Silencing the haters

Female gamers compete in a space where basic rules of civility are lacking.

(Illustration by Joseph Alessio for The Washington Post)

With her hot pink assault rifle, Emmalee Garrido is mowing down heavily armed terrorists that repopulate on her computer monitor after each kill. As captain of Dignitas, regarded as the world's best all-female "Counter-Strike: Global Offensive" team, Garrido has a goal of 500 to 700 kills per 30-minute training session in the video game to hone her aim and reflexes before joining her teammates online for their six-hour daily practice.

“I’m the sniper of the team, so what I’m doing now is like [Philadelphia 76ers point guard] Ben Simmons making baskets from different spots on the floor,” Garrido says as her fingers furiously command her keyboard and mouse to obliterate camouflage-clad targets. But when it comes to firing back against the online haters, harassers and trolls who are part of many female gamers’ experience, Garrido takes a decidedly nonconfrontational approach.

“Instead of saying anything back to them, I don’t acknowledge them at all and just talk with my skill in the game,” said Garrido, 28, whose screen name is EMUHLEET, a fusion of her first name and “I’m elite.”

Change Agents

About this series: Female athletes are speaking out, demanding a more level playing field with their male counterparts even as they continue to train and excel in their sports.

Equity: The U.S. women's soccer team files suit for equal pay and working conditions.

Opportunity: In Kansas, girls didn't have a wrestling championship of their own. Mya Kretzer changed that.

Exposure: Claressa Shields keeps winning boxing titles. But she is still fighting for visibility.

Civility: Online culture can be toxic. These women gamers are fighting back.

For girls and women who compete in esports, basic civility on the playing field — the right to take part without being bullied — shouldn’t be too much to expect. But it’s hardly a given.

A 2017 Washington Post-UMass Lowell poll found that 36 percent of female gamers said that women are treated with less respect than men, while 24 percent said they are treated about equally.

Jenn “Queen” DeFonzo, 26, who juggles a full-time job at an engineering company with a semi-pro gaming career, suspects that more than half of female gamers who reveal their gender online are harassed, whether via put-downs such as “Get back to the kitchen,” insults about their appearance or profane name-calling. Online harassment has been a constant over her 15 years as a gamer, first playing Halo for fun and now competing on a mixed-gender team with three male friends.

“The harassment has been consistent, as has the struggle to be taken seriously,” DeFonzo said. “It’s, ‘You’re never going to be good at this game.’ ‘You’re always going to lose to a dude.’ Or, ‘You’re ugly.’ ‘You’re fat.’ ”

Emmalee Garrido, who goes by EMUHLEET as the captain of the Dignitas “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive” team, does not acknowledge online harassers. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

According to the Women’s Media Center’s Speech Project, chat room participants with female usernames report receiving threatening or sexually explicit private messages 25 times more often than those with male or ambiguous usernames.

Nearly two-thirds of female journalists report experiencing threats, sexist abuse, intimidation and harassment online and on social media in the course of their work.

Female politicians are also a frequent target of pernicious online abuse, according to a 2016 Inter-Parliamentary Union survey of female legislators around the world, with 62 percent saying they believed the intent of the harassment was to dissuade them from pursuing leadership positions.

MIT sociologist T.L. Taylor sees a resonance between the battles for inclusion that women waged in the early 1970s and those being waged today in the gaming sphere.

“The Internet side of it amplifies the worst parts of the historical pattern of exclusion that women and girls face when it comes to equitable participation in so many aspects of our culture,” said Taylor, who has ­researched and written extensively about esports culture since 2003.

“The harassment has been consistent, as has the struggle to be taken seriously.”

Jenn “Queen” DeFonz semipro gamer

In esports, a fast-growing arena in which a global pastime is approaching a billion-dollar business, what’s at issue is more than fair play. In the view of Taylor, it is a basic human right.

“What we have not fully grappled with is that the right to play extends to the digital space and gaming,” she said. “For me, it is tied to democracy and civic engagement. It’s about participating in culture and having a voice and visibility.”

The irony, as Taylor views it, is that there is no immediately obvious reason for a gender divide in esports. Unlike in stick-and-ball sports, physical attributes such as height, speed and muscle mass are not essential to success.

Moreover, there is no male tradition to overcome, such as in boxing or wrestling. In the arc of sporting history, esports were invented yesterday, decades after Title IX — the law banning discrimination on the basis of sex in schools that receive federal funds — gave legal heft to the right of American girls and women to compete.

