Stepping into the Blizzard Arena can be a surreal experience. Converted from the original studio for The Tonight Show in Burbank, California, it’s now a state-of-the-art sports stadium for a new kind of athlete: professional video game players.
Fans flock from all over the world to watch contests in both Overwatch League and Heroes of the Storm Global Championship – two of the most popular platforms in esports – and cheer on their favourite teams in person. Launched in December 2017, the place still smells new – and every inch of it has been designed to mirror a mainstream sports organisation, from the merchandise store in the lobby to the gleaming trophy cabinets upstairs.
Inside the main stage, beneath a massive glowing halo, teams of six take up either side of the stage. Each player wears a headset, their face enlarged on a screen in front of their own monitor, their assigned character illustrated on an even bigger screen behind them (complete with performance stats).
Every move is tracked not only by live commentary in various languages but by a control room of producers picking out key moments to be dissected by a panel of analysts. All the while, fans clack their thunder sticks – cacophonous strips of inflatable plastic – and wave signs with slogans like “Heroes never die!”
Spend enough time in this atmosphere and you’ll see why esports is on pace to become the biggest spectator sport on the planet. The key components are all there – the right mix of skill and accessibility, big personalities and dramatic storylines – but the stakes are growing exponentially higher.
Last October, the 2018 League of Legends World Championship finals drew more than 205 million simultaneous viewers. Back in August, The International – an annual tournament for battle game Dota 2 – split a prize pool of over $25 million. Even here in the Blizzard Arena, every Overwatch player receives a minimum salary of $50,000 along with health benefits and a retirement plan.
Yet as the industry continues to infiltrate the mainstream, long-standing issues within gaming culture are coming into focus, threatening to undermine its potential. A 2016 convention for the streaming platform Twitch, for example, included a panel to discuss harassment, racism and under-representation in gaming. Everything went smoothly… until the event’s live chat feed erupted with racist bile directed at its speakers, all of whom were African-American. These eruptions are not uncommon.
The problem is that players often see the spontaneity of these platforms as being invaluable to their personal brand, believing that ‘entertainment value’ should trump everything else – even in communities where toxic behaviour can lead to fines, suspension or the end of a career. Whether it stems from a disconnect caused by technology, unrecognised privilege or the current political climate, this open hostility towards people of colour, women and LGBTQ players is creating barriers that other pros simply don’t experience.
“The fact remains that outside of perhaps the fighting game communities and maybe a couple of others, there’s a significant lack of diversity in esports both in terms of race and gender,” says Khalif ‘Khroen’ Hashim. Well-spoken and sharp, the 23-year-old captains the HeroesHearth team in Heroes of the Storm Global Championship, where his outsized afro streaked with red has made him one of the most recognisable players in the industry.
Khroen grew up in Massachusetts, where he studied English and Mass Communications in college and joined esports organisation 2ARC Gaming. The team failed to find success during Khroen’s six-month stint with them, but it did lead to his first professional contract with Gale Force eSports.
In those early days, Khroen remembers being inspired by one of the only African-Americans in esports, League of Legends pro Zaqueri ‘Aphromoo’ Black. Since turning pro himself, he recognises the challenges that come with being a player of colour. “Unfortunately there will always be people who want to see you not succeed, too,” he says. “That’s something you have to deal with and overcome.”
HeroesHearth had a strong 2018 under Khroen’s leadership, qualifying for their first BlizzCon finals. At bootcamp – where players are put through gruelling training – he made sure that everyone had clear goals, that they’d work on their communication and share the responsibilities.
But on a day-to-day basis, the key rule for participating in one of Khroen’s live streams is simply “to be a decent human being”. The idea is to instil a positive and fun environment where people can chill out, be themselves and feel like they’re a part of a welcoming community. “I don’t have the care or energy to try to be someone I’m not, just for the sake of ‘shock value’ or trying to gain an audience that I don’t connect with on that more intimate level.”
In person, Khroen is laid-back and amiable, keen to stay grounded in an environment where most of his day is spent in front of a computer screen. “It’s easy to lose perspective and not maintain a balanced life with so much of it being dedicated to practising and competing,” he says. “It’s much more demanding than one might expect… and it’s something that has definitely taken a toll on my mental health in the past. So although most of my time is still very much dedicated to Heroes of the Storm, I try to make space for other hobbies like D&D [Dungeons & Dragons] and writing poetry as an outlet for expression.”
Khroen knows that these kinds of things are easier said than done. He knows that in a highly competitive and insular atmosphere, things can go south quickly – testing even the sturdiest of principles. And when someone isn’t self-aware enough to recognise that happening, it takes a firm resolve to stand up and speak out.
“I think ignoring toxic behaviour is something that people do much too often, especially in gaming communities where it’s seen as something that’s more normalised,” he says. “But if the person doing said behaviour isn’t being called out for it, who’s to say that they even know that what they’re doing is wrong?”
A huge part of Blizzard’s success both as a game developer and major player in the esports industry has been its efforts to improve inclusivity and representation. Overwatch has 28 playable heroes, 13 of whom are women. Six characters are from Asian countries, four from Africa, one from Mexico and another from Brazil. Although there is still a way to go (the game’s only ‘black’ female is a robot), developing strong characters across various titles is helping to inspire more diverse creatives, players and fans.
