SHANGHAI — Like many of her peers in the esports industry, Zhou Jie got hooked on online games in elementary school during the early 2000s, around the same time that China saw the rise of its first all-female “Counter-Strike” squad, 5LoVe.
More than a decade later, the Shanghai native has become an industry veteran in her own right. The 27-year-old former professional esports player — known as “Nini” in the gaming world — manages the Killer Angels (KA) gaming club, which comprises over 30 professional female players and more than 60 others in entertainment-related roles.
Women’s teams provide valuable opportunities for female gamers, who still lag behind their male counterparts in terms of skill and earnings. While male players dominate the top levels of competition and can pocket millions of yuan in prize money, women struggle to garner respect and make a living as gamers. Instead, many are shunted toward alternative careers in the industry — for example, as commentators analyzing gameplay — and forced to market themselves based on looks rather than gaming prowess.
Yet women have come a long way in esports since the turn of the millennium, says Zhou, with the number of women’s esports teams in the nation now at 35 and counting. Back in the early 2000s, the industry was seeing an influx of investment and media coverage — but the potential of female gamers was far from fully realized. While training for a national “Counter-Strike” tournament in Beijing in 2002, 5LoVe lived in a space provided by their sponsor that measured just 10 square meters — and was located three floors below ground.
Almost a decade after the team split up due to a sponsorship dispute around 2003, esports saw a jump in viewership as livestreaming platforms took off among young people. Women dominate these platforms, and plenty broadcast themselves playing video games.
In response, major gaming companies and livestreaming sites began hosting a handful of women-only tournaments across China, including the World Dota Championship in the central city of Wuhan, Wanyoocybercafe’s “League of Legends” tournament in Shanghai, and the LongZhu Gaming Queen Invitational in Taicang, eastern China. With increased interest from tournament sponsors and audiences, the number of women’s esports teams in the nation began to rise in earnest beginning in 2014.
Some game developers have also picked up on the trend and are offering a greater diversity of female characters to cater to female players. Blizzard Entertainment’s multiplayer shooter “Overwatch” has attracted numerous female fans nationwide, and two of the best “Overwatch” teams in China have female members — a rarity at the top of the pro circuit. Meanwhile, female gamers now outnumber male players in tech giant Tencent’s fantasy role-playing game “Honour of Kings.”
But because esports was professionalized far earlier among men, many female players still can’t match their male counterparts in terms of skill. Few women are represented at the top echelons of competition, and it can be difficult for female players to work their way up the ranks. “A lot of girls can’t play very well and only play supporting roles, so male players who want to take the prizes wouldn’t consider letting them join [their teams],” Zhou explains.