Girl power! Meet five of the most important women in ESports
Google the phrase “women in ESports”, and what you’ll find is pretty telling. One of the first hits, for example, is a YouTube video titled “Why are there so few women in esports?”
Another of the top results is an article bearing the headline “The Divide Between Male & Female Esports Players: Should There be All-Women Tournaments?”
If that makes the world of ESports sound like something of a boys’ club—a digital sausage party, if you will—that’s because it largely has been.
In the past few years, however, women have stepped into the ESports spotlight like never before. In 2018, for instance, the Shanghai Dragons signed Kim “Geguri” Se-yeon, making her the Overwatch League’s first female player. And last year, DreamHack held its first-ever all-female CS:GO tournament, with a prize pool of US$100,000.
Things are clearly changing. Here are just a few of the women in ESports who are pushing the game in the right direction.
Back in 1950 Henry Russell “Red” Sanders gave the world one of the greatest sports quotes of all time: “Winning isn’t everything. Men, it’s the only thing.” (Yes, we know it’s often attributed to Vince Lombardi. But the history books are wrong).
Substitute women for men, and you’ve got a golden rule to live; just ask Massachusetts-raised Madison “Maddiesuun” Mann. In 2018, Maddiesuun became part of the first-ever professional all-women’s Fortnite team after signing on with Gen.G.
She didn’t make the decision to go all-in on gaming overnight; for much of her childhood, Mann was a top-level soccer player, to the point where she dreamed of representing the United States at the Olympics. But after falling hard for PUBG while finishing high school, and then building a following on Twitch, making a collegiate soccer team suddenly lost its appeal.
Competing at an elite level has not.
“My main goal is just winning,” Maddiesuun told ESPN this spring. “I’m just a competitive person and want to win. I enjoy being a figure for women and to help in the future as my side goal I would say, but focusing on myself, being a better player, a better person and role model, and win. I want to win. That’s all.”
There’s no better feeling than being able to blend your passions together into a successful career. When Eefje Depoortere graduated from Ghent University with degrees in history, journalism, and teaching, her goal was to become a traditional sports journalist.
The Bruges-born Depoortere was already a competitive gamer, with several ClanBase EuroCups to her name as part of the Belgian national Unreal Tournament team. (Her preference for Unreal’s Shock Rifle gave rise to her nickname, “Sjokz”, which means shocks in Flemish.)
Today, Sjokz is arguably the best-known broadcaster in ESports, as the host of the League of Legends European Championship. So, no, she never did end up covering traditional sports like cycling and football—and she has no regrets.
“When I see how far we’ve come, and what I’ve been able to do and the chances I get here, I maybe don’t think I’ll go back to that just because ESports is here to stay,” Sjokz told Red Bull. “I love covering it, it’s what I’m so passionate about so I think this may be it.”
As one of a handful of truly high-profile women in ESports, Depoortere knows she’s a pioneer in a male-dominated sphere. Far from being daunted by this, however, Sjokz relishes her position as an opportunity to influence the next generation.
“It’s crazy sometimes—fathers and 10-year-old daughters come up to me and say how they look up to me and I think that is the greatest gift,” she said. “I’m so happy that I can be a good role model for everyone.”
Sasha Hostyn is arguably the most famous woman in ESports. What’s not up for debate, on the other hand, is that the 26-year-old known as “Scarlett” is among the most successful gamers to ever come out of the Great White North.
In 2016, the Kingston, Ontario–born Hostyn earned a place in The Guinness Book of Records for having the “highest career earnings for a female competitive video game player”. Two years later, at the Intel Extreme Master competition, she made history again as the first woman to win a major Starcraft II tournament.
Scarlett’s reign as the “Queen of Blades” has not been without controversy, mind you. Early in her career, Hostyn faced some backlash over her status as a trans woman competing in all-female tournaments. This prompted her to respond, on a fan blog:
It is true I am [male-to-female] transgender, and I kinda expected this reaction. I have never tried to bring attention to myself for anything other than my play, so I don’t feel like this should be a big deal. Most of the girls I know knew about this already and don’t judge or care. In terms of actual play, there is (as far as I know) no advantage to being born male or female. But even if there was, being transgender means you are born with the brain of the opposite gender; so I would not have that advantage or disadvantage. All I ask is for people to be respectful and refer to me as ‘she’.
She’s best known as a Twitch streamer—her channel has 1.1 million followers, after all—but Kristen Valnicek is arguably even more impressive off-screen.
The woman known as “KittyPlays” is one of the gaming world’s top social-media influencers, but a glance at her professional C.V. reveals she’s far more than that. Since 2018, for instance, the Toronto-born and Kelowna-raised Valnicek has been Gen.G’s head of new gaming initiatives.
Just last week, she announced the launch of her own content-and-strategy agency, Radiance Media. According to a July 30 press release, “As the first women-led agency of its kind in gaming, Radiance Media is looking to diversify campaigns and bring light to the many voices and experiences of all gamers.”
Oh, and she once donated thousands of dollars to her hometown SPCA. Because kitties.
Just how good an Overwatch player is Geguri? Consider the fact that, after a tournament in 2016, other players accused her of using aim-assisting software. No human, they argued, could aim with that degree of accuracy.
They were wrong. The gamer born Kim Se-yeon really is that good. She proved it in a live-streamed demonstration of her abilities, and her accusers retired from competitive Overwatch.
With notoriety—even the good kind—often comes opportunity, and the Korean sharpshooter has certainly cashed in.
In 2018 Geguri (the name is a misspelled nod to the Korean word for frog) made history by becoming the Overwatch League’s first-ever female player. That was groundbreaking enough to land her on Time’s 2019 list of Next Generation Leaders.
Today Geguri is a member of the Overwatch League’s Shanghai Dragons. She’s also well aware of what her successes mean to the next generation of female gamers.
“Since I am the only female player in the whole league, I think there are a lot of people who look up to me and see me as a role model,” Geguri told Time. “Knowing this, I’m trying a lot harder to inspire others to get to where I am today.”
Written with Mike Usinger.