For years, Ricki Ortiz had worked to establish herself as one of the most dominant esports athletes in a field of intense competitors. The fighting game pro posted regular top 10 finishes at some of the world’s most intense tournaments while becoming instrumental in helping players obtain fair compensation. But, when she came out as a trans woman nearly a decade ago, she immediately noticed a shift in how she was perceived. Instead of praising, or criticizing, her gameplay, people would comment on her physical appearance. “I did all of this groundwork, all these years, with my career,” Ortiz recalls thinking at the time in a recent video call with Refinery29. “But now it means nothing because I look and I am a woman? I don't get it.”
Things have changed in nine years, though. Because these days, for anyone who knows Ortiz's story, what makes her unique isn’t her identity as a trans woman in a male-dominated field or the way she looks on a video stream. It’s the achievements she’s attained as an elite esports athlete throughout a career that has grown up with the very industry she has devoted her life to.
Ortiz is an outlier in an industry where the average competitive career lasts four to five years — her first competition was in 2003. She has also been signed to the same gaming organization, Evil Geniuses, for 11 years — most esports athletes remain with an organization for just 18 months, says Nicole LaPointe Jameson, EG’s chief executive officer.
“To come into this space and be smart about her identity and brand while not wavering from excellence was very difficult,” LaPointe Jameson says. “She’s definitely been through compounding moving factors: The space maturing, her maturation as an individual, the company growing to support her and her unique needs. She stayed the course.”
Ortiz has had to respond to many changes in her 19-year career. As an early adopter of fighting games, she evolved her playstyle with the genre’s changing meta while also navigating coming out, first, as gay and later accepting her identity as a trans woman. And, she simultaneously grew the industry around her to create more opportunities for the gamers of today.
It’s a feat that’s largely unparalleled, and Ortiz is often hailed as a pioneer. But, Ortiz didn’t set out to be a trailblazer. At the beginning, she just wanted to belong.
Ortiz recalls being only 6 or 7 years old when her favorite after-school activity took root. With both parents working long hours, she would head to her grandparents’ home where her older cousin, Sonny, would invariably be playing the Nintendo Entertainment System. You know the one — with its blocky controllers and bulky square cartridges that would never load and produce, instead, a flashing screen across the TV.
In those days, everyone had their favored fix. Some swore by blowing on the cartridge, convinced specks of dust were at fault. Others would resort to restarting the system in perpetuity. But for Sonny and Ortiz, the solution was simple — and obvious. Someone needed to sit on the cartridge, forcing it not to wobble. Being the younger of the two, that task fell to Ortiz. That’s how one of the world’s most prolific street fighting esports athletes got her start in gaming.
When her dad noticed Sonny and Ortiz’s growing obsession with video games, he began taking them on what turned into almost daily trips to the local arcade. “We would go there, order pizza, and my dad would give me $5 in tokens,” Ortiz says. “I would get my ass kicked in Street Fighter with all my tokens.” Ortiz remembers these nights fondly as foundational family bonding experiences that created her first sense of belonging. She used to love watching her dad play Puzzle Fighter, which earned him a local rapport. “We bought the game on PlayStation. And I learned that game. I played that game for hours and hours and hours just trying to beat my dad, and was never able to beat him in that,” she says.
While she never got as good as her dad at Puzzle Fighter, their roles began to reverse in a different way. “I remember being little and using all my tokens in 30 minutes,” she says. “As I got older, my dad would come up to me asking, ‘Hey, how many tokens do you have left? I’ve run out of tokens.” By then, Ortiz had plenty to spare. She was quickly developing a local reputation of her own: As an elite fighting games competitor.
I proved to myself that I can really take it all the way if I really put my mind to it.
Ortiz was 13 years old when she noticed workers at the arcade hanging fliers for an upcoming Tekken Tag Tournament event. The buzz was that two out-of-town players would be competing, and Ortiz wanted to test herself against them. Having beaten everyone at the arcade, she was hungry for more.
“I ended up going really far in the bracket and ended up playing one of the guys who they said was possibly the best in the tournament,” she says. Needless to say, she beat him, and she kept winning all the way up to finals before losing twice and walking away with a third place finish.
But instead of feeling elation at having placed so well in a tournament she entered for fun, she felt a surge of disappointment. “I started crying because I was so angry at myself,” she says. “I was kind of flustered and kind of angry and pissed off at myself because I kind of put expectations on myself.” In other words: the competitor within her had awakened. “I proved to myself that I can really take it all the way if I really put my mind to it,” she says.
This drive to win defined the rest of her adolescence as she solidified her relationships in the esports community, developed her skill, and began winning cash prizes. At first her earnings were averaging about $500 a week, but that seemed like hitting the jackpot as a high school student. As her contemporaries ventured on to college, Ortiz focused on honing her expertise in fighting games, specializing in Marvel vs. Capcom and Street Fighter.
