Last November, things just weren’t going according to plan for the women of G2 Gozen. After a commanding year, G2 Esports’ women’s Valorant team found themselves down 0-2 in a best of five during the grand finals of the first ever Game Changers Championship, an event solely featuring women esports teams. In order to save their winning season, Gozen had to pull off the most dramatic of all feats: a reverse sweep.
“You don't think about the fact that there is a room full of 300 people just focusing on you, or that there's 30,000 people watching on stream. You’re just in this moment,” Gozen member Michaela “mimi” Lintrup tells Refinery29. Mimi, along with her four teammates Petra “Petra” Stoker, Julia “juliano” Kiran, Maryam “Mary” Maher, and Anastasiya “Glance” Rival’evna Anisimova, buckled down and came from behind in full force, winning the next three maps in dominating fashion. There was no question: G2 Gozen was the indisputable Game Changers world champion.
“It was really indescribable actually,” Petra, Gozen’s current in-game leader, says of the win in Berlin. “You're so proud and so happy for yourself, for your teammates.” “I started crying,” juliano adds. “It was the goal since the very beginning when we switched over to Valorant [from Counter-Strike Global Offensive], to end up with a world championship, and we did so it felt great from my side as well knowing that I'm going to leave with this trophy in my hands.”
Gozen’s win against its opponent, North America’s Shopify Rebellion, wasn’t necessarily surprising; Gozen had won two out of three series in Game Changers’ Europe, Middle East, and Africa (EMEA) region. It was also the culmination of years of hard work for mimi, Petra, and juliano — longtime CSGO professional players who signed to G2 Esports in 2021 after swapping to compete in Riot Games’ tactical shooter. What was surprising were the estimated 240,000 viewers who tuned in to see Gozen take home the $180,000 first-place prize. For Game Changers’ second year in action, the numbers were impressive for a women's esport event and capped an epic year for the scene.
Women’s esports have long taken a backseat in competitive gaming, from low viewership, lack of investment and resources, and smaller prize pools at a fraction of Tier 1 events. But the appetite for pro women in competitive gaming has never been stronger, much of it thanks to the explosion of enthusiasm for Game Changers and top esports organisations investing in all-women rosters. It’s that combination of game publishers and esports orgs coming together to develop a deeper pipeline of talent regardless of gender that has made the women’s esports scene the healthiest it's ever been. But in the midst of 2023 Game Changers’ Series 3, and as the program gears up for its second championships in November, the question remains on where the scene goes from here — and when women and men will compete side by side at the highest levels of esports.
Women Esports Players Aren’t New, But They’re Still Rare
Women’s esports players and teams have been around for decades. Throughout the 2000s, before esports were even considered a real career for women or men, SK Ladies won multiple women’s events in Counter-Strike, one of the oldest team-based tactical shooter esports. Then came Scarlett, the StarCraft legend whose career began in 2011; she is believed to hold the title for most prize winnings of any woman in esports. And who could forget juliano’s epic 2016 1v1 win against future champion cadiaN, which proved that women can go head-to-head with men at the highest level — and cued plenty of “rekt by a girl” comments. The milestones continued this year. In August, Christine “potter” Chi, a former SK Ladies player and the current head coach of Evil Geniuses’ Valorant team, won Valorant Champions Tour (VCT) Champions 2023, the esport’s crown jewel event. It was a major moment for esports fans to see a woman hold up a trophy on the main stage.
But women were always the rare case in competitive play and still are. Despite women making up nearly half of all gamers globally, only 5% of professional players are women, according to 2019 estimates. And while there have been a handful of co-ed teams across different titles over the years, they typically floundered or were never taken seriously.
Like in most industries, women in gaming have had to work twice as hard to get half the respect. Wins are often discounted as luck. Being direct is characterised as being bossy. When you’re one of the few trying to carve out space, you don’t have the privilege of sitting back. For any woman in the public eye, the conversation no longer is ever just about your performance. “My looks became a factor. My voice became a factor. My hair,” Jaime “Karma” Bickford, the first woman to compete on a mixed team in the Rocket League Championship Series in 2019, says. “All these things that I didn't put any effort into — I was focused on becoming the best player — now were a factor in all my gameplay. … Instead of just ‘the player Karma,’ it was ‘the female pro Karma.’”
