Anybody missing?
Screenshot: Nintendo

Cecilia D’Anastasio: So Nintendo invited a bunch of Super Smash Bros. pros to showcase Smash 5 at E3 this year! And among some of my favorites—Armada, Zero and Hungrybox—are exactly no women. I didn’t notice an outcry. Frankly, it was about as surprising as walking outside and noticing the sky, which was very much not falling. Do you remember what you said when we were talking about the Invitational’s competitors last week?

Maddy Myers: I think I brought up Street Fighter, which is the game that I always bring up 100% of the time in any conversation, but also because I was thinking about Ricki Ortiz and Leah “Gllty” Hayes getting included in Eleague’s Street Fighter V invitational. With invitational events, organizers pick people based on who’s popular and well-known, with supposed “skill” as more of an afterthought. It’s only recently that Street Fighter has had women in more “celeb” roles like that, and Ricki and Gllty’s positions are still pretty tenuous. Plenty of jerks online still hate them. But they do exist, and I was a little surprised to hear that Smash hasn’t quite had women bubbling to the top in a similar way... even just one or two.

Cecilia: You did bring up Street Fighter, but you also said something like, “There aren’t any women playing on that level.” Everyone who got invited to the Smash invitational is a “signed” pro! So that’s a thing to think about. It wasn’t just influencers or big community personalities. They wanted, for the most part, people whose full-time job is to play Smash. There are a few women like that, but they don’t have names like “Mang0.”

Maddy: Here are some half-baked theories, as a Smash outsider: the Smash scene’s smaller (both Melee and Smash 4) than Street Fighter V, and also, it doesn’t have as many centralized organized events (like the Pro tour). Also, Melee has its own issues with remaining inaccessible to outsiders, because it’s an old (beloved!) game with more of a cult following... which seems like a separate issue from the lack of gender diversity in the upper ranks, but I don’t think it really is. A lot of people accuse Melee of being “stagnant” and talk about how hard it is for ANY player to break into the upper ranks of “Gods,” no matter who they are or how many resources they have.

Cecilia: That’s a lot to unpack.

Maddy: Haha. Sorry! As the resident Smash expert, please debunk me.

Cecilia: No! Your point about the centralized organized events is key honestly. Because it’s such a grassroots scene (Nintendo offers almost no tournament support), the vibe of one tournament, practice zone or hobby shop can completely differ from another a few blocks away. Without anything to set the tone for everyone, each little facet of the community acts as its own community gatekeeper. But why do you think that could make it harder for women to get involved in this stuff?

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Maddy: Well, you remember when I wrote that tournament tips guide for this very website! I think it’s incredibly hard for women to attend these grassroots events, for the reasons that I laid out in the guide. In the 2000s and 2010s, I would often go to events alone. Many of the women I’ve met who’ve had good experiences in those spaces have gone with friends or a boyfriend who could stick up for them, or even just serve as a voiceless reminder not to fuck with her. Meanwhile, men seem to always feel comfortable just walking into fight nights by themselves and finding a new group of friends within minutes... I’ve always been jealous of the people who’ve had those experiences.

Spoiler alert: this VG chat is actually just me being bitter about my life. I do think things have changed in the past few years. Even just in my local scene, I’ve noticed more women coming out to events than in 2013 (and before then).

But when I say things are better, I mean like... there’s maybe five to ten women competing at a local tournament of 300-500 people now instead of just two. I remember I went to a tournament in 2013 with hundreds of competitors and I was one of only two women competing. I was like... this is BAD.

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At that tourney, I was competing in Marvel vs Capcom and the other woman was competing at Street Fighter. I played so badly, but at the time, I did it because I wanted to show the handful of girlfriends in the audience that they could be competing as well if they wanted to. Because I know a lot of those girls and women are actually playing the game at home, or other games, but just didn’t feel like they “should” be competing in a tournament. You know? I get that a lot when I talk to women about this stuff... they’ll enjoy playing the game at home, but not want to actually enter an event. “I’m not good enough,” etc. It’s the main reason why I competed even though I was terrible.

Anyway, clearly, I single-handedly solved sexism in my local scene and now all of the women competing are doing it because of me. (KIDDING. Most of them are too young to even have seen me competing in the 2000s and 2010s.)

