Women in tech: Why esports are a win for diversity

Miriam Aguirre has been a gamer since the days of Atari. Today, as director of engineering at a mobile gaming company, she's working to bring esports to the masses and make the world of gaming more diverse.

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More people are playing video games than all offline sports combined, and 188 million people currently watch professional competitive video gaming, or esports,. And according to Juniper Research projections, total esports viewing hours will reach 6.6 billion by 2018. The industry currently has a fan base that rivals many traditional sports leagues, and is on track to surpass $9 billion in revenue by 2017.

Esports are facilitated by electronic systems and are moderated by both human and computer input. Gamers have long organized informal competitions between players, but esports takes it to an entirely new level, with formal leagues, widely broadcast tournaments and hefty prizes.

Even IT heavyweights like Microsoft are getting in on the action by targeting the latest release of their popular Halo series directly at esports leagues. An industry with this much potential that's still flying under the radar has plenty of room for diversity and inclusion, and Miriam Aguirre, director of engineering at mobile esports and gaming platform Skillz is dedicated to helping democratize the industry to make it diverse, open and accessible to everyone.

On the leading edge

Aguirre's interest in gaming began with Atari, and was cemented when the technology evolved and the Internet made it possible to compete with other players a world away. Now, she's excited to be at the forefront of a new industry that's helping to bring gaming to a larger audience, including women and to other groups who've largely been underrepresented in gaming. But as popular as esports are, there are challenges in breaking new ground.

"The biggest challenge is just how new this industry is, honestly, and how untapped the potential is. Skillz launched in 2012, and while there's a bunch of companies in the space now, we're still on the forefront, and that's so exciting and challenging at the same time. We're in the entertainment industry, so we're competing hard for people's time and energy. We're not a necessity -- but the exciting thing to see is how it's bringing so many people together over shared interests," Aguirre says.

The IT industry in general can be a tough place for women, but gaming in particular has proven it's extremely unwelcoming. While there's more awareness today around the lack of diversity and the need for greater inclusion, and a recent study showed that more women than men own gaming consoles, it's still an uphill battle for equal representation.

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Plenty of room at the table

But an industry as new as esports has plenty of room for everyone; it can be built from the ground up to be accommodating, inclusive and welcoming to anyone who just wants to have fun and compete, Aguirre says.

"The potential is huge and it's really exciting. What I love about gaming is that it's a really level playing field for anyone; there aren't that many women right now in esports, they're a minority now, but that's changing rapidly. This is one of the most engaging aspects of the gaming industry and it's accessible to everyone, especially with smartphones. You don't have to learn the ins-and-outs of a new console, a new controller, it's all mobile and very simple," Aguirre says, which appeals to almost every possible demographic.

While many tech companies struggle with talent diversity, Skillz is highly successful at attracting, hiring and retaining female engineers and IT talent from underrepresented groups. The company emphasizes diversity at every step in the talent search process and it's a core value on which the company is built, according to Aguirre.

"Once the candidates are in the door, we let our very diverse teams speak for themselves. It's obvious from the first time they interact with us. They can see the diversity of the people right around them -- working on code, walking the halls, talking with each other; people of every shape, size, skin color, gender, ethnicity -- it's about the farthest thing from 'bro-grammer land' over here, and we know it's important that women and people of color can see others like them represented in a company, in the culture," she says.

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Having a diverse workforce helps when recruiting new talent, too, says Aguirre, as candidates can see that Skillz's hiring team isn't just paying lip service to diversity and inclusion; they're "walking the walk." It helps the company attract elite talent that shares similar values and a common mission.

"We try and make diversity and inclusion part of everything we do. Women, in particular, are half the population -- why shouldn't we want to represent everyone when we're making, marketing and selling games? You don't leave out half your potential audience -- it's not just good business," Aguirre says.

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