Meet Kim Shee-Yoon. You can call her Eve, as that’s what she’s called in game. She’s been playing StarCraft since grade school (Terran, if you’re interested). She’ll be turning twenty-two this year. As of last month, she holds the distinction of being the first woman to join a pro StarCraft 2 team. Naturally, this news was greeted with cheers, accolades, and parades in her honor. And by that, I of course mean a massive facepalming dramafest like only the internet can provide.
To start, let me give you a quick crash-course in the pro StarCraft scene. While it may be a niche interest in the Western world, in Korea, it’s a behemoth. We’re talking corporate sponsorships, two dedicated cable TV channels, and yes, stadium events.
Competitors belong to teams, which are analogous to pro sports clubs. Though only a single player will walk away with the championship, they are playing for their team. Think like Cobra Kai, only with less leg-sweeping. StarCraft players also have rankings based on their performance. The pro teams are made up of Masters and Grandmasters. The next ranks below that are Diamond, Platinum and Gold (this will become important as I go on).
SlayerS is one of the big dogs of the pro SC2 teams. Their team manager is SlayerS_Jessica, who is the romantic partner of BoxeR, the founder of SlayerS and one of the most successful pro gamers ever (there’s a DVD compilation of his best games, his nickname is “The Emperor”…yeah, he’s a pretty big deal). Last month, SlayerS announced that Jessica had hand-picked Eve for the team, with the sole purpose of grooming her to be the first female SC2 progamer.
And then the internet exploded.
You see, after the announcement, some fans strongly objected to the fact that Eve isn’t as highly ranked as the rest of her team, nor is she as highly ranked as some other players who haven’t been chosen for teams. There are conflicting reports about her ranking. She seems to be Diamond, though an awful lot of folks claim that she’s Gold. What is for certain is that Eve’s only big win at this point is first place in an amateur competition. In short, she’s good, but she’s not the best.
SlayerS made no apologies for Eve’s ranking. In fact, her amateur status was entirely the point. Getting signed to a pro StarCraft team isn’t some sort of gladiatorial deathmatch in which only the surviving player gets rewarded. Teams choose players that they think will benefit them, and sometimes those benefits aren’t directly related to winning matches. Eve wasn’t chosen because she was the best, she was chosen to be a padawan. Eve is a project, taken in to be trained on the top level. She was selected, to quote Jessica, “for her skills and looks.”
Which, of course, set off a whole ‘nother train wreck.
Now, my knee jerked as well when I read that, but let’s put this in perspective. In Korea, pro gamers fall somewhere in between athlete and rock star. They have to be good at their game, but it doesn’t hurt if they look good. This isn’t some kind of gaming Olympics we’re talking about, based purely on ability. It’s a spectator sport, yes, but it’s also a huge business. There isn’t a team out there who doesn’t put some effort into making sure they’ve got players who are easy on the eyes. Do an image search for “progamer Korea” and you’ll see what I’m talking about. It’s not fair, but it’s the nature of the beast, and in this case, it has nothing do to with gender.
The need to find marketable players ties right back into Eve’s lower ranking. SlayerS wasn’t actively recruiting when they picked up Eve. She didn’t knock a better-ranked player out of a spot on the team. Jessica publicly stated that part of the goal in taking in Eve was to get more women interested in the game. If you’ve ever watched a pro StarCraft match, it is very obvious who the target audience is. Cutesy girl-bands typically open the show. The on-stage announcers tend to be women looking like they’re off to a cocktail party. Finding boys with pretty faces is fine, but it’s not enough to get women actually interested in, y’know, the game. The thinking was that seeing a woman in SlayerS colors, sitting on their bench, competing on their level, would inspire other women to throw on a headset and start learning the finer points of a Zerg rush.
This brings up a philosophical argument that always arises when trying to bring a new demographic into a field that is dominated by another. One side argues that it’s unfair to bring in a less-skilled individual, solely in the interest of promoting diversity, when there are others of a higher caliber that are being overlooked. The other side argues that those marginalized individuals are never going to be skilled enough if they’re not given the chance to compete at a high level. It’s a whole big chicken-and-egg scenario, and it’s a conversation I will leave to the comment thread. I’m not going to jump into those muddy philosophical waters here, because it’s a discussion that never ends, and I still have more of this messy story to tell.
