Skins Deep: Race, Gender, and Nationality in eSports

Since the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1985, Asia has remained the center of the manufacturing of video game hardware (China and Southeast Asia), the center of game innovation and the birthplace of most game genres (Japan), and the largest reliable resource of consumers (nearly half of game players reside in Asia). Dr. Fickle asks how video games, in being inextricably tethered to Asia, continue to produce new racializations of Asians around the globe, and the varied impacts games have had on Asian diasporas in North America through forms of digitization, “gamic” worlds, and play itself. Dr. Fickle explores a range of relevant contemporary topics in Asian/American gaming, such as esports, visual novels, racial representations, gender, labor and industry culture. 

Watch the highlights:

Remote video URL

Key Terms

Yellow Peril: Defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as the idea of “a danger to Western civilization held to arise from expansion of the power of eastern Asian peoples.” The racist ideology of the Yellow Peril first came to prominence during 19th century debates about placing limits on Chinese immigration to Western countries. The language of the Yellow Peril has since been revived with Western anxieties over the rise of China; Dr. Fickle argues that this revival also manifests in video game culture, particularly in the kinds of responses to the perceived Asian dominance of e-sports. 
Model minority: Defined by as a “minority group or a member of such a group stereotypically viewed as being more successful than other such groups or individuals,” the idea of the model minority is frequently applied to Asians. The model minority myth oversimplifies the diverse experiences of Asians and attempts to present them as ‘honorary whites’ separate from other minority groups. Dr. Fickle notes that the stereotype of Asians being naturally adept at e-sports is a crucial example of this. 
Geek masculinity:  A form of masculinity that emphasizes technical mastery of gaming over physical strength and athleticism. Geek masculinity doesn’t cast aside conventional masculinity so much as reappropriate it, despite a clear difference in the kinds of bodies valorized by geek masculinity. Dr. Fickle points out that the ways that women are sexualized in these male-dominated spaces reinforces this geek masculinity by foregrounding stereotypical heterosexual tropes. 

Rainbow capitalism: Describes instances in which corporations profit from the appropriation of the LGBTQIA movement, such as when Target released a Pride collection featuring rainbow-striped clothing, or the brief adoption of rainbow logos during Pride Month. Rainbow capitalism has been critiqued for constructing a version of queerness that is sanitized, desexualized, and made easier for mass consumption. 


Arguing that the playing of e-sports is a form of racialized labour, Dr. Fickle sees the discourse around Asian male gamers, who make up a significant portion of the e-sports community, as part of a broader discourse about Asian labour. Asian players are frequently described as ‘robotic’ and ‘inexhaustible’ competitive threats in e-sports, similar to tropes of how ‘cheap Chinese labour’ acts as a threat to waning Western economic power. 

Dr. Fickle notes that there are conflicting representations of Asia in e-sports. On one hand, there’s “a wistful admiration of South Korea in particular as a promised pro-gaming land.” On the other hand, there’s also a Western desire to “beat Koreans at their own game” and “return the game to us.” Dr. Fickle notes that Chinese and Korean e-sports players occupy a model minority role in the way that it is treated that Asians have a ‘natural’ aptitude for e-sports. At the same time, however, Western anxieties over the perceived Asian dominance of e-sports can be thought of as a form of Yellow Peril ideology. 

Reflection questions: Where else do tropes about “cheap Chinese labour” and the language of ‘Yellow Peril’ ideology manifest in broader gaming community discourse? How might a closer look at the interplay of racialized masculinities contribute to a deeper analysis of gaming media? 

Case Study 1: SNL Skit with Lazlo Holmes 

Dr. Fickle describes the case of Lazlo Holmes, a recurring Saturday Night Live character played by Chance The Rapper, who in one skit is presented as a fictional NBA broadcaster who is tasked with covering the League of Legends Worlds Championship, despite an unfamiliarity with e-sports. As Dr. Fickle points out, this sketch and previous Lazlo sketches about his similar cluelessness with the sport of hockey, rely on a racist trope that Black people have a natural affinity for certain sports while the rest are “white sports” that exist outside Black people’s comfort zone. Significantly, the only player of this “white sport” presented in the sketch is an Asian American man. Dr. Fickle notes that Lazlo is also used as a mouthpiece for the racist trope about “Asian Americans as honorary whites and therefore not in solidarity with other minorities.” The gamer, played by Bowen Yang, plays into Asian gamer stereotypes, being poorly dressed and slumping awkwardly. Audience familiarity with this stereotype sets up the next joke: the appearance of his female groupies. Lazlo is stunned that e-sports are not only watched but that attractive women would find these unathletic-looking Asian men to be desirable. 

