Pace University’s budding esports program – the video gaming equivalent to traditional athletic teams – is bucking a national trend in the growth of participation by female or non-binary athletes.
In the past year, the share of women on the school’s esports team has grown to 28% from 19% and half the members of the esports club are female. Pace, based in downtown Manhattan, has a student population that is 37% male.
Colleges across the country are starting esports programs to attract men, who made up 90% of collegiate gaming teams in 2021, according to data compiled by the Associated Press.
At the heart of Pace’s esports strategy – which is entering its third year as an organized activity – is an esports center that opened on Beekman Street in October 2022. Inside, two rows of gaming chairs and monitors sit in front of a giant Pace LED sign. During the day, there is almost always a few students with their headsets on, gaming away, either to improve skills or just to have fun.
Julia Cardillo, assistant director of the esports program, described how it wasn’t easy for her to get everything ready for the center’s grand opening, but it was worth it seeing teammates meet in person for the first time. “It was like a giant party,” she said.
Olivia Fisher, the public relations director of Pace’s esports club, was one of those students. “It was such a key moment for me in esports because it’s like, this is serious – I’m able to pursue this,” she said. “My passion became a reality.”
The esports club offers a place for women to game without worrying about the harassment they often face in the traditionally male-dominated activity.
“I have definitely experienced that sort of thing,” Cardillo said. “You would talk in-game and you would get harassed for it. ‘Go make a sandwich,’ that sort of thing.”
Cardillo, who served as vice president of the club when she was a student, said a woman has always served on the club’s board, which has helped attract more women to the group. “Having that representation and leadership makes it encouraging for members to join,” she said.
That support extends to the varsity teams. Jesse Bodony, Pace’s director of esports, said the teams’ “no toxicity” policy was important for maintaining an inclusive environment. Racist, homophobic or unsportsmanlike behavior could lead to removal from the program. “We hammer that in pretty deeply and it’s definitely a pillar of our program from a core value standpoint,” he said.
The competitors themselves play a large role in maintaining the environment. Ty Kelley II, a member of Overwatch White, the junior varsity team for the first-person shooter (FPS) game, described how they’ll “check each other” if they feel that a teammate gets too aggravated.
That approach seems to be working. Last year, the program’s first all-women’s, non-binary Blue team for Valorant, another tactical FPS game, won third place at Venom LAN, the first all female and non-binary Valorant tournament, in Columbus, Ohio. That achievement led to the creation of a second team and a name change for those teams from Blue to Lavender because of the latter color’s association with queer identities.
Bodony is concerned about the measures he and Cardillo will need to take if their resources can’t match the pace of growth, especially since they only have 12 PCs in the esports center. But inclusivity will always be the goal for the two of them. “The North Star for me and most esports directors is we want a program that matches the diversity of our institution,” Bodony said.
That means performance in competition isn’t the only priority, Cardillo said. “We have this mentality of like, yes, we want to win, and yes, we want to be competitive,” she said. “But on many given days, we would much rather have a bunch of people who are not as highly ranked, but they really want to be there.”