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Cecilia: That is BAD. When I was constantly training at Smash, I’d place in the top five at my college tournament, which was a welcoming scene, but freeze up when I went to a local. I actually got super trolled at my first local. The first guy I was set to compete against pretended like he didn’t know how to play the game. And then he “came back” to try and whoop me and embarrass me. Like, “Ha-ha, bet you thought you were good!”. He didn’t whoop me, but it made me feel really unwelcome. I didn’t go back to that place.

One of the unsaid things is that you’re just not gonna get up to snuff playing at home and with the same group of friends who are welcoming to you. You’re not. Anime isn’t real; the dream of being some lonely, friendless protege is fake in fighting games. To get really competitive, you need to be exposed to new skills and challenges at tournaments which, if they’re not run well, can let antisocial jerks alienate women.

Maddy: God, yeah. And there’s also totally this mythological fantasy story (like in anime) of a girl coming out of nowhere to show up to her local fight night and beating everyone and then flouncing out the door like “later, boys!” When I was talking to women for that story about Dead or Alive pros in the Championship Gaming Series, I asked Vanessa Arteaga if people always assume she’s way better at games than she really is, and she said yes. Like, she plays Dead or Alive, but she was talking about playing Tekken for the first time at an arcade and all the guys being like “Ohhh, she’s gonna be SO GOOD” and she was like... uh... no???? I was so validated, haha. I feel like any time I’m the only woman in one of these situations, people always assume I’m going to be AMAZING. But you can’t really get good until you go to a fight night a whole bunch of times and get your ass kicked. Even playing online is a totally different set of anxieties than playing in person.

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Cecilia: That story about Vanessa is so wild. It’s like, nobody knows how to calibrate their expectations for women when they show up to compete IRL. Are they anime girls? Aliens? Is it someone’s girlfriend? And adding to that, if a woman happens to suck at a game, it’s like, is someone writing her name down on a list of “Examples: Why Women Suck At Games”?? I think about Geguri, the only female Overwatch pro, who is amazing and also kind of seems like she wants NOTHING TO DO with the feminist movement. I get that. She’s the only woman playing on that level, the only woman a lot of people will have ever seen playing on that level. And if she has a bad day, and someone just tunes in for that day, it’s like, “Oh, women suck at this.” So trying not to make her gender an issue might, in her mind, help mitigate that?

Maddy: I think what is happening to Geguri, and what happens to a lot of women who compete at a high level in anything, is that as soon as they start getting some respectability beyond just their local scene (wherever that may be), dudes find some way to explain why her success isn’t actually that special or important. I’ve seen so much “Geguri isn’t THAT good” types of comments online and it just... gets my friggin’ goat! And it reminds me so much of other past examples of times when women have done things that are, in my opinion, really fuckin’ cool. Ricki Ortiz came out as trans a couple of years ago and, around that same time, placed second in Capcom Cup. People managed to invalidate her performance with transphobic gender essentialist bullshit at the time, and since then, she hasn’t performed as well in Capcom Cup standings, which I’ve then also seen people use as evidence that women are just bad at games. It’s wild how even when women do succeed in competitive games, people will find some reason why she’s the exception OR why she isn’t actually that good and shouldn’t really be cited as an example at all.

Also, I don’t blame any of these women at all for wanting less scrutiny. It’s what I always wanted even just in the microcosm of my own local scene—for people to pay LESS attention to me, to let me be mediocre and fail without feeling like I represented everyone. I can’t even imagine experiencing that on a massive scale.

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Cecilia: For sure. You just get a lot of attention showing up to this stuff as a woman. Women I interview say that to me all the time—that when they play at tournaments, attendees just wander over to watch them play, like these women are all chimpanzees who can juggle. That’s part of why I really dig Smash Sisters, an all-women/non-binary series of crew battles. Basically, women can just show up and there’s a pre-made mini-community for them to walk into at events. It’s not weird because, like, there’s a scheduled event to absorb you. That rules. It gets us out. I hope Smash Sisters’ ranks are mixing up with the general population.

Maddy: I’ve said this to you and lots of people before, and I don’t have any statistics to back it up at all, but I still feel like it’s easier for women to break in to single-player games like fighting games, or even StarCraft, as compared to team games like Overwatch or League of Legends. You can just compete on your own and not have to worry about your male teammates not taking you seriously or seeing you as a true member.

Cecilia: Yeah, that’s a great point. A lot of that happens online, too. Since lots of fighting game competitions are face-to-face, it can be harder for assholes to asshole. When you’re actually looking at someone’s face reacting to your bullshit........ you gotta deal with that.