“She’s fierce, she’s aggressive in play, not in a sloppy sense, but in a very composed play style. That’s what she’s famous for,” Jameson says. It’s a reputation she’s been able to sustain over the long term. “At the point where we've been for the last several years with her, it's like she has done a decade's worth of proving herself. And I think that most people recognize that, gender aside, that’s an achievement for anyone in gaming at any time,” says Taylor Heitzig-Rhodes, director of talent management at Evil Geniuses.
At the same time she was beginning to dominate the competition, the esports community became her refuge. They were the first friends she felt comfortable coming out to as a teenager. One day, a close friend asked Ortiz directly if she was gay, she recalls. “I was like, ‘I am gay, I like men,’” Ortiz says. It was the first time she uttered those words aloud. When it didn’t change anything about the friendship or the way her friend viewed her, she felt supported. But she still didn’t feel like herself.
“I didn't quite know that I was trans just because I didn't really know what trans was at the time,” she says. She recalls how watching RuPaul’s Drag Race was a crucial part of understanding her identity. “That was pretty much the only person at the time that I kind of looked up to,” she says. She then discovered content from YouTuber Gigi Gorgeous, who came out as trans. When that happened, a lightbulb went on for Ortiz. “It was kind of, ‘I think this is what I am,’” she says. “If I can go from being a boy to being a girl medically, or whatever it entails, that's what I want to do. Because that's what I feel like I am inside. That's what I've always felt like.”
Her community had already accepted her for being gay — but Ortiz was less certain about how they would accept her if she transitioned. “Everybody I knew at the time was perfectly fine with with gay people. But one thing they weren't okay with was trans people,” she says. So she had second thoughts about coming out to her circle. “I think that you want to repress these feelings because, well, it's a lot to think about. Because I have to come out again to my friends and family.” “At the time, looking up information about trans people and how to transition was not really an option. I couldn't find anything on the internet on how to transition,” she adds. “I didn't know where to get hormones. I didn't know how to get hormones. And at this time, I don't even have insurance.”
She decided to focus on her esports career instead. And while she was traveling, she says she felt okay. The competition sustained her on the road. But whenever she returned home, she would spiral into depression, describing it as similar to an emotional hangover. “I felt like a lost soul,” she says.
Finally, her roommate noticed the symptoms of her depression. Ortiz recalls it was sometime in 2011 or 2012 when her roommate approached her and Ortiz admitted the pain she was experiencing. Ortiz says her roommate's response surprised her — mainly because she wasn’t surprised. She encouraged Ortiz this was the next step and a natural thing to do. “It took a huge weight off my chest, off my shoulders, that I could finally be myself openly to somebody and just talk about it,” Ortiz says.
With that support, Ortiz began the process of transitioning. Coming out again, this time as trans, turned out to be easier than she anticipated. Instead of judging her, the gaming community embraced her. “All of my friends were so supportive and so happy and so thrilled that I didn't have to be sad anymore. I wasn't hurting anymore.”
It took a huge weight off my chest, off my shoulders, that I could finally be myself openly to somebody and just talk about it.
That isn’t to say her path was completely devoid of bigotry, and privacy concerns have led her to take measures such as not revealing her age. “You read that one shitty comment and it really just drills in your mind about who you are as a person, even though you saw a thousand compliments about yourself,” she says. “Anybody who's coming out in the esports community has to deal with that. Granted, your core community is going to love you and accept you. I feel that's honestly the most important aspect of it.”
Ortiz has since led the charge to make esports more inclusive. She helped launch Evil Geniuses’ Live Proud podcast in July 2020 and was one of the faces of the “It’s In Our Spirit” campaign in November 2020, which celebrated diversity by featuring other notable LGBTQ advocates such as Jolin Tsai and Tessa Thompson. And whether she admits it or not, her position at the top of the fighting game scene has helped spur the growth of esports to be a space for players of all gender identities. Times are different now than they were in 2003 when she first ascended through the field with Tekken Tag Tournament. Women now account for 36% of esports viewership and 35% of gamers who play titles considered to be an esport, according to insights firm Interpret. And with queer gamers becoming a bigger key demographic, Ortiz is a crucial part of creating a more welcoming esports culture.
“Ricki has so much experience and has been part of so many different iterations of the communities that she's been in. She’s spent a lot of time being like a leader and especially for somebody like me — a woman coming into the space and like trying to find my footing — she’s just been this woman who's been incredibly dominant,” Heitzig-Rhodes says.
These days, Ortiz is turning her sights toward the future. With the lack of in-person esports events, she has engaged more deeply with her local community, and that has changed her outlook. “Fighting games have nurtured me in this gigantic bubble of being myself and expressing myself,” says Ortiz. “Being in the community kind of protected me over so many things with being a trans woman in this world.” She also hopes to explore her interest in fashion and beauty, and has experimented with producing more content across her social media channels. “I never really show that glamorous side of myself, but I’d like to let my community know about that,” she says.
And, if there’s one thing Ortiz knows how to do, it’s rise to the occasion. It’s the very thing that has made her the outlier she is.