As all these points were being debated ad nauseam on Reddit and various StarCraft forums, the resulting clamor awoke the trolls. DC Inside, which is apparently the Korean equivalent of 4Chan, swarmed with griefers hell-bent on dragging Eve through the mud. Reportedly, the favored meme was to ‘shop Eve’s face onto porn stars in, shall we say, compromising situations. Vicious and degrading, to say the least. But what happened next didn’t exactly calm things down.
Jessica went into full mama bear mode, putting together a lawsuit against anybody talking smack about Eve. While this may sound extreme, in Korea, cyber-bullying is against the law. Jessica also posted a lengthy, chastising response on the Team Liquid forums (one of the main hubs for the SC2 scene). Angry tweets flew in all directions, the trolls reacted in their typical hornet’s-nest way and started in on Jessica, making snide comments about her relationship to BoxeR, and the whole thing grew into a huge, snarling Charlie Foxtrot that, weeks later, still has both sides seething in their respective corners.
None of that mess is what matters to me. I don’t care about the flame wars, or the snarking, or whether or not choosing Eve was fair. I don’t even care about StarCraft that much, to be honest. My experiences with the game are limited to the single player campaign, a few LAN sessions with my brother about a decade ago, and watching GSL matches in my friends’ living room over barbecue and beers. But what I do care about is that in all of the miserable comment threads I dragged myself through to learn more about this story, all of the blog posts and YouTube commentaries and middling translations of Korean, I could only find one – just one – quote from Eve herself.
I am very happy to join such a respected professional gaming team as SlayerS.
Forgive me for reading between the very limited lines here, but from where I sit, what I see is a young woman who’s just stoked to game with the pros. I mean, can you imagine? Somebody strolls up to you and says, “Hey, do you want to get paid to play video games?” I would be over the freakin’ moon. Can you then imagine what it would be like to read those comments and see those pictures and hear dudes on YouTube trashing you for not being as good as players who have been pro for years? Especially when you haven’t even played a match yet?
Eve doesn’t have an agenda or some philosophical ax to grind. She just wants to play. And that makes this whole to-do very sad.
Consider SlayerS_Alicia (don’t be fooled by the name, he’s a dude), one of the team’s best players. When trying out for the team, he showed up an hour late and lost. However, BoxeR thought that he had potential and picked him up anyway. Is that fair to the guys who showed up on time and won? No. But the team saw something they could use, and to my knowledge, there wasn’t any fuss made about it, not on the level we’re seeing here.
Eve, on the other hand, will most likely have to deal with this mess being dragged back up any time she loses a match. There’s nothing that can be said about that, except that I think it brings up something that most female gamers have felt from time to time. For many of us, playing the game doesn’t just mean being good enough. It means needing to be the best. We all, on some level, want to be the Disney after-school special in which the girl wins the championship for the underdog team. If we’re going to play, there is that underlying feeling that we damn well better be on top of our game. We had better be able to win.
In reading about Eve, my immediate reaction was, “I hope she wins the whole thing.” I imagine many of you had the same thought. It was that thought that made me realize that the pressure of needing to be not just “good” but “the best”, while put there by others, is actually I enforce within myself. It comes out of fear. Fear of not being good enough. Fear of having my gender shoved in my face if I lose or screw up. Fear of proving the “girls aren’t as good at games” crowd right.
As of right now, I’m going to stop doing that. Because no, I’m not the best. But I am good. Not at all games, certainly. There are some I suck at (cough, StarCraft, cough). But every time someone says that a girl can’t play, every time that a guy griefs a girl who lost because her gender is the easiest thing to pick on, every time that a girl gets sucked into that angry us-versus-them mentality, we are losing sight of what is good about gaming. Gaming is about fair play and healthy competition and challenging ourselves. And fun, dammit. It’s supposed to be about having fun. There is nothing sportsmanlike or respectable about tearing down a player based on their gender, or their race, or anything else that sets them apart. There is nothing fair about feeling that because you are different, you must work twice as hard to be respected on the same level as everyone else. That is not why we play. That is not what we, as a community, are about.
So, no, I don’t need Eve to win the whole thing. What I want for her is to be able to play the game she loves. I want her to become an integral part of her team, to be cheered for and judged no differently than any other. I want her to have an experience she can look back on and say, “Wow, I did that, and that’s awesome.” I sincerely hope that all this hullabaloo will die down enough for her to do just that.
Becky Chambers is a freelance writer and a full-time geek. She blogs over at Other Scribbles.