Courtesy of Aurélie Bellacicco Photographie
Stephanie is doing her best to counter the abuse problem in her own way. She’s an online ambassador for the charity CyberSmile, an anti-cyberbullying organisation, and she’s doing whatever she can to support their efforts. “I’m trying to make the world a better place by fighting cyberbullying and helping the victims of it. It’s one of society’s biggest problems as technology and social media are at the heart of our social interactions. ‘Raise awareness to fight the trolls’ is my motto.”
Even still, it’s a struggle for Stephanie to continuously fight the negativity. I ask Heather if it’s the same for her – if she ever struggles to speak out for fear of further negative attention. “Yes,” she says. “I don’t like to be the one that ‘rocks the boat’. For years, I’ve elected to just ignore it but I’m starting to come to the realisation that very few people are speaking out. As someone more experienced in the community, I almost feel it is my duty to help address issues that I dealt with for over a decade so that the younger generation can compete in a more welcoming world. That being said, it’s difficult to know where to begin.”
Kristen, for her part, is still passionate and optimistic in her drive to develop a positive community. “My approach is not to engage people behaving badly, or to try to correct or punish them for it, but to simply respond positively to those people who are being kind and supportive.” She says, “I believe everyone can be, and I hope the people typing toxic things will see they get a better response when they are kind and supportive, and I try to give them an opportunity to do that.”
Being a professional Counter-Strike player requires a huge amount of passion and dedication. We should be proud of the people who are competing and we should endeavour to make eSports a better space for them to work in. Both male and female competitors have to put in an incredible amount of work to get anywhere near the top, but with such a small pool of female players to begin with, I feel like we need to work on how we cut through the intolerance and ignorance so that we can encourage more women to play the game and go professional.
“I’ve had to give up a lot in life to get where I am,” Heather tells me, “and I’m still nowhere near where I want to be. I skipped out on many parties in college, missed family get-togethers and even holidays, stopped playing varsity sports and couldn’t find time to go to the gym, among many other things. Just like a professional athlete, it takes an enormous amount of time and dedication to be a competitive player, which means making sacrifices elsewhere. I wouldn’t blame other female gamers for not wanting to make sacrifices in exchange for practicing.”
There are honestly lots of barriers for anyone that wants to become a professional gamer, not only for women,” says Stephanie. “It’s still a risky profession as we have no idea how it will develop over the years.”
When I ask Stephanie what her advice for other players wanting to turn professional would be she says, “Never give up. And work as hard as you can to reach your goal while maintaining a balanced life. Your health, education, friends and family, etc. It all matters and, in the end, you need it all to be happy.”
A Counter-Strike career, whether for men or women, can be a great journey. For Heather, it started in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with the original CS still in beta. She and her brother would have LAN parties in their parents basement.
“My brother and I convinced my parents to go to Dallas for a major international tournament,” She recalls. “My mom and Grandma drove us sixteen hours south. We hung out in the BYOC and felt an enormous sense of patriotism cheering on American team X3 in the CPL event. The team included moto and Ksharp; the former who ended being my brother’s team manager later in life and the latter being one of our closest friends. However, at the time, they were celebrities and heroes in our eyes.
“We wanted to share that same stage and both set our eyes on improving our skill. My brother, friends and I would travel the country every few months to compete in an event and get our names our there.
“As of today, I’ve competed in nearly two hundred LAN tournaments in addition to numerous online leagues. My crowning achievement was winning a CS:GO World Championship in the ESWC Female 2012 event. However, I’ve only competed in a handful of female-only events. Instead, I’ve competed against players of all skill levels across the world, male or female, in my fifteen years of competitive Counter-Strike. I’ve competed against everyone from a group of local middle schoolers to legends like NiP, Na’Vi, Team3D, Dynamic and PowersGaming. In addition to competing, I’ve also found myself on the business side of eSports. I’ve worked as a journalist, managing editor, public relations manager, social media guru and league admin among many other titles with some of the world’s most reputable organisations.”
Courtesy of Aurélie Bellacicco Photographie
For Stephanie, it started with a guy she liked and a special lunch deal at the local LAN centre – $5 for poutine and 45 minutes of CS. “Eventually I went to the prom with him but that was it,” she says, “he wasn’t really interested. I never quit Counter-Strike, though, and stayed friends with the local players.”
Now she plays professionally for CLG Red and is a game designer at Ubisoft Montreal. “I’ve been involved in eSports for over 12 years, winning five Counter-Strike Female World Championships along the way. I’ve also been in the video game industry as a developer for the past seven years and was one of the 2014 Forbes 30 Under 30 Game Changers.”
However, that’s about to change. “I’m looking forward to the sabbatical I’m taking from game design in the next few months to focus 100% on eSports, CS and CLG Red. Even though I have an amazing career, I want to pursue this passion of mine and I’m currently too busy with both to feel like I’m accomplishing it well. This year, I will finally take the leap to see if I can find peace with it or continue in eSports for more time. I love my game design job, and this decision wasn’t taken lightly, but I believe it is the right one.”
To those women considering a life in professional CSGO, Heather says, “Try your best not to let [the abuse] hurt you. I’ve been called every name in the book and if I told my colleagues, family or non-gamer friends they’d be shocked. Don’t let it stop you from achieving your goals. Competing in Counter-Strike and winning a major event is one of the most rewarding feelings I’ve ever had and I’d never trade my experiences for anything.
“It takes time, patience and money to travel and compete but it’s so worth it. I’ve met some incredible people through gaming that will be lifelong friends. Keep practicing. Find a group of friends you enjoy playing with, because succeeding will be even more rewarding if its done alongside people you care about.”