My looks became a factor. My voice became a factor. My hair. All these things that I didn't put any effort into — I was focused on becoming the best player — now were a factor in all my gameplay.
JaiMe 'Karma' Bickford
Professional Rocket League Player
Professional Rocket League Player
These kinds of experiences still happen all the time, from the professional level all the way down to the casual. There’s a reason why 59% of women hide their gender in online games to avoid harassment. Even the very top women streamers who have achieved success still face doubters and critics. But as more and more women compete at the highest levels, these experiences may soon be in the rearview mirror.
Valorant Changes The Game
In June 2020 during the height of the COVID lockdowns, Riot Games launched Valorant, its 5v5 tactical shooter. As difficult and uncertain as real life was, the gaming world benefited from people being stuck at home. Games saw an explosion of interest from women, driven by titles like Animal Crossing: New Horizons as well as Valorant. In 2021, retail innovation firm Outform found that 20% more women were gaming than before the pandemic, and there was a huge appetite to see more in-game characters that were reflective of the growing diverse playerbase. Valorant, whose agents hail from different countries and include an even mix of women and men, was essentially the right game at the, albeit challenging, right time. “I feel like the stars all aligned,” says esports host Sue “Smix” Lee on the timing of Valorant’s launch. “From its inception, Riot made a point to try to make Valorant an inclusive game, and you see it in the representation across the different agents you lock in.”
“Did I want the world to be in that situation? Of course not,” Valorant executive producer Anna Donlon says. “But I do think it was this moment in time where all the things came together, and I think we probably had more players try us as a result.” In September, Valorant had an estimated 18.5 million players, according to Tracker Network, and 15% of Valorant’s player base are women, which, Donlon says, is relatively high compared to other shooter games.
A year after Valorant’s launch, Riot announced Game Changers, a new initiative within its main VCT tournament that aims to provide a platform for women and other marginalised genders to be seen and eventually signed by top organisations. “The conversation was, ‘Why don't we see women on that [main] stage? Why aren't they being recruited by these teams? If they're equally skilled, why are they not being provided those opportunities?” Donlon, who was part of the leadership team behind Game Changers, recalls. “There was no good answer for that question. So then it evolved into how do we provide them the opportunity to showcase their capabilities and showcase their skills in a way that ultimately they would be actually be recruited onto those teams.”
Game Changers was exciting — and transformative. The newest esport on the block was investing massive resources that rivaled its main tournament’s into establishing a women’s scene, culminating in massive enthusiasm after G2’s win last year. Earlier this year, popular streamer Jeremy “DisguisedToast” Wang announced a new Game Changers roster, DSG, that featured top Valorant streamers like QuarterJade, Sydeon, and Kyedae. DSG’s first match raked in an estimated 100,000 viewers, numbers unheard of for a qualifier match, even in VCT. More than ever, all eyes were on a women’s esports event.
What’s Next For Game Changers
After a marquee year, expectations and excitement were high for this year’s Game Changers. But rather than invest more resources into the scene, Riot opted to maintain the status quo to the disappointment of some, including Valorant phenom meL. “Not a fan of the venue size or of the tournament format – 8 teams feels so little…,” tweeted Version1’s in-game leader. “Berlin was amazing and it truly felt like they didn’t cut corners [because] it was a GC event. It felt authentic to what Masters, [Valorant’s top tournament], would feel like.”
“People naturally created the expectations that we would grow [Game Changers] to bigger events, more teams, more competitions,” Valorant Esports Global Head Leo Faria tells Refinery29. “We feel like the scope of those competitions are the right size at the moment.” On a practical side, hosting two similarly scaled championships in one year is “unimaginable” for the Riot team, Faria adds.
Instead, the Valorant esports team would rather focus on the ultimate goal of Game Changers: giving women players an opportunity to be seen, which he said happens with online viewership. In short, Riot’s vision isn’t to build up Game Changers to sit parallel to VCT. “The goal is not to get to a point where Game Changers doesn't exist,” Faria says. “The goal is to get to a point where Game Changers is no longer necessary.”
“It's not that we can't wait to defund Game Changers,” Donlon, Valorant’s EP, adds. “That would be the wrong takeaway. It's that if we did defund it, it would be because we'd actually accomplish the goal where we don't need to provide this platform and the spotlight anymore, because it's no longer an issue.”
