Understanding the culture of sexism in Hearthstone: A pit fight for a seat at the table

 Xiaomeng "VKLiooon" Li after becoming Hearthstone's World Championship winner in 2019. Source: Blizzard Entertainment


The last month has been uncomfortable within the Hearthstone scene. For many, the mundane, safe, non-political way of doing things was perfectly fine. But for others, they had grown tired of the abuse, neglect, and having their voices ignored. So a revolution took place.


Prominent female content creators and players within the Hearthstone community detailed the harassment they endured and called on Blizzard Entertainment to break a pattern of gatekeeping, stifling not only the careers of many but the game as a whole. And if they were to be still brushed to the side, they'd take action into their own hands.


In the month since Blizzard has addressed the matter and held events where the pool of content creators was more diverse across the board. But how did it get like this in the first place?


In recent weeks, Inven Global spoke to long-time content creators Nicholena Moon, Pathra Cadness, and Slysssa to pull back the curtain on their past conversations with Blizzard, how women became pit against one another and if any long-term change is expected.


Mixed messages

Nicholena spent nearly five hours talking about the harassment she has received in the gaming industry during one of her Twitch streams last month. Screengrab via: Twitch


Communication and trust go hand in hand.


Companies around the world spend billions annually to ensure that their consumers understand the narratives being sold to them and what they can expect as a result. Activision Blizzard is no different. Each title under its umbrella has a dedicated team of public relations or community member individuals who work together to keep content creators happy, players in the loop, and, if need be, do some damage control when things go awry.


When streamers such as Nicholena, Slysssa, and Pathra have issues, they can get in touch with a member of the community team who can pass their feedback along to an appropriate department, answer any immediate questions they may have, or work with them to resolve problems they may run into.


"I used to be scared to say anything, for obvious reasons." — Pathra


In an ideal world, that's how things should work. But when the chain of trust is severed, frustration ensues and relationships become fractured.


For years, Nicholena, Slysssa, and others have made it clear (privately and publicly) that the current environment within the scene doesn't work. Not enough women and minorities are represented in community events and, when they are, they are subject to a barrage of hate-filled messages that can be prevented with simple moderation.


Not everyone felt they had that rapport with members of the community team though. For Pathra, who recently left the Hearthstone community and transitioned to Riot Game's Valorant, she was scared of the backlash that speaking out may cause.


"I used to be scared to say anything for obvious reasons. I was scared to lose opportunity from Hearthstone’s Community Manager* [because] he’s blocked people in the past for speaking up or asking questions," said Pathra.


To those that did speak out, Blizzard has said they understood their concerns in the past but very little has changed in years.


"I went through examples [on my Twitch stream] where in the past, [concerns had] been brought up and then there's a bit of controversy and then it dies down and then that kind of repeats," said Nicholena. "It's already definitely happened a couple of times." 


Slysssa describes her relationship with Blizzard and the community team as strong but acknowledges that when it came to the issue of inclusion she felt her voice fell into a void and needed to go public with her frustrations.


Shortly after airing her grievances on her Twitch stream, Nicholena said Blizzard's community team contacted her (after nearly a year without being in touch) to express their concern and work to resolve the issue.


The call left her with mixed feelings.


"I would say that there were a lot of things said about how they have mistreated their female [content] creators in the past and they don't want to going forward, but it wasn't much of a clear plan or vision or anything about how they're going to make that happen," said Nicholena. "I understand that they might still be working on that, but I would've liked to hear a couple of solid commitments as it's a bit vague overall."


"I think what a lot of people don't realize is how much the women in the scene have been pitted against each other for so long." — Slysssa


With little to no progress made by Blizzard towards creating a more inclusive environment, it's easy to imagine that nothing will change once the public outrage dies down. People will forget, attention will be turned towards new flashy in-game content, and this issue will persist for the indefinite future. Change is uncomfortable.


However, Slysssa isn't so sure that's the case here.


"I think [Blizzard] were able to see better perspectives as to why [inclusion] is important. Why do we want to see more women? Because we want the game to grow," said Slysssa. "The game is definitely not a gender game where it just targets men and I think they were able to see the side of the content creator, the perspective of the esports, there were a lot of perspectives brought out."