The presence of women in North American game spaces is central to the idea of “geek masculinity,” a term Dr. Fickle borrows from T.L. Taylor. With gaming spaces being intensely male-dominated, the presence and admiration of female bodies is essential to marketing male gamers as hypermasculine. Even though geek masculinity doesn’t conform to body image standards imposed by dominant forms of masculinity, geek masculinity doesn’t reject traditional ideas of masculinity so much as repackage them. Dr. Fickle notes that theories of geek masculinity could be enriched by considering how non-white and queer bodies are used to contribute to the straight-washing and white-washing of gamer culture. 

Reflection questions: How do outside representations of gamers reinforce harmful ideas of race and gender in gaming communities? How can the concept of “geek masculinity” help us in our own analyses of gaming media and game communities? How does geek masculinity reproduce aspects of dominant or hegemonic masculinity? 

Case Study 2: Lil Nas X at the League of Legends Worlds Championship 

To promote the Worlds Championship, one of the largest e-sporting tournaments in the world, Riot Games released a series of comedic YouTube videos in which musician Lil Nas X acts as the new “President of League of Legends.” The work culture presented in the video is akin to a staged advertisement for workplace diversity, with approximately equal numbers of men and women and employees of various ethnicities – except Asian Americans. Dr. Fickle notes that this utopian representation of Riot Games through the prominent visibility of Lil Nas X’s Blackness is “also made possible through the erasure of Asian bodies, who, in real life, are over-represented both on the developer side and the player side.” 

The video attempts to use Lil Nas X’s mainstream popularity to assert that League has become similarly ‘cool’ to mainstream audiences, but this goal clashes with the presentation of Nas as an awkward hypersexual that, similar to Lazlo, knows nothing about e-sports. Riot’s decision to choose Lil Nas X for this marketing campaign is a clear example of rainbow capitalism, which Dr. Fickle notes is comparable to how “geek masculinity” might initially appear to function differently from traditional ideas of masculinity but is gradually reabsorbed into the mainstream. 

Rainbow capitalism is also central to Riot’s decision to coincide Lil Nas X’s promotions with the release of K’Sante, Riot’s first openly gay Black champion. In interviews about his motivations behind creating K’Sante, Riot game designer Buike Ndefo-Dahl speaks of the struggle of Black characters to be defined beyond their struggle against oppressors. In response to this, Ndefo-Dahl chose to portray K’Sante’s identity as incidental or even ‘boring,’ similar to the milquetoast conception of Garen, a champion that embodies white, heteronormative tropes. But this choice to frame queerness as incidental, Dr. Fickle argues, forces what is transgressive about K’Sante’s character to be overshadowed by his Garen-like, heteronormative qualities. There are further parallels here to how geek masculinity reinforces normative masculinity, but Dr. Fickle also points out how Blackness and queerness are further being employed in the progressive demotion of Asians’ ‘incidental’ status when it comes to their ability to win e-sports tournaments. Riot’s centering of Lil Nas X in its promotions of the Worlds Championship ultimately serves to ‘incidentalize’ race, sanitizing, whitewashing, and reclaiming it for a Western audience. 

Reflection questions: How else does rainbow capitalism manifest in e-sports? In what other contexts is queerness used to deflect attention from racism? How might queerness be represented in gaming beyond the idea of a struggle against oppression without becoming ‘incidental’?  

Tara Fickle 

Dr. Tara Fickle Headshot

Dr. Tara Fickle is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Oregon, and an Affiliated Faculty member in the Department of Indigenous, Race, and Ethnic Studies, the Center for the Study of Women in Society, and the Center for Asian & Pacific Studies. She received her Ph.D. from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and her B.A. from Wesleyan University. Dr. Fickle’s research interests include Asian/Asian American literature, Game Studies, the Digital Humanities, and Comics Studies. Her first book, The Race Card: From Gaming Technologies to Model Minorities, (NYU Press, 2019, winner of Before Columbus Foundation’s American Book Award), explores how games have been used to establish and combat Asian and Asian American racial stereotypes. Dr. Fickle’s critical and creative work has appeared in Modern Fiction Studies, Comparative Literature Studies, MELUS, and various public humanities portals.