Women in Esports: Sjokz, Frankie & more break down the challenges & goals
As 2021 draws to a close, Dexerto spoke to several women around the esports industry to hear about their experiences from the year.
In October 2021, a post appeared on the League of Legends subreddit that boldly asked the question: ‘why are there no female League of Legends pro players?’ The replies to this and other posts on the topic are eerily emblematic of the challenges women still face in esports, and gaming more widely.
On one hand, there was the creation of Valorant Game Changers, an all-women pro circuit for Riot’s FPS. On the other, the announcement of a $500,000 CS:GO women’s circuit run by ESL as part of its #GGForAll initiative has sparked a heated debate about whether or not separating tournaments by gender is doing a disservice to women in esports.
in 2008 there was literally a world of warcraft team named "gonna rape hafu at regionals" that qualified for blizzcon regionals
no i'm not surprised at the news
— Hafu (@itshafu) July 28, 2021
All this begs the question: when it comes to esports, how do women currently in the industry feel about the state of affairs as 2021 draws to a close?
Dexerto spoke to five women – Rainbow Six Siege player and content creator Marieke ‘MissMarie’ Denise, broadcaster and host Frankie Ward, two-time Valorant Game Changers champion Mathilde ‘Nelo’ Bartoise, host and esports personality Eefje ‘Sjokz’ Depoortere, and broadcaster and esports org owner Erin Ashley Simon. They shared their thoughts on the past year, and what still needs to change in esports.
- Nelo – Valorant Game Changers champion
- Sjokz – Broadcaster and Host
- MissMarie – Rainbow 6 Pro, Content Creator
- Frankie Ward – Broadcaster & Host
- Erin Ashley Simon – Broadcaster, Host, XSET co-owner
Nelo dominated the early stages of the EMEA edition of Valorant Game Changers, the all-women pro circuit for Riot’s FPS title. Having taken home the first two EMEA Game Changers titles, Nelo gave her insight into how Game Changers has helped women’s esports and the importance of creating safe spaces for women in gaming.
When Valorant Game Changers began in March 2021, it was a North America-only event. The NA region ran three Game Changers events, and six Academy events, over the course of the year. The format was brought to the EMEA region in September, with the first series in the region starting on September 27.
On October 3, TENSTAR Nova were crowned the first EMEA Game Changers champions after beating Rix.GG Lightning 3-1 in the grand final. Nelo, the MVP of the title decider, could hardly contain herself when the team put the series to bed.
“I was in shock,” she said. “It was the first-ever trophy I had won, and I had won on it such a big stage. I just couldn’t believe it.”
What was more, her journey with Tenstar Nova had seen her defeat The Originals, a team that included Juliano, Petra, zAAz, and other big-name players,
“It was so surreal,” Nelo explained. “These women who I looked up, who had inspired to me try Valorant professionally, I was playing against them. It didn’t feel real when we beat them.”
But TENSTAR Nova weren’t finished. In the second EMEA Series in October, which now featured a double-elimination format, they lost to The Originals, who were now playing as G2 Gozen. TENSTAR would bounce back and beat G2 to reach the final, in they successfully defended their title, this time beating Oxxgen Esports.
“Series 2 was so much harder,” Nelo said. “We lost and had to go through the loser’s bracket. And to face G2 twice was very difficult. So the second win felt even better than the first, because we had to do so much more to earn it.”
In the third EMEA series of the year, TENSTAR would finish fourth as G2 finally got the better of them, and Oxygen Esports avenged their Series 2 Grand Final loss. However, overall, Game Changers has meant the world to Nelo.
“It is very hard to get onto a team as a woman,” she said. “People do not like to recruit women for men’s teams so even if you are very good, teams might just not be interested in you.
“But Game Changers is very good because it gives women the chance to play. I think some people do not know how good women can be at Valorant, and this is the chance to show them.”
However, Game Changers’ transition to the EMEA region was not the smoothest. A proposal to make one of the events mixed-gender was met with strong backlash from the community. And Nelo agreed with the decision to keep the events for women only for the time being.
“Women need a safe space to play and grow as players,” she explained. “I do not feel that would be the case if men were allowed to compete as well. Having women’s-only spaces in esports is a good thing as it gives women an opportunity that they do not often have.”
Arguably the face of the LEC, Sjokz is one of the most recognizable figures in esports. She spoke to Dexerto about being the face of League, the women’s circuits for the game, and the dangers of gender-segregated events.