Yet the culture of many esports communities can be toxic, leading Taylor to conclude that deep-seated cultural issues are at play.

Garrido and the Dignitas women have set a goal to be competitive with the top men’s Counter-Strike squads. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

With so much revenue at stake, ESL, a leading esports production company, realized the business imperative of ensuring that 50 percent of the population doesn’t feel excluded from gaming. But the German-based company first wanted solid research that identified what the barriers were, so it joined technology giant Intel in funding Taylor’s work.

“At every level, all of us are very conscious that we’re adding to the numbers of women for the very simple reason that women make up almost 50 percent of the gaming audience but they make up less than 30 percent of actual competitive esports,” said Yvette Martinez-Rea, North American CEO of ESL.

The upshot was AnyKey, a multipronged initiative to increase diversity in esports based on the findings of Taylor and Morgan Romine, a cultural anthropologist and former professional gamer who’s now director of initiatives for AnyKey. The name AnyKey is a play on the phrase “Press any key to continue” and is intended to convey inclusion.

To help girls and women find nonaggressive gamers to play with online, AnyKey created the “Good Luck Have Fun Pledge,” which gives signatories an icon on Twitch, the leading streaming service, that signals in chat that they’re a good sport and won’t tolerate harassment by others. The pledge has been translated into seven languages and has more than 365,000 signatures.

Twitch is owned by Jeff Bezos, the owner of The Washington Post.

Changing a culture, however, takes time. In the interim, female gamers have devised their own responses to cyberbullying.

Some mute their voice so their gender won’t be detected. Others play under ambiguous or male names. Others block persistent harassers. Still others fight back, though veteran gamers speak of “advocacy fatigue,” wary of becoming targets for speaking up. Untold girls simply quit, turned off by strangers’ hurtful, often hateful words.

DeFonzo estimates as many as 50 percent of girls quit gaming for that reason. She nearly did at 15 but decided against it after some soul-searching.

“I questioned whether this was the right fit for me, but I’ve always been a very competitive person,” she said. “I decided I wasn’t going to let one person prevent me from pursuing my dream of being a competitive esports player.”

Female gamers are forming their own online communities for mutual support, friendly practices and competition . But in the discussion of the culture of esports, all-female teams and tournaments are a hot-button issue.

Some, such as Taylor, see all-female squads as a useful steppingstone in bridging the competitive disparity between top male and female gamers but nothing more. “It’s a necessary intervention at this moment,” she said, “but not a sufficient one.”

Others see them as counterproductive, exacerbating the perception that female gamers can’t keep up.

Fans watch as an all-male team competes onstage during DreamHack Atlanta in November. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Girls are a rarity

There's no sense of time in the dark, windowless convention space at Georgia World Congress Center that hosted DreamHack Atlanta, a three-day festival of gaming that alights in major world cities throughout the year.

There is also no peace. The noise borders on deafening — an aural collision of hundreds of overheated conversations, dozens of blaring songs and amped-up “Shout-casters” broadcasting play-by-play of the pro competitions on the main stage.

“Yes, they got the kills but not the bomb plant!” one brays during a “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive” showdown between two all-male European powers, a game in which five terrorists battle five counterterrorists with rifles, knives and molotov cocktails while planting and defusing bombs along the way.

Jenn “Queen” DeFonzo nearly quit gaming at 15 after being harassed. “I decided I wasn’t going to let one person prevent me from pursuing my dream of being a competitive esports player,” she said. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Women and girls are a rarity, accounting for no more than 15 percent of the throng.

Across the vast hall, DeFonzo takes her seat alongside her Guardians Gaming teammates for their opening match in the “Halo 3” tournament. Players are meticulous about their setups, adjusting their seats and arranging water bottles, eye drops and breath mints before launching into their interstellar war between 26th-century humanity.

With roughly 90 seconds remaining in the opening game, Guardians Gaming’s opponents put their headsets down in a cyber-surrender because they’re so hopelessly behind. DeFonzo has led the rout, tallying 15 kills and eight assists.

Outside the cavernous gaming hall, gamer-turned-entrepreneur Allie Young is taking part in a sparsely attended Women in Esports panel.

