Why you should care
Because Jana du Toit’s bringing about the day when “female gamer” is redundant.
While most Afrikaans girls are brought up to be onderdanig — a word with religious connotations best translated as “submissive” — Jana “Salty Monkey” du Toit’s mom always encouraged her three daughters to read (psychology textbooks, the Quran, etc.) and to think. When the time came to settle on a course of study, du Toit selected chemical engineering. While the subject interested her, her decision had more to do with “proving that a woman can join a man’s world and legitimately so,” she says.
The 28-year-old du Toit is the standard-bearer for women in South African esports. In addition to captaining Bravado Finesse, a league-winning, all-female Counter-Strike: General Offensive (CS:GO) team, du Toit also placed fourth in the Asia-Pacific region for Hearthstone — a solo card game that couldn’t be more different from the blood and guts of CS:GO. In addition, she has hosted and cast some of Africa’s biggest gaming events. Meanwhile, in her role as an activist for female gamers’ acceptance on the continent, she dreams of a day when the term “female gamer” is redundant.
“One great thing about Jana,” says Andreas Hadjipaschali, owner of the Bravado Gaming brand, is that her job as a sought-after business analyst has made her a confident public speaker. In addition to being arguably the country’s most successful female gamer and an active mentor for up-and-coming girl gamers across the region, du Toit is also the movement’s most eloquent spokesperson, and it is thanks to her, says Hadjipaschali, “that the right messaging has come across at public talks, exhibitions and contests.”
It’s up to us girls to maintain the momentum.
Jana “Salty Monkey” du Toit
Du Toit’s introduction to gaming came during weekend PlayStation sessions with her dad at his place in Johannesburg. By the time she was 9 she was hooked, but she knew better than to let on to her schoolmates. “I didn’t want to be a nerd,” she says. “I was already an art girl, doing extra math, captain of the debating team.” Du Toit only went public with her gaming habit while a student at North-West University in Potchefstroom when she started LANing (playing against other people via local area networking rather than the internet) with a bunch of classmates. Despite being the only female in the group, she says she was always treated with respect and was “never asked to make halftime sandwiches or anything.” Soon, she was beating everyone else.
Since then she’s seen the worst of male behavior, both in and out of esports. While working at a coal mine, du Toit was sexually assaulted by a male coworker. At the time she was so shaken that she left mining and changed to a dual major in chemistry and biochemistry. But if she’d “known what [she] knows now” she would likely have stuck it out. She’s been sexually assaulted as a business analyst (by a client no less) and has faced online and face-to-face abuse from gamers. “Guys would call me fat,” she says, “talk about my boobs.”
Du Toit has gone high. And since entering the world of competitive gaming as part of South Africa’s first all-female team in 2016, she has seen a general shift in attitudes. Not only are sexist comments now the exception, rather than the norm, she’s also been buoyed by the backing she receives from male gamers who aren’t afraid to call out misogyny. “It is nice when someone stands up for you,” she says.
The 2017 establishment of the Valkyrie Challenge — a female-only CS:GO league — was a make-or-break moment for the sport. Barry Louzada, whose company Mettlestate owns the league, says he got “a lot of flak” from some quarters for effectively siphoning prize money away from male players. While both he and du Toit can see the critics’ point — gaming is not a physical sport — the Valkyrie Challenge was always meant to be “a stepping stone,” says Louzada, that would fall away at some point.
In fact, Louzada hasn’t felt the need to arrange a third season of the all-female league after watching it grow from two teams to 13. Of those teams, five will be competing in the open leagues this season. Louzada and du Toit would like the number to be higher, but they’re aware that segregation can never be a permanent solution. “It’s up to us girls to maintain the momentum,” says du Toit.
By all accounts, she is walking the talk. When Boné “BonBallistic” van der Westhuizen, co-captain of a rival girls’ team, needed advice on managing team dynamics she reached out to du Toit — a total stranger and the captain of what van der Westhuizen describes as “this god team” of female gaming. Van der Westhuizen was “shocked” to receive a practical and supportive response almost immediately, and she continues to be amazed by the many hours du Toit has put in helping a rival team iron out its problems despite having “so many better things to do.”
Du Toit has also been involved in advancing gaming in underprivileged, predominantly Black communities, and she is currently mentoring an all-girls high school CS:GO team. Rather than simply helping the girls become better gamers and more confident, she is also working with the teaching staff to have gaming recognized as an official school sport. One day she would like to see gaming recognized as just another sport like cricket, rugby or soccer at all schools.
Both Louzada and Hadjipaschali, who have been involved in South Africa’s gaming scene since the 1990s, see strong parallels between the anti-nerd sentiment they had to overcome and the challenges currently facing female gamers. Hadjipaschali is confident, however, that the tipping point has already been reached, and “we’ll be one massive community before we know it.” The bigger obstacle, they reckon, is for African gamers, male and female, to become truly competitive on the global gaming scene — which will require increased investment and exposure, not to mention the efforts of pioneers like du Toit.
Building a sport from scratch doesn’t leave much time for yourself, but du Toit has no regrets. “Gaming has the power to keep a lot of kids off the streets,” she says. She gives the examples of a 16-year-old who won 400,000 rand ($30,000) at a tournament last year and another young player who traveled to Bucharest to fly the South African flag at the PGL Masters tournament. Combined with Energy Esports qualifying for the major international tournament DreamHack minors, South Africa is proving to be a global force in gaming.
Read more: She ditched law school to break barriers in esports.