Practically every League of Legends esports fan knows who Sjokz is. The former Riot-contracted broadcaster-turned-freelancer has been the face of the LEC and Worlds for several years.
“I’ve been freelance for a couple of years now,” Sjokz said, “but it’s only recently that I’ve really felt the freedom of it. Everyone knows me for League but being freelance allows me to explore other avenues. I love Counter-Strike, and I would really love to do more with that in 2022. But for example, people ask me if I was ‘taken off the desk’ for Worlds this year. I asked to leave the desk this year. I wanted to be on the ground in Iceland, doing interviews and things like that. I know that interviews are a much smaller part of the broadcast but it’s what I wanted to do.”
She admitted that her heavy association with League impacted her enjoyment of her Esports Host of the Year award at the recent Esports Awards.
“Obviously I am very touched and very grateful to win and win back-to-back as well,” Sjokz said. “But I don’t know, I guess I don’t feel like I deserved it as much this year? I thought to myself, ‘I’ve really [only] done League this year’. It’s not like last year when I was doing all these other things.”
Despite this, receiving the award has inspired Sjokz to take matters into her own hands,
“I don’t think back-to-back-to-back is very likely,” she said with a laugh. “But at the same time, I want to work with the people who are trying to break into the industry and the people who don’t get nominated for these awards. I want to use my position to help other people grow.”
As part of the Worlds 2021 proceedings, Global Head of League of Legends Esports Naz Aletaha announced Riot was looking into bringing the Valorant Game Changers model to League of Legends. It’s a move that Sjokz is excited about.
“I think it’s an absolutely fantastic idea,” she said. “I have to admit, I’ve been disappointed that I’ve not been able to do anything Game Changers because I would have loved to have been involved and given another woman’s perspective on it all. But I think bringing that model to League is a fantastic idea. We definitely need to see more opportunities to help women who play professionally. This year, I spent some time working with a women’s initiative in France but the more projects and opportunities that are out there, the better.”
But Sjokz did hold some reservations about the idea.
“The end goal shouldn’t be to have a women’s only League of Legends scene,” she said. “I don’t think that a women’s-only channel is what any esport should be striving for. But creating a women’s circuit is a great way to get these players noticed, and to get women’s League as a whole noticed too.”
MissMarie, a long-time Rainbow Six Siege pro player, joined player-centric org Delta Project in 2021 and spoke to Dexerto about the need for women’s esports to be taken more seriously, and the importance of giving women in the industry better exposure.
MissMarie has been playing Rainbow Six Siege almost as long as the game has been out. Her professional career, which dates back to 2018, has seen her follow the usual pro path of jumping from team to team. In 2021, she joined Delta Project, a player-centric org founded by two-time Rainbow Six champion Fabian ‘Fabian’ Hällsten.
Her biggest issue has often been finding opponents who are willing to take a women’s team seriously.
“People they make assumptions when they find out they are scrimming a women’s team and so they don’t get it their full effort,” she explained. “We’re a serious, professional team and we are often unable to practice properly because people think, ‘oh they’re girls, they’re going to play badly.'”
With Delta Project, MissMarie won the first season of Project Athena, a women’s league established by OPL and Rainbow Six caster Jess Bolden. With Delta Project working to create their own women’s tournament in 2022, MissMarie is hopeful that other organizers will follow suit.
“I am really excited for a Delta Project tournament,” she said. “Because I am part of the creator project at Ubisoft, there are restrictions on the competitive events I can enter. But overall, there just needs to be more tournaments for women that take women’s teams seriously.
“I hope we get another season from the CCS Women’s League and Project Athena. but I just want to be able to play in as many tournaments as possible. There are so many great women out there playing the game, they just need the opportunities to compete.”
MissMarie also advocates for helping create spaces where women can be themselves.
“I am completely myself when I stream because there’s no point in pretending to be something you aren’t,” MissMarie said. “There is a certain way that people think women in esports are meant to be but I hope I can show other women that they can be themselves too.”
While a member of Delta Project’s women’s team, MissMarie’s primary focus is content creation. She streams on Twitch and also produces YouTube and TikTok content. That gives her a unique insight into how women’s creators are also treated when it comes to esports-related content.
Twitch Rivals, the popular show match format, has invested heavily in Rainbow Six. And while women are frequently seen at the smaller Twitch Rivals Showdown events, just six women have participated in the six mainline Twitch Rivals events – and MissMarie would like to see the streaming giant do more to increase inclusivity at its bigger events.