The goal is not to get to a point where Game Changers doesn't exist. The goal is to get to a point where Game Changers is no longer necessary.
Global Head of Valorant Esports
Global Head of Valorant Esports
Riot is starting to make moves to further enmesh the Game Changers competition into the larger VCT system. In August, Riot announced an affiliate system that will allow Tier 1 teams to partner with teams in Challengers (Valorant’s lower-level league) and Game Changers to more seamlessly tap new talent for their rosters. The move effectively sets up Game Changers as another pipeline for players to enter the international leagues, Valorant’s top competitive level.
But while the changes may be designed to remove systematic barriers, what’s less clear is when longstanding preconceptions and personal bias about women gamers will be taken out of the equation. Because there is a smaller pool of the highest skilled women, they’re considered even more crucial to their teams and their departure comes at a high cost. And it’s improbable that the top esports orgs will suddenly start tapping Game Changers competitors for their Valorant rosters, which are currently exclusively made up of men, despite next year’s changes.
Last month, V1’s meL publicly addressed recent discourse around her trialing for co-ed Valorant rosters and confirmed she had been denied the opportunity to trial for co-ed Valorant teams because she was “too valuable of an asset to release” and that there was at least one instance when she was considered for a Tier 1 team, but she was told that “a player was not comfortable playing with a woman.”
“At the end of the day, it’s [the esports orgs’] choice, right? Our job is to reduce friction and open the door as much as possible,” Faria says. “We are seeing already Game Changers players going into Challengers, which is a good sign. Will they move into International Leagues in the first year? I don't know. I think there's a chance and we're hoping that will happen, but we're always gonna get it right. If we implement this system and we don't see anything happen, we're definitely gonna continue to make changes.”
Winning Is Important. So Is Representation.
To push competitive esports forward, all players — from publishers to esports organisations and event organisers — need to opt in. That’s something that both Riot and G2 Esports, one of the biggest orgs in Europe, believe in. Since 2021, G2 has signed four all-women rosters across various game titles, three of which have been signed in the last year. Alongside Gozen for Valorant, there’s Hel for League of Legends, Luna for Rocket League, and Oya for CSGO.
“The story begins with a frustration from seeing that there's not enough done,” G2 CEO Alban Dechelotte says. “[Gaming] is the sport where there's no physical barrier. This is the sport that has a big unique opportunity to have a mixed process. I come from traditional sports. I've seen many competitions where there are some physical barriers and it's difficult to break them. This is not one of them.”
Having women players is also good business, says G2 COO Sabrina Ratih, who credits the organisation’s diverse rosters — which is nearly half women and half men — for increasing its women fanbase by 75% in the last six months. “It just made me realise that all we need is role models,” Ratih says. “I know so many talented players that stopped playing because it's just too toxic and there is no career path that is actually visible for them.”
When you’re a professional esports player, winning is important. But seeing women compete in esports can have a profound impact, and it’s an understanding that is carried by G2’s women players.
“I'm very focused on what I am here to do” — i.e. win — “but I think also part of my role in G2 is to inspire other women,” Hel’s top laner Olivia “Lizia” Nnenna Calistus says. “We have a much larger role,” Karma, who currently leads Luna, adds. “Working with the women's leagues, the women's operators behind the scenes, and navigating this as best we can to really involve the community and show that women’s teams at the top are as talented or close to as talented as some of the male teams.”
The Case For All-Women Esports Leagues
It’s clear that Riot and others are striving toward having women and men compete side by side at the highest levels of competition. After all, what better way to show that gaming is the true equaliser in competitive sport than having co-ed teams? “[Game Changers] wasn't about creating women's tournaments,” Donlon, Valorant’s EP, says. “The genesis wasn't, ‘Hey, they're never going to get signed by the main league so we should have this alternative league.’ The conversation was, ‘Why don't we see women on that [main] stage? Why aren't they being recruited by these teams? If they're equally skilled, why are they not being provided those opportunities?’”
