XSET’s Erin Ashley Simon Is Set On A More Inclusive Esports Culture

Hands up if you are aware of the esports industry, are interested in learning more about or getting involved in it, but every time you’ve tried to step foot into the world of competitive gaming, you’ve just been totally overwhelmed, lost, and daunted by what greeted you. You’re not alone. Esports is vast, complex, and full of passion, making it easy to feel like it’s hard to engage with as a newcomer or like you don’t belong. 
Erin Ashley Simon, co-owner and chief culture officer of community-driven esports organization XSET, is working to change that. “[At XSET], it’s about taking something that we’re seeing in the industry and being a change agent — doing something that’s different, something that’s innovative, something that speaks to gaming culture, hip-hop culture, fashion culture, [and more],” Simon said during Thursday’s R29 Twitch stream. “What we’ve seen in terms of gaming and esports is that there are individuals and communities who haven’t been spoken to in this space. We want to be that platform that speaks to them and builds with them. And as esports grows, more and more of these communities are being embraced and included.” 
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It seems like a lofty goal, and Simon would be the first to admit that it sounds much simpler than actually executing in practice. But, speaking with R29 Entertainment Director and Twitch host Melissah Yang, she shared her big-picture ideas and how her two-pronged role at XSET is dedicated to being one of those change agents. 
First, it starts at esports organizations like XSET, Simon says, boosting the diversity of its workforce, fanbase, and audiences. And by diversity, she isn’t just talking about demos like ethnicity, gender, or age. It’s backgrounds and skill sets too. Simon started her career in journalism before eventually landing in esports, and many of her colleagues came from other industries too. “The people who I’ve seen be successful in esports have actually been people who have built careers somewhere else and then came in,” she said. “We need to bring in the innovative, unique ideas and perspectives people have from other industries to help build the scene.” And, as esports and gaming become more and more embedded into other aspects of culture (hi, The Last of Us), this will only become more important. 
To be fair, this is already happening to an extent. Simon can point to many examples of notable esports execs who began their careers elsewhere (for example, past R29 Twitch guest Kayci Evans, global director of brand marketing for Evil Geniuses). But it’s not enough. “A lot of my friends in this industry have either done this since the beginning or just stumbled into it,” she adds. In order to be truly diverse, Simon explains, the pathways to entry need to be more clearly defined. If you want to become, say, a journalist, you have a pretty good idea about how to make that happen. But how can someone get an entry-level esports job and work their way up? How can someone know what type of skill sets the industry needs to fill? What esports careers are available? Simon says the industry needs to build more awareness on the collegiate scene — connecting with smart, young people looking to start their own careers — and think of fresh ways to reach talent in untapped communities.  
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Simon’s efforts just aren’t focused behind the scenes. As part of her chief culture officer role at XSET, she’s constantly thinking about ways to interact with gamers, fans, and bring a broader group of people into the esports community — something that’s necessary so that the industry remains sustainable, but also so that it is inclusive and welcoming.  
There are a few ways Simon thinks this can be done. One is installing fun activations in creative, unexpected places. XSET, for example, holds residencies at popular night clubs, like “gaming cabanas” in Las Vegas. She also thinks that publishers should be doing more to reach new gamers by creating easier-to-understand tutorials and providing ways to understand gameplay in competitive settings. 
Then there’s the fact that many esports games are PC-based, and considering how expensive high-quality PCs can be, it is a privilege to own one. This means there are communities around the world who simply cannot afford to access esports and gaming — and as long as that remains true, the industry is closing itself off to large swaths of people. “We need to just put our support and weight behind other areas,” Simon said. “[Growth] will require creating multiple access points for people to be fans or to work in this space.” 
Refinery29 Twitch streams Thursdays at 2 p.m. PT/5 p.m. ET.

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