“I completely respect that captains at Twitch Rivals get to choose their team,” MissMarie said, “and I have nothing but love for the women who have played in those events before. But I feel that Twitch needs to do more.
“They could reach out to smaller female creators in the scene and offer them the opportunity to play. Because I feel it works both ways. If you pick a big streamer, then lots of people will watch your event. But if you pick a smaller streamer, then lots of people will go watch their streams after the event. It’s just a win for everyone.”
As for what needs to change with esports in general, MissMarie said that everything comes down to people.
“Companies can do really great things like tournaments and supporting women,” she said, “but if people still view women as less, and don’t take women in esports seriously, nothing changes.”
Frankie Ward is known to many for her work in the Counter-Strike scene, but 2021 saw her take on desk duties at The International 10, and the role of commentator for the reboot of 90s gaming show GamesMaster. Her conversation with Dexerto centered around how Valorant’s success has impacted CS:GO, facing abuse at TI, and being the female face of gaming television.
The success of Valorant, and its women’s circuit, Valorant Game Changers, has had a knock-on effect within the FPS scene.
“I think Game Changers is great, and it’s amazing to see these opportunities being afforded for women,” Frankie explained. “But because Riot has seen so much success with Game Changers, the women’s scene in CS:GO is dying as a result. There isn’t the same level of opportunity or developer support, so women are leaving for Valorant.”
The exodus from CS:GO to Valorant is one that has been extensively reported on, but rarely with a focus on the women’s scene. In May 2021, Dignitas Female, one of the most prolific women’s teams in CS:GO, switched their focus to Valorant. Iconic European CS:GO talent like Julia ‘Juliano’ Kiran, Petra ‘Petra’ Stoker, and Zainab ‘zAAz’ Turkie, all left CS:GO for Valorant, and now play under the G2 brand.
To Frankie, it’s clear why they are opting to switch.
“Valve [developer of CS:GO] is just very hands-off when it comes to things like tournament organization,” she said. “Women’s tournaments especially are organized by external groups and increasingly, it’s just not a viable path for women. But Riot is the complete opposite – it simply presents better prospects.”
While CS:GO is Frankie’s bread and butter, she also received the opportunity to serve on the broadcast team for The International 10, the end-of-season tournament in Dota 2.
“I was so honored to be chosen for TI,” Frankie said. When the opportunity came around, she immediately began to learn the game, playing and streaming it consistently throughout 2021. [Editors note: A previous version misquoted that Frankie did not play Dota prior to TI – we apologize for the error.]
But once there, she was hit with the ugly reality of being a front-facing woman in esports.
“I wasn’t looking at Reddit during TI, mainly because I literally didn’t have the time to,” Frankie explained. “But then stuff started to come on my Twitter.”
Frankie put some of the comments down to ignorance.
“People on Reddit don’t know how much work goes into producing an event like TI,” she said. “We were working insane hours to ensure that we could provide the best experience for the fans. But beyond that, when people say I asked the wrong question, or demand to know why I am asking a certain question, it’s not like I’m just making up as I go along. I go through everything with the broadcast team beforehand but even then, when you’re on stage and you have someone in your ear telling you that they are cutting back to the desk in 10 seconds and you’re nowhere near done with the questions you had in mind, you ask the questions that are going to get great soundbites. That are going to give the most watchable answers.
“No one on the broadcast team had an issue with the questions I asked or how I performed at the desk. It’s why I don’t take advice from Reddit.”
But she also felt that more personal attacks she received were symptomatic of the attitudes people hold towards women in esports. In contrast, the response from the professional community was very positive.
“Obviously I’m not saying that men in esports don’t get criticized,” she said. “They just get criticized in different ways. When people see a woman working in esports and take issue with that, the things they say are so much more personal. It’s not about the performance, it’s about them as a person.
“When people, especially my male colleagues, started challenging people about what they were saying, that was really big to me. I think we’ve seen a lot of occasions where a woman in esports gets harassed online and people who could have spoken up didn’t. But a lot of big-name people were speaking out this time.
“Richard Lewis did a whole video debunking all the ridiculous stuff people were saying. I didn’t watch the whole thing because it was like, 90 minutes long, but it was just crazy to me that here’s Richard Lewis talking about all these things Reddit is saying about me”
But TI was not the only big new project for Frankie in 2021. She also joined the cast of GamesMaster, an E4 reboot of the iconic 90s gaming gameshow.
