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The Perfect Storm: Addressing Sexual Harassment in Esports

By Leah Reynolds, M.S., Ed.D., Senior Consultant and Chief Diversity Officer, TNG Consulting

The world of esports has come under the spotlight in recent years for its unprecedented growth into a billion-dollar industry. Unfortunately, with increased popularity comes an increased risk of serious harm, especially for young gamers. Educators, administrators, and families must understand the potential dangers of sexual harassment in esports and implement safeguards to create a more inclusive environment.

Sexual harassment in esports includes unwanted sexual advances, sexual jokes, non-consensual sharing of explicit images or content, cyberstalking, and other behaviors. In addition, problematic behavior in chats and live streaming often spills over outside the game into gaming forums and social media. It even escalates to offline stalking, doxing (acquiring a gamer’s personal contact information), or swatting (sending law enforcement to a gamer’s home). 

The prevalence of sexual harassment in esports is high, regardless of sex or gender. Nonetheless, women in gaming regularly experience sexual harassment, according to The Independent, with female gamers experiencing “aggressive abuse and sometimes even graphic threats of rape and murder from male gamers.” Furthermore, “some 28 percent of female gamers have been sexually harassed by fellow gamers and 40 percent verbally abused by gamers while playing online multiplayer games.” Players as young as ten report receiving rape and death threats. Additionally, individuals with another marginalized identity, such as LGBTQIA students and gamers of color, may experience multi-faceted harassment.

The key element that permits players to harass and threaten one another without much concern as to consequences is anonymity. Anonymity plays a crucial role in online harassment since individuals can hide behind usernames and avatars—this lack of accountability often emboldens harassers to act without fear of repercussions. Tackling this problem requires transparency regarding user identities and stricter community guidelines, which gaming companies must enforce diligently. Some gaming companies have implemented safety precautions like temporary and permanent player bans, in-game language filters, recording or listening to voice chats, and player behavior scores. However, we have yet to see whether these reactive, punitive actions will sufficiently improve gaming culture as an inclusive and safe place for marginalized populations.

Gaming culture becomes increasingly harmful in competitive, multi-player formats. Young Gamers and Gamblers (YGAM) Education Trust’s “She Plays, He Says” report states, “Highly competitive games could be more intensely toxic.” This includes Overwatch, Fortnite, DOTA 2, and League of Legends—precisely the games that K-12 and college institutions offer in their esports leagues.  

Esports leagues are desirable extracurricular activities, as they provide an opportunity to enhance teamwork, communication, and problem-solving skills. Like a physical sport, gaming requires quick reflexes, decision-making, strategy, and tactical skills. In their likeness to physical sports, an increasing number of colleges are finding legitimacy to add esports under the purview of their athletics departments. The College Gazette reports that “there are already 175 U.S. colleges that offer varsity esports programs recognized by the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE).”

While esports offer significant pathways for building community and individual achievement, the risk of harm is higher than schools may realize. The sheer volume of harassing behavior in the gaming milieu has the potential to create a hostile environment that can deter potential competitors and fans from participating in or supporting esports, especially female gamers. In determining whether problematic behavior creates a hostile environment, Title IX Coordinators must consider the following: the ages, maturity levels, and relationships of those involved; the disruption to the educational environment; and whether the behavior contributes to other forms of sex-based harassment, such as escalating to offline behaviors like stalking or retaliation.

Sexual harassment impacts the gaming community, the school, and the larger community. A harassment incident online may cause a student to want to leave campus and matriculate elsewhere. Indeed, administrators must recognize and address that the dangers of sexual harassment in esports extend beyond school walls. Safety education must have multiple touchpoints and be reinforced in all settings. Administrators should:

  1. Implement comprehensive training on digital citizenship, including responsible online behavior and bystander intervention.
  2. Establish clear protocols for reporting and addressing harassment incidents.
  3. Ensure coaches, especially those supervising minors, regularly monitor students’ online communities and platforms while engaging in esports at school.
  4. Implement clear rules such as requiring unique gamer tags (usernames) for school and home use and hiding IP addresses using a service like a VPN.

Parents and caregivers must understand the risks involved with esports participation. Educating themselves on harassment issues and maintaining open communication with their children can empower their young gamers to stand up against harassment when they witness or experience it. Additionally, the onus is on all parents and guardians—regardless of their child’s gender—to monitor online behavior at home, as preventing and addressing sexual harassment is a priority for all genders and ages. A helpful resource for families is YGAM’s Safety Controls Checklist.

It is imperative to prevent and address sexual harassment issues within esports. Schools must know the risks prior to adding gaming as a student activity, parents must be aware of the risks prior to allowing their children to participate, and gamers must report problematic behavior as it happens. The esports community must come together to create an environment that promotes gender equity, diversity, inclusion, and mutual respect. By educating ourselves and actively advocating against harassment, we can help drive positive change in the industry and improve the esports culture.

In partnership with TNG Consulting, ATIXA provides custom services to help manage risk for rapidly evolving industries like esports at K-12 and higher education institutions. Learn more today.