Are e-sports the last frontier for gender equality?

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With the world in virtual lockdown because of the coronavirus outbreak, and in the absence of any live sporting action, people have turned to e-sports like never before, with armchair fans turning to their computer consoles to virtually create the events that they are currently missing.

Many professional sportsmen have also taken part and there have been Premier League footballers taking on each other and celebrities in the FIFA game, leading tennis pros fighting it in a simulation of the Madrid Open, and similar contests across a range of sports like basketball, golf and major league baseball.

Nor has motor-racing been immune, with many major championships staging their own online races.

However, one factor that has become evident is that few women take part in these races, despite research published last year that 30% of e-sports viewers were women, and 35% of gamers were female. That was at odds with a separate study issued a year earlier by the British-based Women in Games which estimated that only about 5% of women either worked or played e-sports.

Those who are hoping for an increase in that number will, therefore, welcome the launch by the all-female W Series of their own e-sports league just for women drivers. In the absence of being able to get into their cars themselves, contestants will race virtual versions of 2 litre Tatuus Formula Renault cars around simulations of famous circuits including Silverstone, Spa, and Suzuka. All 18 drivers who would be expected to line-up on the grid for the start of the regular W Series, which is due to take place in St. Petersburg on May 29th, are expected to take part.

Depending on where they finish in the race points will be awarded, and monetary prizes, although these have yet to be determined.

However, not all female drivers have greeted the news favourably. Sophia Floersch, a German Formula Three driver who represents Mercedes in the separate Formula E e-sports “Race at Home Challenge” has described it as a joke.  She points out that whilst Formula One may not have had a female driver Giovanni Amati in 1992, the barriers to entry in the sport – money, sponsorship, success in the various junior formulas, as well as strength – should not matter when it comes to e-sports.

Another one who says that attitudes need to change is Britain’s Jamie Chadwick, who said that e-sports needs to adapt to the idea of women being a part of it. And she should know – she has recently raced in virtual Grand Prix races against current F1 drivers Charles Leclerc and Lando Norris, and pushed them close.

So whilst some may regard the new W Series e-sports league as a step forward, others may regard it as enforcing gender stereotypes in an arena where none should exist.