Fighting the boys club
COLUMBIA – Kaitlyn Mahin lives the life of a student athlete. She goes to class, practices with her team and represents her school in games.
Despite all that, though, her experience in collegiate sports has been anything but typical.
She’s the captain of the Stephens College esports team, the first all-female collegiate scholarship team in the country.
"I never thought that I would be good enough to be on an esports team, let alone the captain of an esports team,” Mahin said. “It seemed extremely far-fetched."
While she played video games most her childhood, she did not get into competitive games until her brother introduced her to them.
"I had seen my brother playing Skyrim and I was like, 'How can you play that? That's horrible, you're killing people! 'He was like, 'Just go on character creator and try this.'”
The attachment was almost instant for Mahin, much to her brother’s dismay.
“I played it for a few hours. He sat there and watching me and was like, 'Okay, I want to play now. Give me back my Xbox.'”
She responded with a roll of her eyes, as many kids would, but there was no going back. She was the newest addition to one of the fastest growing trends in sports..
Many struggle to understand the appeal of esports, arguing video games are not on par with physical sports like football or basketball. Mahin argues it offers far more than other sports could.
"In video games you can get on the inside and take control,” she said. “You can take the world in your hands and mold it into what you want it to be if you're playing the right game."
Despite her love for the world of video games, Mahin hasn’t always felt that love in return.
"People make comments sometimes like, 'Oh, you're a girl playing Overwatch?” Mahin said. “Why are you here? Oh my god, there's a girl on our team. What?' I'm just like, 'Yeah, I'm a girl playing Overwatch.'”
Stephens College founded its esports team just a year ago. Women make up only 16 percent of Overwatch players, according to the esports website Rivalry. For other games, the number is much lower with some sitting at less than five percent female.
Stephens College competes exclusively on Overwatch, a game in which two teams of six players earn points by shooting their opponents. The school chose it for one reason in particular.
"Unlike many other video games, Overwatch has a lot of strong female characters that are prominently portrayed in the game," the team’s head coach Ernest Utterback said.
While the game features more women, it is not immune to discrimination.
“The primary challenge they face is just the stigma of it,” Utterback said. “Fighting and pushing back against that boys club mentality that is pervasive throughout the gaming community."
Thousands of aspiring female esports players face the fight, but the struggle to claim a spot in a male dominated sports world is nothing new to women.
"They think women can't play esports, but back in the olden times women weren't really allowed to play sports in general," Mahin said. "I feel like women get scared in some instances. They don't want to have to deal with the boys club. They don't want to ruffle feathers. But, if you're a woman on an all-male esports team you are ruffling feathers.”
For Mahin and many others, esports represents yet another avenue for women to fight for their right to participate.
“We're women who strive to make a difference every day. Us being on an esports team is just another way of making a difference,” she said.
"I've been really impressed with their ability to just shrug it off, or at least not show how much it affects them,” Utterback said.
Now women make up under 15 percent of esports players. Mahin says that’s why places like Stephens College are important because they give women a chance to play while surrounded by others with the same passion.
"I love playing video games,” Mahin said. “I love it just as much as you do. Just because I'm a woman doesn't make it any different."