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Female gamers on the joys and challenges of video game streaming

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Even though streaming is typically done in a very casual setting, women are expected to look a certain way and are frequently harassed when they do not meet this standard. Illustration by JL JAVIER with photos courtesy of GALAXY RACER, JIA DEE, & GWEN FOSTER

Kelly Welt always opens her streams with a smile. Sometimes, she dresses up in a costume, like a member of the Akatsuki or Paimon from Genshin Impact. She spends the first hour chatting with viewers by reading comments, most of whom are complimenting her looks and asking for shoutouts, and responding to questions like “Have you watched this anime?” or “Can you dress up like a cat girl on tomorrow’s stream?”

Welt is one of many female streamers managed by esports organization Galaxy Racer locally. While she is not new to games, she is fresh in the streamer scene, having just passed the one year mark last May. “Nung nag quarantine na, parang sabi ko, try ko nga kahit phone lang,” she explained. The support had been overwhelmingly positive — her follower count went from 15,000 to one million in only a year. “Sa streaming, everyday is a surprise,” she said.

Netflix and Youtube have seen an increase in daily traffic from users on their desktop. Twitch, which has been predominantly used for video game streaming specifically, is a platform where the behavior of its content creators is to livestream for hours, has seen its viewership spike to 18.6 billion hours watched in 2020. This year, it continues to remain strong, with 2.84 million active viewers. Welt’s main platform is Facebook. In Southeast Asia, Facebook Gaming has become the more popular streaming option because of its accessibility. Out of Facebook’s 2.4 billion active monthly users, around 700 million engage with Facebook Gaming content, either through playing games, watching livestreams, or participating in Facebook group discussions. In the Philippines, in particular, viewership grew by 41% in 2020.

And the numbers show: Facebook Gaming topped their record 291 million hours watched at the beginning of the pandemic this year with 400 million hours to date.

“My experience now [is] no matter what I do, yung feeling na when I go live, meron na kaagad a thousand viewers on average,” described Kayla Heredia. Previously signed under Galaxy Racers and currently signed under Rumble Royale, she exclusively streams Mobile Legends: Bang Bang on Facebook Gaming to her 3.2 million followers. “It doesn’t matter kung magsstay sila, basta they wanna see me for that [or] they wanna see me for that day. It’s a good feeling na may umaabang talaga sa akin,” she said.

As the video game and streaming communities continue to grow, it is important to note that the industry still tends to skew to one gender: males. Even with Welt’s near rapid rise and the success Heredia has seen, the reality is that females are a minority in the games industry worldwide. The percentage of female protagonists in video games are steadily decreasing, with only 6% as of 2019. This male-predominance seeps into the industry itself. Just earlier this year, Activision Blizzard, best known for Call of Duty, was swept up in a lawsuit, resulting in female employees staging a walkout to fight for pay transparency between genders and company-wide equity and diversity.

“At first it was hard because I didn’t know how to present myself to the gaming community. Of course, I’m a girl, and I’m not really that good at the games I play,” said Kitz Cua, another Galaxy Racer streamer who mainly streams League Legends and its mobile counterpart, League of Legends: Wildrift, on Twitch. “I had to rely on my charms,” she says with a laugh, “pero I tried to improve din on the games I play. Nasa average ako, at least hindi naman noob, kasi mahirap na may papasok tapos they call you an e-girl, pabuhat. Ayoko din ng ganun.”

“The first few months of me streaming, they were very [judgmental] because most of the time females cannot play like the guys,” Welt said. “But when you learn how to play, minsan nga, I’m better than my teammates.”

The prevailing gender stereotype that precedes women in gaming is that they are, inherently, less adept at it than their male counterparts. Professional overwatch player Seyeon “Geguri” Kim was baselessly accused of illegally enhancing her performance using a program.

"For me, personally, if I’ve experienced any time of discrimination, it’s usually online or people in chats because, every time there’s a esports event that’s broadcast live, we always have a live chat that an comment in real time what they think,” said Jia Dee, a professional Hearthstone caster who represented the Philippines in the 2019 Southeast Asian Games.

“Especially when I was starting out, there would always be these trolls or people who obviously only feel comfortable saying what they’re saying because they know their face is not attached to it, saying, ‘Oh she’s just there because they want to fill up a quota, what kind of achievements does she have?’, ‘Why are they getting a woman to cast when nobody really knows them?’ When, in reality, everybody has to start somewhere, right?. But there’s really this unspoken notion that, if you’re a woman you should have proven yourself to some extent before you even get an opportunity.”

