Minnesota’s first all-female professional esports team wants to reshape gaming culture

Video games have always been a part of Natalia Jackson’s life. When she was 4 years old and lived with her family in Japan, it was her grandmother who nurtured her love of the game.

“She introduced me to Super Nintendo games like Mario Kart and Bomberman,” said Jackson, 27. “I probably got my competitive edge from her because she, my sister and I used to fight in these games.”

For years Jackson has played casually. In 2017, she bought her own computer and tried out a few PC games, including Counter-Strike, a first-person multiplayer shooter. This video game put her in touch with other amateur players.

Jackson joined an all-female team and as they racked up victories they started to stand out.

“We started qualifying for tournaments and making money,” she said. “It was then that I probably realized that I really enjoyed playing competitively and that it was possible to pursue a career in esports.”

After four years of working to achieve that goal, Jackson signed a contract in September with VersionX, an all-female professional esports team started by Eagan-based esports company Version1. Jackson joins four other VersionX teammates training at a facility in Eagan, Minnesota. Players receive full-time housing and salaries and participate in national and international competitions.

“It’s really about representation and making the next generation of gamers a little different,” said Annie Riley, VP of Marketing and Creative at Version1. “Right now there are a lot of men in the professional game, and there should be no reason why women aren’t playing at the same level as men.”

The opportunity to earn a salary should level the playing field, as should the care that comes from being part of a professional team. Riley said the new league VersionX competes in will spotlight players where representation is lacking.

“When women don’t get the recognition they deserve, they aren’t invited to play on professional teams,” she said. “They don’t get that big sponsorship deal on Twitch and it comes down to the money and then not being able to quit their day job and do with it what they do.”

There are other reasons why many women have not pursued professional careers in gambling, including online harassment and gender discrimination.

A report released by Evil Geniuses, a US-based esports organization, said that in the past year, more than 40 percent of all women in video games have experienced gender discrimination. , compared to just over 15 percent of men. Some players have said they have disguised their online identities, changed their characters to appear neutral or masculine, and kept their microphones muted to combat harassment.

Riley said the game culture can be intimidating and many women stay away from the industry.

“Which should be really open and welcoming to everyone,” she said. “So the more we can move forward, attract more women to the staff, professional players, the better it will be for future generations.”

Another VersionX player, Rachel Hang, says that when she encounters toxic behavior online, she struggles to separate what is virtually going on in a game from the reality of her life, so she can keep doing it. what she likes.

“Because once you turn off your PC, who will be there?” That voice chat? Hang said. “No, it’s just you. They aren’t there, it was just in the game. Just go ahead and keep playing, work on your gaming skills. That’s all you have to do.

Hang and his VersionX teammates hope to carry this message to their fans and find ways to create a safe online space. Jackson said the players know they are role models and intend to set a good example for other players.

“We can move to create safer spaces for each other,” she said. “I think sharing and talking about our experiences creates a dialogue that allows us to think about solutions and especially for future generations like the little girls who will end up playing video games themselves in the future.”

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