her first gaming event at the Singapore World Trade Centre. It was the Taco Bell Cyberathlete Professional League tournament, when early esports superstar Johnathan “Fatal1ty” Wendel had just gotten his creative deal. “They brought in some big Quake names, and we were just watching a projection on the wall,” she says. 

After helping to form Asterisk*, Tang describes how female gaming group Clan PMS picked up their team and sponsored the captains’ laptops. “This was around 2008, 2009. We were just a Dota team,” she says, “and they gave us like, a thousand dollars. We were like, oh, we’re real now. And they flew us to Paris.”

Competitive Hearthstone player Deborah “Wolfsbanee” Sim is also a child of the LAN era, and agrees that the proliferation of LAN shops — in Singapore and around the region — have helped to shape esports in Southeast Asia. “Competitions with prize pools all mainly started in the LAN shops, as it was one of the easiest places to host,” she explains. 

And with LAN shops, it was definitely all about the guys. In 2008, Sim estimates that the women-to-men gamer ratio was around 1:50. And while that ratio has evened out in the past decade, the gender divide is still real at the competitive level. Sim thinks it’s because “most girls don’t know what type of competition they face in mixed gender tournaments, so some don’t dare to step out and try.” 

Tang, who co-owns a women’s League of Legends team, has more insight into this particular breed of fear. “We were talking about them taking part in one of the top-tier SEA tournaments,” she recounts, “And they were like, ‘No, we don’t want to play. We’re just going to get wrecked.’ But you don’t get good by thinking that way. You need to dare. You need to hunger. You need to want it. If there’s a chance to just play against pro teams, I’d take it.”

Busting Stereotypes

Women are typically expected to be more conflict-averse and friendly than men. “I think what a lot of girls expect is that in a team, all five people must be super best friends,” See notes. “But it’s not like that.” 

On the same issue, Sim says “A long time ago, I actually had the mentality that playing in an all-friends team would create better dynamics, but my first ever competitive female team, we didn’t all start as friends, and were strangers prior to forming the team. We all ended up being able to accept more constructive criticism from each other.”

My parting question for Tang is somewhat inevitable — as Asian women, many of us struggle against the stereotype that we’re non-confrontational, which makes us bad at activities based around conflict. Perhaps this sexist perception in gaming — the assumption that female players are unable to make professional group-based decisions under pressure — is worse for women in Asian cultures? 

“I’m very confrontational,” she laughs. “My husband is totally non-confrontational. So I guess it’s a stereotype.”