Barely 5 feet tall with a towering personality, Young, 44, had no trouble defending herself against online haters as a youngster, she explained. But she eventually ramped down her screen time to start a business she hoped would encourage younger women. While other female gamers formed safe online spaces to congregate, Young built a literal safe space — Axis Gaming, a social gaming club in Atlanta — in a renovated loft with high ceilings, abundant natural light, an intentionally “gender-neutral” design, a welcoming vibe, kid-friendly areas and a nice bar for adults. A place, she said, “that doesn’t smell like feet.”

Despite the occasional harassment, Young believes esports are a wonderful social and competitive outlet for girls and women. She met her husband through gaming, and she requires their 13-year-old daughter to practice video games for two hours a day.

She considers all-female teams retrograde.

“For the first time in our lives, we actually have a sport that has no gender bias in a physical sense!” Young said. “Why would you create gender bias? To me, it makes no sense. Let’s get to the next step!”

A far better solution, she believes, is getting girls started earlier.

Esports Hall of Fame inductee Heather “sapphiRe” Garozzo, working as a professional observer during a Counter-Strike tournament, manages and advises the Dignitas team. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Finding support

The gold standard of all-female teams is Dignitas CS:GO Fe — five 20-somethings from California, Pennsylvania, Hawaii and Canada. The Dignitas' corporate headquarters is in Newark; the team's training base is in Playa Vista, Calif.; and its playing fields include Denmark, France, Hong Kong, Macao, Poland, Portugal and Spain.

The squad was founded as Team Karma in 2014 by Garrido, then a full-time nurse, who recruited the best female gamer friends she knew and scraped up donations to fund their early travel to Counter-Strike competitions.

Everything changed when the team was acquired in 2017 by Dignitas, whose majority stakeholder is Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment. HBSE’s holdings include the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers, the NHL’s New Jersey Devils and Newark’s Prudential Center. Now the women are salaried, as are the male gamers on the half-dozen other teams under the Dignitas umbrella.

Esports Hall of Fame inductee Heather “sapphiRe” Garozzo is their manager, unofficial “team mom” and adviser on developing their personal brands and dealing with Internet trolls.

Garozzo, 34, the 2012 Counter-Strike women’s world champion, got her share of harassment as a fast-rising player who fell in love with the game after a knee injury ended her high school soccer and basketball career.

“For the first time in our lives, we actually have a sport that has no gender bias in a physical sense!”

Allie Young gamer-turned-entrepreneur

“The worst was when they called you a bitch,” she recalls. “I’m like: ‘I’m the nicest person! I don’t curse or anything! How can you say that?’ ”

Today, she monitors her players’ social media interactions and steps in when she senses a confrontation brewing.

“They’re still young, and they want to fight back,” Garozzo said. “But I tell them: ‘You can’t give them attention because that’s what they want; they want to rile you up. Just do not engage!’ ”

Garozzo, with the Harlem Globetrotters’ Cheese Chisholm, tells players not to give harassers attention: “That’s what they want; they want to rile you up.” (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Among the benefits of being owned by the 76ers organization, Garrido said, is having access to the team’s support staff, ­including sports psychologists, nutritionists and physical therapists.

The sports psychologist, for example, has helped the squad manage pretournament nerves. “He told us, ‘Pressure is a privilege,’ so now I understand that it’s good to feel pressure because that means we’re doing something amazing,” she said.

The physical therapist has been invaluable helping Garrido manage chronic pain from the broken wrist she suffered a few years ago when she punched a wall in her house, angry over losing a qualifying match for a major tournament. Today, she competes with a brace and ices her wrist afterward.

She also has learned the value of taking breaks every two hours to rest her eyes and stretch her muscles. “Now I don’t have migraines as much, and I have less pain in my hands,” she said.

While the Dignitas women aren’t currently competitive with the top men’s Counter-Strike squads, that’s their goal. And for now, Garrido believes, the path to success includes dominating women’s tournaments while trying to scrimmage with top men’s teams and qualify for as many major tournaments as possible.

“I think we can play with the guys, but we’ll see in the next few years,” said Garrido, who is married to a former Counter-Strike pro from France. “I don’t think we’re ready yet because we need more females to play. But that’s why female tournaments are good. They get more girls competing.”

Liz Clarke

Liz Clarke has covered nine Olympics, three World Cups and written extensively about college sports, tennis and auto racing. She has also covered the Washington Redskins for eight seasons.

Toni L. Sandys

Toni Sandys is a photographer at The Washington Post, primarily covering sports at all levels -- high school, college, professional.

Additional credits

Design and development by Virginia Singarayar. Illustration by Joseph Alessio. Photo editing by Thomas Simonetti.