Closing the Gender Gap, One E-Battle at a Time


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Judy Jetset, center, amid the League of Legends video game event at the Playwright Irish Pub in Midtown Manhattan.

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Jessica Lehrman for The New York Times

Judy Jetset walked around the bar at the Playwright Irish Pub in Midtown Manhattan, checking in on the 40 people she had brought together to watch a sports event. She said hello to people she hadn’t yet met, and then introduced them to others in the group. She was something of an ambassador for the assembled fans of League of Legends, a multiplayer online game that draws amateur and professional players, as well as sponsors and fantasy leagues.

Being broadcast on this Sunday afternoon in March was League of Legends’ championship series. TVs around the bar showed an animated clash of mutant-like animated characters with spikes covering their arms and horns atop their heads, chasing one another through colorful mazes. The goal is to destroy the opponent’s “nexus,” which is an illuminated power source. When the mutants are successful, pixelated flashes of neon red, green and purple explode on a grassy battle arena in the center of the screen.

Dressed in her gold and white League of Legends custom jersey, Ms. Jetset, 29, approached a red velvet chair and introduced herself to Jenny Zhao, 18. Ms. Zhao was nestled into the cushioned seat with another friend, Amy Zhu, 21, who had urged her to attend the event.

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Ms. Jetset, in her gold and white League of Legends custom jersey, is trying to promote e-sports among women.

Credit
Jessica Lehrman for The New York Times

Of the people there, a handful were women. This was a disappointment to Ms. Jetset, who works as a service desk technician at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York.

She asked Ms. Zhao what made her decide to come. She was hoping for insight to help her better promote the sport among women. “I’m not the kind of person who would just show up to an e-sports meetup,” Ms. Zhao said, using the game genre’s catchall term. “It makes it more comfortable that it’s not a guy running this.”

Games like League of Legends, which are played virtually but have created real-life communities like this one, are a new frontier in gaming, turning into a large adult-centric business in the last five years. This is how it works: People play games like League of Legends on computers or smartphones and pit themselves against other players, often strangers, on a streaming service called Twitch. Players can log on to Twitch at any given time to battle opponents in real time who also happen to be logged on. Tournaments can be watched at designated times by tuning in to Twitch’s live streaming.

League of Legends, according to Riot Games, the company that produces it, attracts 67 million players a month, with 27 million people playing daily.

It’s unclear the exact percentage of women who are fans; Nicola Piggott, a spokeswoman for Riot, wouldn’t disclose the demographic breakdown. But NewZoo, a gaming market research company, said women make up about 25 percent of the enthusiasts in the United States.

The world of gaming is male-dominated, and sexism has burdened the efforts of those who try to expand its reach. Notably there was the GamerGate scandal in which some male gamers bullied and harassed female players or others who had been designated as using video games to push a political or social agenda.

Harassment is one of the reasons Ms. Jetset uses an alias: Jetset isn’t her real last name, which she declined to provide. She says the alias insulates her from being the target of online trolling. She has had male gamers comment to her on social media that she must be using League of Legends to meet guys. But most often, she is not taken seriously by some men whose interests and knowledge are no greater than hers. “The deepest sexism is the insinuation that my opinion matters less,” she said.

Women like Ms. Jetset are attempting to close that fissure with smaller, more inclusive local meetups. They seek a broader outreach as well. Last year, she and another gamer, Cristina Amaya, 25, who lives in Washington and is the creator of the New York League of Legends group, founded a tournament. The Facebook group for the meetup has more than 3,000 members, and moderating the comments is a big job for Ms. Jetset and the two other gamers — both men — who oversee the page. “I’ve faced harassment from so many men,” Ms. Amaya said. “Sexual harassment. Insulting comments. Comments about my intelligence. I wish it wasn’t like that. I wish there was more I could do.”

Ms. Jetset had another meetup planned for Saturday and was optimistic that it would attract a higher female turnout. “I’m always hoping more women will come, but I understand it can be very intimidating for women to come to social events geared towards gamers,” she said. “All I can do is do my best to make women feel welcome.”

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