It’s not all fun and games being an esports athletes. For these young women, it’s also about representation.
The culture of video games belonging to the realm of slackers, geeks, and the antisocial has been overturned—or at least it should be. Today, professional gaming has become a viable career option and competitive gamers are considered athletes and even influencers and high-fashion endorsers.
Esports, though a phenomenon among Gen Z, is as old as video games. The first esports tournament took place in 1972 when Stanford University hosted a competition called the Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics, where 24 players battled each other in Spacewar!, arguably the first video game. The ’90s saw the rise of networked gaming, which encouraged the formation of leagues and growth of tournaments all around the world.
While esports have yet to enter the Olympics, there are clear signs that they’re on the way. In 2019, esports was introduced at the Southeast Asian Games as a medal event. In the 31st edition of the SEA Games held in Hanoi last May, the Philippine team took home two gold medals in the mobile gaming category—not surprising considering how esports thrived, if not exploded, during the pandemic.
Among those medalists are the female members of the national team known as Team Sibol, who triumphed over Singapore with a 3-0 score in the first women-only event of League of Legends: Wild Rift. There are no advantages that either gender can claim when one is competing virtually, compared to physical sports. The motivation behind holding women-only competitions, aside from showcasing the talent of female players, is to provide a platform for them to compete in a safe environment.
“There is a culture of sexism and harassment not just in local esports but around the world, too,” says Cecile Dominguez, CEO of Evident Communications, an agency that specializes in esports marketing. She notes that incidents of harassment and sexism have created an environment of fear among female gamers. “In a male-dominated industry, there are women who have stood up and served as role models for young women who aspire to be in the industry, whether as a player or a talent.”
Up and down
Meet three women who are challenging the image of the female gamer: Charize “Yugen” Doble, 19, April “Aeae” Valiente, 18, and Angel “Angelailaila” Lozada, 21, one half of the women’s Wild Rift champions. The team live and train together in what are called boot camps, where playing games is work, scrimming for up to eight hours a day, not including time spent on individual training.
“Esports is hard. It’s a job,” says Doble. “Playing is fun, but the draining part is the discussion afterward, where you have to analyze and strategize.” Doble, who has been playing professionally since she was 15, is considered the star player of the team, having been ranked the no. 1 player in the Philippines at one point.
Valiente agrees that the life of an esports athlete can be grueling. “You really sacrifice a lot—your studies, your sleep,” she says, describing how much pressure she felt when she first joined the team, and was almost kicked out after they lost a tournament. “Ate Cha told them to give me a second chance, so they did. The next tournament, we were champions.”
Lozada, like the others, started playing online video games when she was in elementary school. With so much time spent playing at home during the pandemic, she joined a girls team that became the training ground for Wild Rift, which had just been released.
“Ro and I dominated in female,” she says, referring to teammate Rose Ann “Hell Girl” Robles. The girls have stuck together since they were part of a previous team, giving them an advantage in coordination and teamwork.
Guide and support
Recognizing the huge potential of the gaming industry and the challenges that professional players face, Congressman Toff de Venecia has pushed for a bill to declare October as National Esports Month. “The bill basically mainstreams esports, to destigmatize the industry from being associated with gambling and vice. Esports is a legitimate profession and a legitimate sport,” he says.
Aside from the stigma attached to esports, Dominguez emphasizes that most pro players are very young and have risen to success very quickly without adequate infrastructure for guidance and support.
“Like any young industry, esports and gaming is going through growing pains, and there’s still a lot of work to be done,” she says, citing organizations like the Philippine Esports Organization (PEsO) and AcadArena who are leading by example through programs promoting professionalism, inclusion, and a positive gaming environment.
Over the next few months, Doble, Valiente, Lozada, and Robles will be spent joining women’s tournaments and preparing for the 2023 SEA Games in Cambodia. But their ultimate goal is to join a league of equals. “People think that just because we’re girls, we’re weaker,” says Doble. “Kaya rin namin.”
This was originally published in Vogue Philippines’ November 2022 issue, available now.
Photographer: James J. Robinson, Makeup: Karmela Jabla, Pat Acejo, Twinkle Bernardo of M.A.CCosmetics, Hair:Dollie Verniz, Rhian Palmes of Jing Monis Salon, MultimediaArtist: Gabbi Constantino, Stylist: Renee De Guzman, Producer: Anz Hizon