Last month, if you tuned into week two of the Overwatch League’s (OWL) Kickoff Clash Qualifier, you might have seen something different. And for most of the five-hour event, you would’ve heard something different as well: OWL’s first all-women commentator team for a North American broadcast. “It was kind of something that I didn't think about at the time,” Victoria “VikkiKitty” Perez tells Refinery29. “After the cast was done, it was a really nice little surprise.”
Making OWL history, says Rosemary “Nekkra” Kelley, who broadcasted alongside Perez, was an honor that was exciting, humbling — and, well, complicated. “It’s a common internal struggle that I've always had. Is it helpful to continue to point out this is unique? When does it become normal?” Kelley reflects. “But I get people that message me all the time, and they're like, ‘Thank you for what you do.’ If that's what we're getting out of that kind of story, then I'm happy because I want other people to be able to look at that and go, ‘I can do that too.’”
Commentating is where we’re seeing women make some of the biggest headway in the male-dominated world of esports. Though women make up nearly half of all US gamers, the number decreases to a third for games that are considered an esport, according to a 2019 Interpret study. It slims dramatically more when it comes to women who are competing professionally. But with more women on air as the voices of esports' biggest events and tournaments, they’re making room for others to take a much deserved seat at the desk and, hopefully, bring us one step closer to women competing on the main stage of a major.
Commentating in esports is much like what you’d get from any sporting event. There are the analysts who offer expert insight, break down team strategies, and share their predictions before and in between matches. Casters give the live play-by-play during a game and guide viewers on what to look out for in the moment.
To become a caster or analyst requires more than just having game knowledge. There’s a meticulous level of prep heading into each event: Google docs separated by series and every matchup, mental notes on the rookies and the carries, and actual notes of key stats and different team compositions that are in meta. You’ll spend countless hours rewatching VODs to not only assess players’ performances, but also your own analysis of them. And when there’s an against-all-odds 1v5 clutch or epic play of the game, you have to match the hype and fervor of viewers spamming chat at unreadable speeds. The job requires you to be entertaining, engaging, and quick-thinking.
The bar is even higher when your gender is treated as a novelty. Alyssa “Allycxt” Parker, who was called up to be a caster for the Call Of Duty League in 2019 after competing in a Black Ops 4 open bracket, says she initially got flack for things that aren’t necessarily required to be a successful caster — and usually aren’t demanded of her male peers. “It was like, ‘You're not a professional player. You're not a coach. You've never competed at a pro level,’” Parker says. “For me, it was just about proving myself.”
She did just that, making the jump from caster to the league’s first woman analyst for this past January’s Kickoff Classic, and in her first appearance on the desk, she correctly predicted the winner of every single match, including being the only person to pick the Florida Mutineers over the LA Guerillas. It wasn’t just the winners she got right — she even nailed the map records. “Obviously I felt good, and it gave me a sense of validation, but it was also like, I know I was right,” Parker says. “If you guys listen to me, then you would know why I have confidence in myself.”
Still, even with a proven record, or in Parker’s case a perfect one, women have faced and will likely continue to be subjected to unfair criticisms designed to undercut their experience despite their storied resumes. Parker says the confidence boost she got from the Kickoff Classic led to accusations of an inflated ego. At any tournament with a woman caster, you won’t be surprised to see a “Female KEKW” or two. And yes, there will always be some comments about her appearance.
For Perez, the trolls came for her voice when she became the first woman to cast a Super Smash Bros. major. “For the longest time, my pinned tweet was ‘I'm the one who sounds like a little boy when I commentate your matches’ and I kind of rolled with it because to me, if I make fun of myself, other people won't be able to have that upper hand to make fun of me too,” she says. “As years have passed, I actually don't really get that as often, and I'm not too sure if it's because now it's much more normal to see a woman on the desk.”
As for off the desk, we’re still waiting for that first all-women’s team to compete in a major for any esport, but the women’s scene is growing, most noticeably in Valorant. Last year, Riot Games launched Game Changers, a women’s only tournament circuit for its team-based shooter game. G2 Esports signed its first women’s Valorant team, which won its third consecutive Game Changers for the EMEA region last month. And Evil Geniuses became the first and only organization to ever have a mixed-gender roster, albeit short-lived.
The reality though is we’re just not at the point where there’s enough women. “It's a numbers game,” says Christine “Potter” Chi, a former CSGO pro and analyst who left the desk to captain EG’s Valorant team before moving over to head coach. “There are definitely talented individual women out there that could potentially have the mechanical skill to carry on and make it to the top. But they're so rare. … To find five extremely talented women who are the best of the best and put them together [on a team], it's near impossible.”
But as time passes, and more women join the professional pipeline, or force their way in as Parker says, it’s not a matter of if but when. Chi names 17-year-old professional Valorant player Jazzyk1ns, who’s already signed to Cloud 9, as one to watch. Perez points to 21-year-old Aspen, who has competed in Overwatch Contenders, the league’s training league. With each up-and-comer and every woman in front of the camera, we’re collectively creating an environment in which more women will want to opt in, and where down the line, we won’t have to point out the rarity of women in esports, but rather celebrate it as a win.
“I always get the question of how do we get more women involved. That's not actually the question,” Kelley says. “The question that you should be asking is how do we make the space more comfortable? That women feel like they want to be a part of it, right?”
Until we have that question answered, we’ll just have to keep celebrating the firsts.
“It's scary, but somebody has to be the first,” Parker says. “Somebody has to be the second. Somebody has to be the third. And if it's something you really want to do, you just go for it.”