Time will tell whether Blizzard shows they get the problem but as it pertains to this dilemma, actions will need to speak much louder than hollow words.


Dog eat dog 

Slysssa prior to a match against Alliestrasza. Screengrab via WSOE


As female content creators, players, casters, and current Blizzard employees spoke out about their experiences in the Hearthstone community, one thing began to set in: they aren't the enemy, but allies.


For years the Hearthstone competitive circuit had become a simple formula: In an event where content creators were hand-selected, only a couple of women would be invited. With only 10% of the field being women in any single event, content creators found themselves pitted against one another to earn one of the (maybe) two spots up for grabs.



For Slysssa, that point cannot be understated enough.


"I think what a lot of people don't realize is how much the women in the scene have been pitted against each other for so long. So when I first joined [the scene], there weren't a lot of friendships amongst the girls. I didn't realize that. And it was just this last month, we're all becoming such close friends and really banding together now because we're realizing we've all been through the same stuff," said Slysssa. 


Referencing studies and documentaries she has absorbed over the years, Slysssa notes that, historically, women are naturally very competitive with one another because it has been ingrained in their minds that not many women succeed. In the Hearthstone scene, that's no different.


While the community events and tournaments don't all have life-changing amounts of money at stake, the sheer visibility of performing well can have a monumental impact on player's careers.


When Slysssa won a Battlegrounds tournament in recent months, her stream blew up as a result and players are aware of that. They want their chance to experience the growth she and many others have had, they just want the pedestal to do that on and not have to focus on beating out just women to do so.


"I don't want to feel like I'm competing with Allie for a spot. I want to feel like I'm competing with Sjow or Savjz for a spot," said Slysssa.


Where do we go from here?

If the Hearthstone community doesn't change, more players will follow Pathra's lead and leave the scene. Source: WSOE


Everything is on the table: Blizzard has acknowledged their shortcomings, the discussion around the treatment of women within the Hearthstone scene has never been more public, and the community is aware that a concerted effort will need to be made by all to provide a safer space for those who enjoy the franchise to continue doing so.


But how likely is noticeable long-term change considering it took as long as it did for Blizzard to finally take action in the first place and take a step back to confess the role they've played in creating a toxic and unwelcoming environment?


"Lots of women and Hearthstone are really growing right now and we need to not squash that." — Nicholena


When content creators expressed their concerns in the past, they fell on deaf ears. Only now, when a public relations nightmare caught fire on social media did any action take place. However pessimistic that sounds, Nicholena has faith things can and will change.


"Lots of women and Hearthstone are really growing right now and we need to not squash that," Nicholena said. "We need to embrace that and kind of help correct the imbalance that we've had. We just need to support all the women creating content and make them want to keep creating content, not make them want to leave."


Slysssa echoed similar sentiments and reiterated a point she has been making for years publicly and privately: Women don't want special treatment, they want equal treatment.


"It was tiring to have to constantly prove myself, my experience as the only girl in a big Hearthstone competition. [The process] was handled poorly and my reputation was tarnished." — Pathra


One area where that can be addressed in the short term is when community Hearthstone events are broadcast on Twitch to tens of thousands of individuals. Historically, it doesn't take long for the chat to become a cesspool of sexist, hateful, and vitriolic comments aimed at the women participating. With a concerted effort at moderating unnecessarily nasty messages directed specifically at women, change can happen.


"It's okay to banter and be like, 'Oh, that play sucked.' You could say that about a man or a woman. But to just blatantly target someone because of their gender needs to not happen," Slysssa said.


Pathra, the first woman included in the Hearthstone Grandmasters, attributes the lack of moderation as being one of the reasons she has left the game's scene entirely.


"It was tiring to have to constantly prove myself, my experience as the only girl in a big Hearthstone competition. [The process] was handled poorly and my reputation was tarnished," said Pathra.


At the end of the day, the bulk of the onus lies with Blizzard to facilitate an environment where 10 years down the road there aren't only two women invited to Hearthstone events because there are only two left playing the game.


*Disclaimer: While the name of the Community Manager was mentioned in the original version of this article, Blizzard has kindly asked us to remove the name to protect the individual from harassment. While we believe in holding people accountable, we also believe journalism should do no harm. The CM's name has been hidden for this purpose.

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