Real Future

The trials of a female eSports champion

This is Episode 7 of Real Future, Fusion’s documentary series about technology and society. More episodes available at realfuture.tv.

Hafu Chan is a legend. For the past eight years, she’s been a star in one of the most popular sports in the world: competitive video gaming, known as eSports. And she’s done it while facing an incredible amount of sexism and hostility from others in the male-dominated eSports world.

If you’ve been paying attention, you know that eSports is a massive global phenomenon. Top eSports players earn millions of dollars a year, major brands like Coca-Cola and Intel have signed on to sponsor eSports teams and tournaments, and Twitch, the Amazon-owned site that allows gamers to host their own streams, is reportedly the fourth-largest source of internet traffic in the U.S., behind only Netflix, Google, and Apple. Millions more people watch the most popular eSports event, the League of Legends World Championships, than watch either the NBA Finals or the World Series.

It’s one thing to know that eSports is huge — and another thing to feel it. Several months ago, when I accompanied Hafu to an exhibition at the eSports Arena in Orange County (yes, there’s an eSports Arena), she was approached by selfie-seeking fans, as if she were a presidential candidate or a tween pop idol. One of these fans compared her to Michael Jordan. Another told me that meeting Hafu was a “once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

Hafu, who was a top-ranked World of Warcraft tournament player as a teenager and now, at 24, hosts a popular Twitch stream where she mostly plays a strategy card game called Hearthstone, stands out among her peers. Not just because she’s really, really good, but because she’s one of only a handful of women ever to reach the top ranks of the eSports world.

Thanks to GamerGate, we know lots about sexism and harassment in the video game industry. But Hafu deals with these ugly forces more directly than most. Every day on her stream, she invites thousands of strangers into her bedroom via webcam, where she plays Hearthstone for hours and receives small donations from her fans and subscribers. These donations are enough to earn a good living for Hafu, who dropped out of college several years ago to pursue gaming full-time. (“Hafu,” which means “biracial” in Japanese, is her gaming handle—her real name is Rumay Wang.)

Hafu also receives what she describes as a constant stream of harassment and trolling from other gamers. She’s been called sexist names, had false rumors spread about her love life on gaming blogs, and once, when she was 17, had a competing team name itself “Gonna Rape Hafu At Regionals.”

Trolling and mockery is par for the course in eSports — as Polygon wrote last year, “Esports is a hostile, competitive environment where emotions run high and insults are part of the landscape.” But for women like Hafu, the burden is far greater.

“You just get harassed a lot,” she told me. “I’ve had people donate with really nasty messages…stupid whore chink, that kind of crap.”

Twitch provides some tools to deal with harassment—channel moderators can ban trolls from their chats, for example—but the sheer lopsidedness of the eSports world means that some bad behavior is probably inevitable. Despite the fact that adult women now outnumber adult men in the gaming community, the top ranks of eSports competition is almost entirely male, and Twitch has estimated that 95% of its users are men. Until the eSports community becomes more inclusive, female gamers will still feel like outsiders even on their own streams.

“It’s hard to be part of something when I don’t feel welcome in the community,” Hafu says.

Some women who stream on Twitch, Hafu says, court donations by wearing low-cut shirts or being sexually suggestive on camera. But Hafu doesn’t want to be known for her looks—or to be singled out for her gender at all, really. She just wants the chance to play games for a living, without being made to suffer for it.

“I really want to be recognized for my gameplay,” she told me. “When you have 70,000 people watching a stream, and all you see is terrible things about you…[you think], why am I competing?”

In this episode of Real Future, we go to Hafu’s home to see her livestreaming, talk to her about the harassment she’s faced, and hear her hopes for the future of eSports.

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