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The Fortnite World Cup saw 100 young men battle for $44 million: So where were the women?

Jessie Tu /

Fortnite

Fortnite World Cup winner Kyle ‘Bugha’ Giersdorf. Source: Fortnite's Twitter page.

If you have a son in school, or know a teenage boy, you have probably heard of Fortnite. The survival shooter game is just two years old, but in that time, it has amassed a worldwide player population of 250 million. That’s more than the number of people in Brazil.

Last weekend, the online video game was given one of the world’s most prestigious and coveted sports arenas — the Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York, where the US Open will take place next month — to host the first-ever Fortnite World Cup.

Surprising?

Not when you consider that Fortnite is one of the biggest entertainment brands on the planet. Already in 2019, audience figures for competitive gaming have reached over 450 million people.

Over 10 weeks, 40 million players competed for one of 100 spots to play in the finals of the World Cup, which occurred over three days last weekend. The age range of the players was between 14 and 24, with the average age being 16.

The 100 competitors who qualified were guaranteed prize money of US$50,000 ($73,755). Four took home seven-figure sums.

In front of 16,000 spectators, the finalists battled it out for the biggest prize pool in eSports history: US$30 million.

The tournament was won by 16-year-old Kyle ‘Bugha’ Giersdorf from Pennsylvania, USA, who took home $US3 million.

That’s almost 50% more than Tiger Woods received for winning the Masters in April this year, where Woods scooped US$2.07 million.

The young Fortnite champion earned more than most adults in the developed world earn in an entire lifetime.

Consider this. In July, the winning US soccer team at this year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup had to split US$4 million among their 23 players. That’s just under US$174,000 per player. We live in a world where an adult female sportsperson is paid 5.8% of what a 16-year old boy in front of a screen is paid.

Out of the 100 finalists at the Fortnite World Cup, there was not a single female player, despite the fact Epic estimates women make up 35% of the game’s user base.

Research by the Entertainment Software Association shows 46% of gamers are women.

What does it say about our world that these young men (and it is, exclusively, young men) are getting these real-world rewards, this platform, this recognition, this power?

Money is power and this sort of access to power at such a young age is almost unprecedented.

In fact, eSports revenues are set to hit US$1 billion this year.

Last year, Fortnite made US$2.2 billion for its developer Epic Games and big names are involved. John Costas, former chairman and chief executive officer of UBS Investment Bank (a bank that’s now worth more than US$977 billion) was recently appointed vice-chairman of Team Secret, a global eSports brand that strives to bring together the best players to compete on the world’s biggest stages.

I can’t think of a single female-dominated sport or activity that has this prodigious degree of financial backing. Sure, Fortnite is a ‘children’s video game’, but it has had so much real-world impact.

And women are missing in action.

There are several reasons why females remain underrepresented in Fortnite and the rest of eSports spaces. The culture of ‘hardcore’ video game communities is overwhelmingly dominated by men, and by numbers, can be perceived to be unwelcoming to women.

Women are routinely exposed to rape threats, cyber groping and sexual insults.

“Trash talk is a standard in most online competitive games” journalist Keith Stuart says. Misogyny is part of common online banter. Female players are often belittled and objectified, with their abilities consistently questioned.

They are subjected to verbal abuse and comments are made about their appearances. “I spend quite a bit of my energy just proving that I fit in,” says Clara Reeves, president of game development studio Hipster Whale.

That’s energy boys and young men don’t have to expend.

Sponsorship and marketing of gaming events are male-centric: advertisements are mostly for products such as energy drinks, gaming tools, sportswear and fast foods. “eSports have grown into an economically significant media sport ecosystem,” says Julian Heinz Anton Ströh, author of The eSports Market and eSports Sponsoring.

What happens when females do get involved?

In June of this year, a 15-year-old girl entered a Nintendo game Super Smash Bros tournament in New York. She was hounded and bullied online.

Then there is the Gamergate controversy, a widespread ‘internet culture war’ involving severe and vicious harassment campaigns against female gamers.

I watched a video about the Fortnite World Cup where the only women featured were interviewing the male teenage finalists. Both women were sexualised by the video-makers in a distasteful, derogatory manner.

The lack of female eSport players reflects the imbalance in traditional sports. Many surveys show that girls drop out of competitive sports at 1.5 to two times the rate of boys. The Women’s Sports Foundation cites various reasons, including fewer opportunities, safety issues, social stigma and lack of positive role models. In the world of eSports, the same factors are at play. And, of course, there’s the fact that women’s sports teams are not paid the same as men’s.

Most of the 100 players who competed at the Fortnite World Cup have established a strong following and have a long history of sponsorship from big companies.

Many of the competitors were part of professional teams and were supported with psychologists, nutritionists and other coaching assistance akin to normal sporting teams. I can’t think of a single activity where young girls are given the same platform, and financial and emotional support, as these boys received.

In 2017, tech innovator Eileen Bell said in a piece for Women’s Agenda: “Full gender equality at the professional level will take time to evolve, as eSports is only just gaining recognition as a global game beyond male dominance.”

Let’s hope the near future sees more rapid changes for women wanting to engage in this domain.

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Jessie Tu

Jessie is a Women's Agenda journalist.

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