When CrackerJess, the wife of my Overwatch buddy CrackerJack*, heard there were no women in the Overwatch League, she was livid. She’d never played a first-person shooter before, preferring Lindy Hop dancing to long computer sessions yelling over a microphone. She had no attachment to the scene, no serious gaming ambitions. What set her off, she said, was an official league’s inability to find even one qualified woman for a position where “there is no reason girls shouldn’t rank as high.”
“Regular sports I get, because there are often actual physical anatomical differences in bodies and muscle mass,” CrackerJess later told me. “But in esports, that shouldn’t be a limiter.” On a mouse and keyboard, from behind a screen, everyone should have the opportunity to go pro. What was it about Overwatch and its culture that made its professional League so same-y? CrackerJess didn’t want to play a game like that.
In February, all that changed. The Overwatch League team Shanghai Dragons scooped up Kim “Geguri” Se-yeon, the League’s first female player. And CrackerJess bought a copy of Overwatch. In the months since, she has logged on nearly every night. “I put on my big girl panties,” she said. After a few weeks, she discarded Overwatch’s training wheels, Soldier 76, instead piloting the tank D.Va, whom Geguri also plays. It was time to get good. But it’s hard, she’s realized. When her team fails, she’s sure it’s her fault. What matters, though, is that she’s here.
CrackerJess’ foray into the world of Overwatch is not a full-throated endorsement to buy a product. It’s a story about seeing someone do something and, as a result, knowing that something is possible.
Last night, before Geguri’s debut game playing tank for the Shanghai Dragons, who were 0-20, CrackerJess and I shot Discord messages back and forth along the lines of “It’s Geguri day!!!!” and “I’m fangirling all over the place.” Geguri, whom a male pro who doubted her skill once accused of cheating, whom teams have said might present language or accommodations issues if signed, was finally inside the official Overwatch arena. All of the casters predicted that Shanghai would dominate the Dallas Fuel, a team that’s suffered a lot of controversies, making them perfect villains. I looked on through the Twitch stream, starry-eyed and over-emotional, as Geguri moved onto the stage, inconspicuous among her teammates with cropped, dark hair and matching jerseys. Fans bellowed as the Overwatch League’s first female pro entered the arena. It was a moment. It felt monumentous.
Like Geguri, I main tank in Overwatch. Nearly two years and hundreds of hours after getting the game, I’ve stopped responding to teammates who confide, “Huh, I’ve never seen a woman in Overwatch not play healer,” a common stereotype for women who play the game. Uh, thanks? Can we play now? A match goes well when I win and nobody points out my gender. A match goes poorly when we lose and, if someone doesn’t straight-up say so, I wonder whether my teammates are blaming me. My fear of performing poorly and reducing myself to a datapoint in someone’s argument that women are bad at Overwatch fuels my near-daily quest to become phenomenal. I wonder often what it will take for me to graduate from being good for a woman to just being good, knowing that, probably, it’s unquantifiable.
Sometimes, I don’t know how to find within myself or trust in my capacity to be phenomenal because I do not regularly see it in the world. We are evidence-based creatures. We look for examples. Geguri’s official debut, for me and CrackerJess, was just that. Lots of women play Overwatch at a high level; Geguri, as the most notable, raised the ceiling.
The debut was last night’s high point. As the game stretched on, it became harder and harder to watch. The Shanghai Dragons were attempting ambitious strategies that flopped, making clear that the team hadn’t had enough time to gel. Support players were often out of position, thwarting damage-dealing teammates’ attempts at big plays. But Geguri was good. As D.Va, she hit all the right beats, often stalling out enemies with evasive maneuvers and last-bid ultimate attacks while her teammates scrambled to come to her aid. On Junkertown, with a crumbling defense, Geguri and a teammate held down the objective with unreal grit and resolve that, for me, turned up the game’s volume several hundred decibels. The moments where we watched her succeed were louder in my mind, higher-stakes. The Overwatch League’s cameramen surely anticipated this, switching the stream to her first-person view more often than those of the other teams’ tanks.
Geguri has said that she doesn’t want people using her story to further their own ideologies. Reading between the lines, to me, it sounds like she’d rather be viewed as Shanghai Dragons’ tank than as the only woman in the Overwatch League. It’s easy to see why. Geguri is both a person and a symbol. Geguri is a player for the Shanghai dragons and Geguri is the woman who plays Overwatch professionally in the game’s official league. On top of that, for the 0-20 Shanghai Dragons, she was hope. If the Shanghai Dragons won, fans would praise Geguri’s addition to the roster. If they lost, she’d disappoint. It is painful to imagine shouldering the burden of carrying the Shanghai Dragons to victory while playing representative for an entire gender as thousands of viewers watch on.
In the intervening months since Geguri’s statement, critics have said it’s unfair for Geguri to shoulder these two burdens. There have been calls to obey her request to not be a symbol for women in Overwatch. But how, when that happened so naturally?
Geguri’s signing may have been what caused CrackerJess to pick up a copy of Overwatch, but it’s not what keeps her playing to this day. “I found encouragement from the examples of other ‘regular’ girl gamers like you,” she said. There I was, now—an example.
The problem isn’t that women like me and CrackerJess are, at least to a point, buoyed by Geguri and what she stands for. The problem is a culture in games that makes what she’s doing special, that makes her a symbol. It sucks that it’s hard to talk about Geguri as a talented tank player instead of as a talented female tank player. It sucks that it’s special to be a woman pro in esports. Geguri doesn’t want to be a symbol. She just wants to play. Me, too. Her being where she is makes it more likely that, in the future, we can just play.
* Not their real handles.