From G2’s perspective, the end goal is not to get a great women's roster, says Dechelotte. “The end goal is to have amazing great talents playing at G2, [regardless] of their gender. The first step was representation, giving them a chance so that they can be the best competitor they can become. Right now, they play mostly in women's ecosystems. We are working now on Step Two. Step two is to step by step break the barriers, fighting for Publishers and organisers to let us play tournaments.”
But there’s a clear case for women’s esports leagues beyond a farm and development system to what some see as the real competition. “A women’s scene is super important to have because if it didn't exist, none of us would be where we are right now, and there would be no female representation in the gaming scene,” juliano says. Women’s leagues also foster a comfortable environment that allows players to focus on their game, rather than the noise around them and inside their heads. “[In a women’s league,] you're not constantly questioning, ‘Why am I the only one here? Why am I being treated differently? Is it because I’m a woman?’” Karma says.
Which ultimately goes back to the question: What is the ultimate goal for women in esports? Is it to build up a women’s scene that equally excites, inspires, and pays as a men’s league? No one disputes Serena Williams’ GOAT status and no one maligns women’s tennis as less than the men’s. Or, if gaming is the competitive sport that women and men can perform side by side, is it to deepen the pipeline so that eventually programs like Game Changers doesn’t need to exist and co-ed teams become the norm, rather than the novelty? After all, until a mixed-gender team wins a championship, the naysayers will continue to believe the skill difference is real and the gender gap is justified.
I've been involved in women and DE&I esports events for a very long time, and a big thing before was always arguing, ‘Why are these important?’ This is the year I’ve had to argue that the least, and that to me is a W.
Program lead of Calling All heroes
Program lead of Calling All heroes
Maybe these outcomes aren’t mutually exclusive. Regardless, the shared journey is to increase the number of women competing in esports, and that shift has already begun.
The conversation around co-ed pro gameplay has gone beyond just Game Changers and Valorant, and other esports are taking note. Last year, long-time tournament organiser ESL Gaming launched its Impact initiative to create a women’s only competitive league in CSGO as part of its efforts to reenergise the game’s competitive scene. “Yes, there had been Counter-Strike competitions before for a woman, but ESL Impact is a much larger initiative than I think has existed in the past,” Smix says. “I feel like Game Changers sort of put its foot down and was like, ‘This is what we're doing,’ and it's great to see other games follow suit.”
Also last year, Blizzard Entertainment’s Overwatch League created its Calling All Heroes (CAH) program to deepen its talent pipeline of marginalised genders. This year, CAH partnered with women’s esports broadcaster Raidiant to create a year-long pro circuit. Much of that is a credit to Game Changers’ impact. “Riot has kind of been trailblazers in this place with Game Changers. They invested a lot, and it's really shown and brought so much visibility [to women and other marginalised genders],” Bailey McCann, CAH’s program lead, said on Refinery29 Twitch. “There should be no competition between Overwatch and Valorant in this kind of space. We both win and rise together.”
It’s Not A Matter Of If, But When
We’re just at the beginning of a new phase in esports, one that is more true and reflective of the community, but already general attitudes toward women’s esports are shifting. “I've been involved in women and DE&I esports events for a very long time,” McCann says. “And a big thing before was always arguing, ‘Why are these important?’ This is the year I’ve had to argue that the least, and that to me is a W.”
The skill gap is closing, and the competition is just getting fiercer. “We're seeing in real time this continued maturation and evolution of these players to a higher performance,” Smix says. “Season after season of Game Changers, I get to see that evolution firsthand, by changes in results, changes in roles, differences in placements in these events.” It’s a sign that the inevitable is coming. When the skill level is indisputable and too undeniable to resist, women competing in Tier 1 will become the norm, rather than the exception. And that just makes for a healthier, more inclusive, and, ultimately, more entertaining esports scene.
For Petra and Mimi, their eyes are on the next prize: winning Series 3 in the EMEA region, whose playoffs are taking place this weekend, and then defending their championship title in November. “The more the competition is growing, it may also mean more tournaments, bigger prize pools,” Petra says. “That's what we all want, right? And if other teams are improving, it pushes us to work even harder,” mimi adds. “Having competition where every round matters, every kill matters, every decision matters — it's so much more fun.”
Things might not look that different now. Maybe a co-ed team will clinch a championship trophy next year. Or in five. One thing’s clear though: just give it time. Because when it does, it just might be as sweet as a reverse sweep.