“Having that raw, crisp aim, and you just tap and someone dies, is so satisfying,” Michaela Lintrup says, her fingers punctuating each word. Sitting on a black, red, and white #G2Army Secret Lab chair and crowned with a Logitech G Pro X Wireless headset, the Danish gamer has the magnetic energy that’s just the caffeine jolt I need for our Zoom call. It’s 2:30 a.m. my time in Los Angeles, but for the 24-year-old esports pro, it’s a half hour before noon at G2 Esports' office in Berlin, where she passionately explains to me why first-person shooters (FPS) are her games of choice. “The competition in an FPS game is just unmatchable for me. I just love it.”
Lintrup has eight years of esports experience under her belt, playing in her first international event at the age of 16, competing at events like the Copenhagen Games and Dreamhack, and building her rep in Counter-Strike Global Offensive (CSGO), a highly competitive mechanics-driven FPS game that never had a woman reach the main stage of a major tournament. Avid CSGO fans will likely know her as “mimi” of Team Secret, but since October, she has repped G2’s samurai emblem. That’s when the Spanish organization signed Lintrup and the majority of her former TS teammates to create its first all-women’s team and compete as G2 Gozen in Riot Games’ Valorant, a team-based tactical shooter that combines CSGO mechanics with Overwatch character abilities.
Though women make up half of all US gamers, only 35% of people who play a game that’s considered an esport are women, according to a 2019 study by data firm Interpret, and the number of women professional esports players is even lower. But while men overwhelmingly make up the majority of organizations’ esports rosters, women are leading the rise in esports viewership. In 2020 alone, the number of women esports viewers in the US jumped from 23% to 36%, according to Interpret, a move largely driven by the increased visibility of women competing at the professional level and industry efforts to make the esports scene more inclusive.
In February, Riot announced Game Changers, an initiative to give women and nonbinary esports players a stronger platform and a direct pipeline into its Valorant tournament, the Champions Tour, and launched a three-tournament all-women’s series for multiple regions across the world. The program was widely praised throughout the gaming community, and Riot would go on to expand the format to its popular multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game League of Legends in September.
I spoke with Lintrup late November in the middle of her team’s second bid to claim the Game Changers crown for Series 3 of the Europe, Middle East, and Africa region (EMEA). In its first outing, G2 Gozen came in third after losing to TENSTAR Nova in the lower bracket, a sore point for Lintrup. “We should have gotten first,” Lintrup says. “God I hate losing so much.” Four days after our chat, Lintrup and her dominating Cypher plays would help G2 win the Grand Finals against Guild X.
Lintrup is among the few top players putting women on the esports map. But the question looming over the competitive landscape is how tournaments can become more reflective of the esports fanbase and offer more diverse representation among its players.
For Lintrup, the answer is complicated.
When you're a rookie coming into the game, it's important to have a safe space where you can find other women gamers who are just like you.
Refinery29: While women in gaming isn't rare, what is rare is to see women who are at the top of the competitive scene. There must have been challenges in your own journey.
Lintrup: “One of the biggest challenges is, of course, the internet itself and all the people who just refuse to believe any woman can ever make anything of themselves and esports. It can be super hard because there are the people who will be like, ‘There is no difference if you're a man or woman. You should be able to do the same things.’ But they’ll still think it’s embarrassing when a man loses to a woman. That's probably like some of the biggest challenges you can face, the resistance from the boys just refusing to agree with a woman having any success. But there are way more supporters and people who just want to have the best for you. Because who doesn't want to have a woman to play with and a woman to understand your passion? I've also faced a lot of people who say I don't deserve what I get because they think they're better than me in games, so they should get the opportunities that I get. But I also deserve it. Why not me?”
Let’s be real, anybody who’s hating on women in esports is probably in bronze or iron. Show up in a 1v1 and you would own them.
“Yeah, exactly. (laughs) I mean, the players on our team have been owning people in a 1v1. I would be sent out for a shootout in a 1v1 at a Danish tournament, and there would be people who are like, ‘Yeah, I can beat her,’ and then they don't want to go because if they lose, like, wow, that would be embarrassing.”
It's amazing to see orgs like G2 investing in women’s teams, but when you look at the tournaments with the highest viewership, which are often also the most marketed, they’re dominated by men. What will it take to get women players the same level of exposure?
“Women have been competing for many years, but just from five years ago, there has never been this many women in gaming. We had like 60 women teams sign up for Game Changers, and we've never ever seen that in CS, so having Valorant come into esports has been very, very healthy for the women’s scene. I’m sure that all we need is just time. With time, there will be more women playing with a bigger pool. There will be more talent to show and pick from, and in five years time, there's for sure gonna be a woman on top playing on either a women’s team or a woman playing on a mixed team. Just now, I can queue a ranked game [in Valorant] and get another woman on my team. We just need time and patience and it will happen for sure.”
When Riot announced it would expand Game Changers to the EMEA region in September, the studio planned to introduce mixed-gender teams for Series 2. But Riot stepped back that decision after the community said the move went against the program’s spirit and mission to elevate underrepresented players. Do you agree?
“The idea [of mixed teams] is amazing, and of course that's the way everyone wants it to go: men and women being able to play with each other on a team and compete. But it was just too early to have the second Game Changers be mixed. The European (EU) scene is already still lagging behind compared to North America (NA), especially the women’s scene.”
Well intentioned, but just not the right time.
“Exactly. There were also a lot of pros [who were men] who asked us, ‘Can you just move out two players so we can play with you?’ Like, that's not what Game Changers is about. [Those players] just wanted to get some easy money.”
You're saying that time is what’s needed to get to the place where we have mixed teams and tournaments. So is that the ultimate goal — an even playing field for everyone?
“That's a hard question. It's really hard to imagine [mixed teams and tournaments] because we're so far away from it. Having women’s tournaments is, for now, really good because it encourages gamers to compete, be better, and take the next step. Mixed teams would be amazing, for sure, but women’s tournaments should still be a thing because there will always be the bully factor when you’re a woman in gaming. I don't think that will ever change just because there are more women. When you're a rookie coming into the game, it's important to have a safe space where you can find other women gamers who are just like you.”
On one hand, you want it to be like, ‘We're equally good at games, and we can compete on the same level,’ but on the other hand, there's something really powerful and special about having 16 teams of all women competing for the same goal: to be the best.
“I think it's very individual. I personally would love to play at the top level, and if that means it's a women’s team, then it’s a women’s team. But if it means that I'm playing with four men, that's fine with me. It really just depends on what your goals are, what you want to do, how competitive you are, and how willing you are to commit to something so serious.”
For you, what does success look like? What is that moment when you tell yourself, ‘I've done everything that I wanted to do in my career’?
“I really want to qualify for a major tournament. And I don't even need to win it. I mean, obviously winning would be epic, but what I want is what has not been achieved. You have not seen a woman play in any major tournament. You have not had a woman really competing at the absolute highest level especially in FPS games. I really want that, and I would love for it to be with my current team, but I also know that if I ever got the opportunity [to compete in a major], there is just no way I could refuse that. For me, success is 100% achieving something that has not been achieved by a woman gamer. When I'm the one who has done something as The First, I feel like that's being successful.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.