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Esports and The Glass Cliff: Overwatch League May Get First Woman Player

With a winless season so far, the Shanghai Dragons reportedly recruit Geguri, a player famous for being so good, people thought she was cheating.

Rob Zacny

Photo courtesy of Blizzard

You ever heard of the Glass Cliff? It’s the phenomenon where women tend to be put into positions of power and notoriety only after an institution runs into significant trouble. There are a few implications to this: women tend to “get their chance” only when the ship is taking on water, and women in prominent positions tend to be held responsible for problems they inherited. That’s not to say the pattern shows nefarious intent, and on balance a flawed opportunity is better than no opportunity at all, but it’s a pattern to think about this week, as the Overwatch League’s hands-down worst team—the Shanghai Dragons—has reportedly recruited the league’s first female player.

Kim "Geguri" Se-yeon, age 18, has been famous within the Overwatch community since well before ESPN’s report yesterday that the struggling Dragons organization was signing her along with a couple other players from South Korea. She first rose to international prominence when, as a top player and perhaps the best Zarya in Korea, she literally had to prove that she was not cheating after a number of pro players leveled accusations against her.

It was a feel-good story, after a fashion—the girl schools the bullies in public—but it was also one that began with a denial of her skills and achievements, and then turned her Overwatch play into a proxy battle for gender equity. It’s not hard to see why, according to Rod Breslau’s ESPN report and his previous conversations with Geguri, she expresses some discomfort and frustration with being made the centerpiece of discussions about sexism and gender equity within esports.

Geguri, center-right, in a photo posted by ROX Orcas

Whatever Geguri’s personal wishes, her new role as a player with the worst team in pro Overwatch is going to bring more of the kind of prominence she’s tended to be wary of. She was the most important off-stage character of OWL’s first act, with questions about her status causing several teams to flail for adequate responses as to why nobody had signed her before the start of the season.

But with the Shanghai Dragons winless so far, it looks like the reservations that other teams had about Geguri—her reputation as a Zarya specialist at a time when Zarya was considered a poor pick, language barriers with players from outside Korea, and the fact that she wasn’t already part of an elite roster that could be hired wholesale—stopped applying for the Dragons. With the team categorically worse than every other in OWL, bested at every position, Geguri’s recruitment is part of an almost complete roster swap for the Dragons that aims to provide across-the-board improvements.

Which brings us back to the edge of the Glass Cliff. On the one hand, Geguri is joining such a troubled team that there’s can’t be much in the way of pressure or expectation that she’s going to salvage a disastrous opening to the season. On the other hand, the first female player in OWL is getting her start with an organization that has yet to prove it can deliver more than mediocrity.

To make an analogy, a player might achieve greatness with the Cleveland Browns, but the Cleveland Browns are most assuredly not going to be any help in the matter. The question for a player like Geguri is whether the Dragons represent a (relatively) low-pressure place to develop as a top-tier pro, or organizational quicksand.

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I say “relatively” low-pressure because, whatever Geguri’s wishes, her status as the first woman to play in Overwatch League is going to give her a higher profile, more scrutiny, and less control over her own narrative than just about any of her peers. When she told Breslau earlier this year that she wished for indifferent treatment, and that she did not think it was due to sexism that caused teams to overlook her at the start of the season, Breslau took it as evidence that reporting highlighting her conspicuous absence from OWL was founded on ignorance of the scene and editorial bias. There were good reasons why she wasn’t recruited.

Now, just a month or so later, the argument is that she is into OWL thanks to merit and nothing else. In those three weeks nothing changed except the Dragons went off a cliff. She got her chance after a team’s first choices failed, and people asked about why she wasn’t playing.

Which is how a lot of people end up getting their shot, but what this analysis ignores is how contingent any hiring and recruitment decision ends up being. There are always reasons why one specific person didn’t get this or that opportunity, and frequently those reasons at least sound good. That’s how structural bias works: it produces discriminatory outcomes without anyone actually having to acknowledge discrimination. Earlier this year, teams looked at Geguri and decided she wasn’t good enough. This week, with one all-male team producing almost the worst results possible in OWL, Geguri seems to be getting her chance.

Photo courtesy of Blizzard

You could argue the system worked because it meritocratically promoted Geguri and her new teammates as it demoted the players they are replacing, but that absolves the system of how it went about evaluating the relative merits of those players last year. The reason meritocracy is such a toxic concept (and properly had its origins in satire) is because it locks-in biases by dismissing questions of how we even define merit, much less evaluate it.

Sports are seductive because clear rules and a score line at the end let us believe that, in this one context, everyone gets exactly what they deserve. But that’s a delusion. What we can say today is that Geguri is getting a chance to play in OWL by joining a deeply troubled team. She will instantly be one of the most popular and famous players in the world. Her performance will be scrutinized and used to advance arguments she has wished to avoid. And with any luck, she will eventually get her wish and find that she’s just another player, no longer the only woman in the league.

But it won’t just happen, and it’s not on her to make it happen. It’s about the questions we ask, the answers we demand, and the values we choose to care about. Most of all, it’s about the things we do right now, rather than waiting for the right time to come along, sometime in an indeterminate future that won’t demand anything of us in return.