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Ninja's management firm is 'actively seeking to diversify' its talent pool

Bridget Davidson hopes gender equality in esports can begin with streamers.
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Bridget Davidson helped establish the League of Legends Championship Series nine years ago. Back then, competitors brought their own equipment to world-class tournaments and Riot Games wasn't sure if anyone would tune in to the online stream. The premiere LCS finals lasted three days in June 2011, and nearly 1.7 million unique viewers watched the show online. It was considered a success and Davidson continued to help Riot grow its esports venture.

Eight years later, the 2019 League of Legends World Championship drew in a peak concurrent viewer count of 44 million, with an average of 21.8 million online audience members per minute. Hologram music groups performed at the opening ceremony and Louis Vuitton designed the trophy case.

Just as the debut LCS tournament was playing out in June 2011, the streaming site Justin.tv launched Twitch, a live-video platform dedicated to gaming. Today, Amazon owns Twitch and streaming is mainstream, with popular personalities regularly commanding multimillion-dollar sponsorship deals. While Twitch has dominated this space for the past half decade, competitors like Mixer and YouTube have recently stepped up and infused the industry with competition, signing exclusivity deals with big streamers and esports leagues, including Overwatch and Call of Duty.

Tyler "Ninja" Blevins ditched Twitch in mid-2019 to stream exclusively on Mixer, Microsoft's rival streaming service, in a deal reportedly worth up to $30 million. A few months later, Michael "Shroud" Grzesiek made the same move. Before the end of 2019, Jack "CouRage" Dunlop dropped Twitch for YouTube, while Twitch responded by snagging Benjamin "DrLupo" Lupo, Saqib "LIRIK" Zahid and Timothy "TimTheTatman" Betar. Each of these deals are reported to be worth millions of dollars per year.

Every streamer in the previous paragraph is signed with Loaded, a management company that sets up marketing and sponsorship deals between streamers and the companies that want to pay them. Davidson joined Loaded this week as Vice President of Talent, leaving her role as senior esports manager at Riot.

"With social interactions these days becoming more of a digital experience, and people being more interested in new forms of content, it isn't as much of a surprise to me that streaming has taken off like it has," Davidson said. "Content creators also have more tools and avenues than ever to attract audiences and brands, while the appetite for content is at an all-time high. It is exciting to be able to help creators develop their careers in this space."

Loaded isn't the only thing all of those streamers have in common -- they're also all dudes. Though women compose 46 percent of the US video game market, esports are heavily dominated by men. According to Esports Earnings, the woman who's won the most prize money in professional gaming is StarCraft II player Sasha "Scarlett" Hostyn, who's earned $357,339 over eight years. Meanwhile, the site says Dota 2 player Johan "N0tail" Sundstein has won $6,890,592 over nine years. There are 329 male players and millions of dollars between N0tail and Scarlett.

"The appetite for content is at an all-time high."

Of course, professional gaming isn't the same as streaming. These industries have grown up together, though not all esports players are streamers, and not all streamers are pros. By design, streaming is an open market, where essentially anyone can dive in and start a channel. Still, the most popular names in streaming are men, and women routinely face gender-based discrimination and harassment on live platforms.

Based on hours watched, the top 10 streamers in 2019 were all men, StreamElements reports. Of the nine biggest streamers today by follower count, only one is female, according to The Loadout. Rank streamers by their subscriber numbers -- meaning, people who actually pay to watch -- and there are no women in the top 10, the site says.

Loaded represents 36 gaming content creators. Just five are women: Hannah "Bnans" Kennedy, Eefje "Sjokz" Depoortere, Jessica "Jghosty" Blevins, Jodi "QuarterJade," and AnneMunition (who prefers not to share her legal name).

"Here at Loaded we're actively seeking to diversify our portfolio of talent, not just because it's the right thing to do, but because it's also what's best for the business and industry," Davidson said. "Those who are in a position to should be thinking about this and doing what they can to more accurately represent diversity within their ranks and content. In order to accelerate this, leaders in our industry need to support women and other minority groups to create a more inviting and supportive landscape for everyone. It's something Loaded will be intentional about, and I look forward to playing a big role in our strategy there."

"We live in a diverse world and that should be celebrated."

Loaded is one management company that deals with one sliver of the gaming industry, but it holds a lot of sway in 2020. It has the biggest and most lucrative names in streaming, it's signing deals worth tens of millions of dollars, and it has the power to put new, fresh faces in front of a hungry audience. With Davidson in charge of lining up new talent, expect to see more diversity in Loaded's roster -- and on Twitch, Mixer, YouTube and even Facebook Gaming.

"One of my goals at Loaded is to evolve the kind of support we offer to our talent, which includes deepening our understanding of the services that will really help our talent thrive and become successful long-term," she said. "We know there are different challenges, needs and opportunities for different talent, so we should have a variety of solutions and offerings to support that diversity."

Davidson reports directly to Loaded co-founder Brandon Freytag, and she said he's also committed to broadening the company's -- and the industry's -- streaming portfolio.

"We live in a diverse world, and that should be celebrated and reflected back to audiences," Davidson said.

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