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Maddy: Counter-Strike has stayed pretty gender-divided for over a decade now, with few signs of that changing, since there are so many organizations and sponsors involved who specifically back all-female teams. God, the fact that sponsors love to throw money at all-female gaming teams and events (as opposed to working towards creating a gender-mixed gaming culture) is a whole other topic.

Rob Zacny did a great story for Kotaku a while back about the strong presence of women’s events in Counter-Strike and how bittersweet that is for the women involved, since many of them still see those events as a means to an end... but how do you end it now, with so many sponsors and orgs loving the idea of “supporting women” by funding these types of events?

Anyway. Back to fighting games.

Screenshot: Nintendo

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Cecilia: Here’s a question: Now that more people are talking about gender imbalance in the top tiers of competitive games, how long is it gonna take for there to be change? Super Smash Bros. Melee has been out for fucking ever and has had the same top (male) players since there were literal dinosaurs. Smash 4 has some competitive female players, but no one consistently competing with the top 10. So when Smash 5 comes out, is it likely that new women will scale the ranks?

Maddy: I feel like so many women I know love to play Super Smash Brothers and always have. There’s that skill ceiling at the top echelons, but ... entry into that game is so much friendlier than stuff like Street Fighter. I feel like my female friends look at R. Mika’s sexy animations and go, “That game’s not for me,” and then it’s up to me to convince them otherwise. But Princess Peach swinging that frying pan in Smash? What woman can’t relate! They’ll all pick that up at a party. But then they don’t keep playing enough to get competitive.

And I think... that’s a gaming culture problem. That isn’t on women. That’s on the men who are competing and not being encouraging or welcoming to the women who are interested in this game and always have been. There are so many studies about women playing games as kids and then, in middle school, something happens. I know what happened to me around that age: my male friends started getting judgmental of me for being “too competitive” and getting really angry when they lost to me.

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I don’t think Smash 5 is going to change that, since it seems like something that’s been a problem with fighting games (both in general and in Smash as well) since... the beginning. And it’s very, very slowly and achingly changing in some scenes.

Cecilia: I kind of disagree. I really think that with Smash 5, there’s going to be at least one top-ranked women. I see the younger Smash players out there, the kids who form queer Smash houses in college, and am full of hope. When top players like Armada have spoken out against Melee’s issue with pushing women to the forefront, you know that culture’s changing. Lots of people these days have literally no tolerance for exclusivity and gatekeeping. They just want to grow their scenes.

I guess relative newcomers are gonna be up against people who have had, like, 20 years to get the game’s mechanics down, in a less welcoming time. But who knows, right?

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Maddy: I hope so. I guess I just want to emphasize that it’s not just on women to create these organizations or events (like Smash Sisters) or to just “work harder”. I feel like whenever I talk about this, men are always like, “Well, women just need to work harder to be great at games because it’s already a perfect meritocracy and if they’re not already at the top ranks then it’s on them” and they don’t think about any of the structural problems that inhibit that progress. At that 2013 tournament I described, in the hundreds of guys, there was one guy who had sexually harassed me repeatedly at previous events and I was so mad that he was there. But I competed anyway. I’m sure it didn’t help me play better to know he was there. If I were a teenager competing nowadays, maybe there would have been something I could have done about that guy. Back then, there wasn’t.

I don’t know where I’m going with this, but much like the Hulk, I’m always angry. About this. I can’t even tell if it’s really getting better, or if I just hope so much that it is getting better that I’ve convinced myself that it is.

Cecilia: Fuck that guy! Let’s go beat him up!

Maddy: Haha. He stopped going to events, but I still Google him from time to time... just to make sure he’s not going to the stuff I’m going to. That’s the invisible labor, folks.

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Cecilia: A similar thing happened a while ago in Melee when a really good Falco player had made a lot of women uncomfortable. And a lot of the community was just like, “Whatever. We want to see good Melee.”

I think one of the big takeaways here is that permissiveness is one of the main reasons why there aren’t lots of top female pros in fighting/competitive games. Also that tournaments should offer spiked baseball bats at the door.

Maddy: It’s pretty hard to tell who you gotta hit with the hypothetical bat, though. It’s not like in video games where your opponents are pretty obvious. I wish it were that simple. This is getting so depressing!! Fuck.

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Compete is Deadspin and Kotaku’s joint site dedicated to competitive gaming.