Written by: Chelsi Mackie
Follow: @JournalOfChels

Esport Canada is ready to pave a new road for women’s inclusion in the world of esports – starting with Counter Strike 2.

Helmed by CEO Melissa Burns, the not-for-profit organization is the national body for esports in Canada and is building a new women’s Counter Strike 2 National Team, set to be launched in May. Counter Strike 2, or CS2, is a multiplayer first-person shooter game developed by Valve Corporation and launched in September of 2023 as an update of sorts to its predecessor CS:GO, which had already made a name for itself in the esports industry by the time CS2 was released. Burns says plans to create the team were a long time coming, but what delayed the process was ensuring there was space for equity.

“We wanted to make sure that if we were going to be competing internationally that it was going to be an equitable opportunity for everyone who identifies as a woman. And so now that we’re in a position where the international bodies are being inclusive in their definitions and allowing all those who identify as women to participate, we were ready to jump in,” she says, continuing to explain how using specific language in presenting the team is instrumental in its inclusivity. “We’ve been intentional in naming our team the ‘women's team’ [instead of ‘female team’], because we wanted it to be reflective of our community and not just of biological sex.”

Delay over, Burns says what excites her most about the upcoming women’s team is the opportunity to create change. With this new team, Burns is hoping to shift the way women and gender-diverse people are viewed and included in esports.

But wait a second – why are electronic sports separated by biological sex anyway? Burns says the separation might be necessary right now due to disparities between men and women in gaming, therefore a space needs to exist solely for women and gender diverse people to play until the industry’s culture shifts to become more inclusive. According to the Entertainment Software Association of Canada, which releases a study every two years on gaming stats across the country, 51% of overall people who play video games in Canada identify as women. However, only 5% of professional esports players identify as women – a major gap.

“When I see that kind of statistic and that kind of discrepancy in the numbers, you have to relate it back to a systemic barrier. There's something that is getting in the way of women being highly successful in these spaces and those who are, are overcoming substantial barriers to success in order to be there,” she explains. “And so from my perspective, having spoken with a lot of women who game, it’s definitely getting better, but there has still been a lot of discrimination and just a lot of unhealthy toxicity towards women and gender diverse [people]. I know that we talk a lot in binary terms when it comes to these issues, but it is so much more than that.”

While there are already spaces specifically geared to women in gaming, for Burns, real change means addressing it at its source and stopping it when it's just starting to form. With this in mind, Burns says she’s working towards launching a program later this year that will intentionally bring esports and gaming into schools. She says it will be community led, community driven, and illustrate a very inclusive approach to taking on these systemic issues in a meaningful way.

“The comparison I often make is to basketball: if we only ever played street ball, it would be a very different sport. But because we bring it into schools and because kids learn about sportsmanship, it changes the game. Because when they get frustrated, when they become dysregulated, when they have those experiences that they're going to have outside of the classroom and we bring it into the classroom, now all of a sudden we get to have that moment of stopping it and having a moment of reflection, and being able to change the way the conversation ends,” she says. “And it doesn’t mean that everything changes immediately. But even if we get someone to think about it for a second longer than they would have before, there’s an opportunity for change, real change.”

With hype continuing to build around the new women’s national CS2 team, Burns and her team are also committed to their work in schools across the country via K-12 programs in the hopes of building a more inclusive esports community for women and gender diverse people. And that’s what the prerogative is over at Esport Canada: ensuring everyone’s ability to play, and to play together.