“I was so excited when I heard about the casting call for GamesMaster,” Frankie said, “and when they told me they were going to cast me, it was because I had come with this really deep knowledge of esports.
“While iconic, the original show didn’t have the best attitude towards women,” Frankie explained. “I felt that ‘women gamers’ was a little too much of a punchline and Zoe Ball was kind of treated like a joke.
“So the fact that they are bringing me on and the attitude is just so different is really great. It feels like a show for 2021, that treats women in gaming just like anyone else”
The attitude of the project is emblematic of what Frankie wants to see change in esports.
“I think companies and organizers need to do more for women in esports,” Frankie said. “Riot has been really really great with Game Changers but that’s just one company. Take the drama about the PGL Major for example. Obviously, there was the whole thing on Twitter about the broadcast team not being diverse.
“To their credit, they listened and they brought Freya [Spiers] in. And of course Freya absolutely killed it, but there’s no reason for her not to be on the team from the start. People always try to hit back with ‘who would you replace then’, and if they can add people to the team, then we don’t have to replace people.
“Bringing women in doesn’t need to be this big showy gesture, it just needs to be a thing that happens from the outset.”
Erin Ashley Simon is one of esports’ brightest stars, having taken on an ownership role at XSET alongside her work in streaming and broadcasting. She sat down with Dexerto to talk about women in leadership, the importance of diversity, gaming’s authenticity, and esports accountability.
In November 2020, Erin Ashley Simon was revealed as one of the owners of XSET, an esports organization established by former FaZe Clan executives.
“During the process of them getting everything together for the organization, I was tapped by Clinton Sparks, with whom I had a very solid friendship from his time at FaZe Clan.
“And he was like, ‘We’re setting up this new esports org that’s centered around the core values of diversity and inclusion. We would love for you to be a part of this.'”
With XSET launching in July 2020, Erin worked behind the scenes until her November reveal. It was an addition to a stacked résumé that includes a decade of media experience, name recognition across esports, and broadcasting roles at some of the biggest events in the industry. She recently had a scholarship launched in her name at her alma mater, the University of Kentucky, and continues to shine as one of the brightest personalities in esports.
But taking on an ownership role was a whole new challenge for Erin and one that spoke to why more underrepresented communities need to be a voice at the leadership tables in esports.
“To be honest, you cannot know the experiences of a marginalized community if you aren’t part of that community,” she said. “And if you want to learn about those communities, you have to go out and be part of them.”
“Esports has been unwelcoming to so many underrepresented communities for a long time,” she said. “That means people from those communities aren’t going to come to you, you have to go to them.”
However, diversity is often a topic mishandled by corporate entities. The ‘diversity win!’ meme speaks the often-seen corporate culture of favoring fleeting, photogenic diversity over meaningful change. It’s why Erin wants to see sincere, intersectional diversity in esports.
“You get a lot of celebrities who try to jump on this esports and gaming trend but the thing is, those spaces are becoming so much more aware of authenticity,” she explained. “You won’t get anywhere if the audience doesn’t feel like you’re there because you actually enjoy the space.”
Esports orgs who recognize this have seen great results in big-name signings. XSET signed Denver Broncos free safety and avid gamer Justin Simmons in November 2021. In January 2021, WNBA star Ariel Powers, who takes her Xbox to every road game, signed with Team Liquid.
“There has been a ton of studies that all say the same thing – diversity increases profits,” Erin said. “If you are pushing back against diversity, you are literally hurting your business.”
Away from the bigger picture, Erin also stressed the importance of women in the industry being themselves.
“We are at our strongest, our most powerful, when we are true to ourselves,” she said. “Women especially get told all the time that there is a certain way for us to behave, look, be. But you can’t succeed until you accept who you are.”
As for what still needs to change within esports, Erin was very clear.
“This is my answer, and I’ve said it on Twitter, but men need to step up,” she explained. “It’s not just a woman’s problem. Men, especially white men, have to understand the privilege that they have and they need to be the ones to hold other men accountable, to tell them that what they are doing and what they are saying is wrong. We should not just lean on women, and especially not just lean on women of color, to fix the problem.
“In order to fix the problem, it’s going to take a village. And that village requires men in the industry to step up, to speak up, and to do more. And I’m not saying all men, because there are men in the industry who do this and who are great allies. But we need more.”