There may be no better example of that than South Korea’s Seyeon ‘Geguri’ Kim: a player for the Shanghai Dragons and Overwatch League’s first woman athlete. Reserved and matter of fact, with black-rimmed glasses and short hair, the 19-year-old tends to give away little, fielding questions with one-line answers. Yet her performances have been so impressive that Shanghai Dragons games can feel like outings for Geguri’s personal fan club. “They have always supported me,” she says of her followers, who inundate her with messages and requests for selfies. But in truth, this ascent hasn’t always been smooth.
Geguri has been a gamer since the age of five, when her parents introduced her to the online multiplayer Crazy Arcade. At 16, she became mesmerised by the trailers for Overwatch and started spending all her allowance on playing it at local PC bangs (South Korean gaming centres). Yet being a team game, individual skill is just one part of the equation.
Geguri tried to join in with other players only to feel sidelined once they heard her speak on group chat. Trolls would mock her looks or assume that Geguri’s boyfriend must be playing under her name. She even considered disguising her voice with a modulation device, hoping it might level the playing field, but opted to play on in silence instead.
Then she met AKaros, another female player three years older than her, who extended an invitation to join the amateur team UW Artisan. That quickly raised Geguri’s profile but also drew allegations of cheating. Some of the guys thought her skills were too good to be true, accusing her of using an aimbot (or auto aim), and the story blew up.
“The fact that they thought I was [cheating] must’ve meant I was good,” she later told ESPN. “[But] because they attacked me publicly, everyone in the community was attacking me, calling me a crazy bitch… I was scared.”
Geguri cleared her name with a monitored live demo – viewed more than three million times – proving that her skills were genuine. Now a full-time pro who trains in Shanghai and lives with her team in LA during the season, Geguri has become one of Overwatch League’s fastest rising stars. There is also immense expectation surrounding her: not just to turn around the fortunes of a team that lost all 40 games last season, but to blaze a trail for women in the league. That said, she feels reluctant to take on the role of feminist icon, preferring to see herself as simply a diehard gamer living out a dream that once seemed impossible.
“My family never agreed with my decision to be a professional player,” she says now, looking back. “But I think I should decide my own life. I’ve never regretted my decision… and I don’t have any time to care about people’s aspersions, nor should I spare any effort to change myself.”
Another player who has become an unlikely ambassador for esports is Pongphop ‘Mickie’ Rattanasangchod. The 25-year-old, who grew up in Bangkok but now plays for the Dallas Fuel, radiates positivity and has become one of the most approachable players in Overwatch League. His teammates describe him as an oddity of boundless energy: the glue of the team, the one who can keep the mood light and get the momentum back on track.
Mickie makes particular effort to spend time with fans, talking non-stop in his live streams about the importance of interpersonal skills and effective time management. But even though his smile seems irrepressible, he admits that the defeats can get to him sometimes. He just prefers to limit the impact of negativity by staying positive.
“Reaching the goal is good, but enjoying the path to the goal is awesome,” he says. “I’ve got so many direct messages about how I inspired a person to keep thinking positively. Thai gamers especially have not seen anybody come this far before. It’s a great thing for people to feel like if Mickie can do it, then they can do it too.”
That sense of resilience is something he learned early on in life. Mickie lost his father at a young age; his mother juggled part-time jobs, working weekends selling insurance policies, just so they could scrape by. That often meant dropping a six-year-old Mickie off at gaming shops and picking him up on her way home in the evening.
Sometimes his mom and older sister would skip dinner just so he could eat whatever little food they could afford. “My mom and my sister never stopped me from doing what I love,” he says. “That was the best way to support my dreams; it helped give me a positive attitude and made me who I am today.”
At seven, Mickie started working at a gaming shop, keeping track of customers and letting them know when their time was up. He quickly became an obsessive gamer while somehow managing to excel at school. At 14, he entered a national competition for the dance game Audition and came second, winning 20,000 baht (about $600). He turned pro two years later.
Most Thai gamers tend to give up playing around the age of 23, after graduating from university, and Mickie almost followed suit when he studied programming. Esports just didn’t seem like a viable career path. Then a friend asked him to compete in Overwatch, pulling him into a team that was missing a player. He took to the game quickly and went on to represent Thailand at the Overwatch World Cup, his stand-out performance warranting a move to the US in late 2016.
Now preparing for the second season of Overwatch League in February, Mickie seems pumped about the future of esports. He can’t help it. Even when the Dallas Fuel struggled last season, releasing one player for derogatory behaviour and losing another to burnout, Mickie remained stoic in the face of mounting frustration from fans. He has acknowledged that it’s almost impossible not to feel stressed in that kind of environment, that sometimes handling toxic players is just part of the process. But he believes that competitive gaming has the potential to unite far more than it divides.
“Esports is something that should be for everyone,” says Mickie, who has since bought a house for his mother and sister with his earnings. “Welcoming all players from all different countries, genders – you name it – is very important. Not everyone outside of esports has opened their minds to that yet, and it won’t come easy, but I think we are on the right path.”