These expectations extend past skill. Even though streaming is typically done in a very casual setting, women are expected to look a certain way and are frequently harassed when they do not meet this standard. This is not an experience men, who can show up in a T-shirt and hear no complaints, can share.

“As a female in the industry, people will always notice you physically, always, all the time,” Heredia said. “Like if tumaba ka, they will say tumaba ka. If pumayat ka, sasabihin nila namamayat ka kumain ka naman. So either way, they will always judge you on the way you look, kaya andun ‘yung pressure sa pagiging female streamer na kailangan maging okay ‘yung itsura mo. There’s the pressure that you have to play really well tapos you have to look good at the same time.”

“I guess one experience I can talk about is during the SEA games itself,” said Dee. “I’m not trying to bash anybody who organized it or who was part of the media coverage of it, but I mean, I would always be taking way longer in makeup and all of the visual aspects whenever we were going to appear on screen, and things like when we were taking photos, they would ask me to pose not like the usual way that the guys do but maybe something a little more pacute.”

This experience, however, is not universally shared. “I do not think that gender has given me any sort of advantage in terms of what I do,” said Kristine Santamena, a Galaxy Racer streamer who has had an overwhelmingly positive experience since she started. Santamena, who has been a Facebook streamer for three years, has amassed 3.5 million followers. “I believe what draws my audience is the genuineness of my character and the sincere effort of trying to communicate with each and every one of my viewers. For gaining subscribers and receiving stars, I make sure that I make them feel appreciated too so that they will also feel happy with the support they give.”

Gwen Foster, a game developer who founded two studios locally, Chikon Club and Robot Turtle, on top of a full time job with Robot Teddy, shares Santamena’s sentiments regarding the industry. “In the game development industry, it’s still male-dominated. But the thing is, a lot of studios are run by women here in the Philippines,” she said. “A lot of the major studios — you see a lot of women doing the key work.”

Foster theorizes that problems with sexism and sexual harassment are more prevalent in the West compared to locally because of the powerful women in charge in the local games industry. “Actually, yung Chikon Club, when we started, we didn’t realize that we were an all woman team. In the West, that’s such a big deal,” she said. “There’s been isolated incidents of sexual harassment and alleged rape, and I think those have been handled better here than they were at Activision. I’m happy here that, at least the men I’ve interacted with, if you ask them who they really admire in the games industry, they would almost always answer that it’s a woman.”

Thankfully, the gaming landscape seems to be changing everywhere, for everyone. The number of female gamers in Asia is increasing, with 36% of competitive players being female. In China and Korea, one-third of the esports audience are female. This is all in large part to the women in the industry fighting for these changes. Women in Games is an organization filled with activists fighting for equality in the games industry. Within the game development industry itself, Ubisoft has made a statement by appointing a woman VP for Diversity and Inclusion.

Foster says, “Narerecognize ko na ang daming horror stories, at least in the gaming space, and that’s why it’s not that I want to draw a separation, but I think the game development industry is in a better place and is going in a better direction where you know that there’s always one woman making the calls, making the decision, speaking their mind about things, or calling things out. That in itself, I think we’re already doing better than the West. I recognize that I live in a bubble and I can’t possibly know everyone in the games industry. At least, in the bubble I live in, it has always been so respectful and there has always been a sense of equality. I think for the general games industry to actually change for the better, they have to stop treating us as diversity hires and actually just create a safe space for people to thrive and recognize what we’re doing.”

"I think for the general games industry to actually change for the better, they have to stop treating us as diversity hires and actually just create a safe space for people to thrive and recognize what we’re doing.” - Gwen Foster, game developer

“When I started out and when any woman, honestly, in gaming starts out, there is that kind of backlash they might receive,” said Dee. “But as I just continued and proved that I was here on my own merit, people appreciate my casting, less and less of those comments I receive and, most importantly, the moderation of these chats has improved as well — much less tolerance for people who use sexist or hateful speech.”

For local streamers, they’ve learned that those discriminating against them are all bark and no bite, and they’ve learned to focus on the love they have for the communities they’ve built and discovered around streaming games.

“Sometimes, kapag may basher na sinasabi ang pangit mo naman magsalita, kakausapin ko sila at eventually magiging viewer na sila na loyal,” said Heredia.

“If you don’t wanna watch my stream because you think I’m a noob or I’m not really that good, it’s okay to leave diba, tas makikita mo sila nakasupport na hanggang ngayon,” she said. “You have to make them realize that you’re worth watching.”