Why you should care
Because Overwatch could become a place in esports where women thrive.
As Kyoung Ey Molly Kim cracked open her civil law textbook to prepare for her second semester of law school, she found that all she could think about was Overwatch.
Blizzard Entertainment had released the team-based multiplayer first-person shooter game in 2016. Though Kim had never been much of a gamer in college, she found that playing Overwatch eased the stress of the law school application process and, later, the coursework.
It didn’t take long for Kim, 24, to apply the same fervor that had long been spent on her studies — from English school in New Zealand to college at Mount Holyoke in Massachusetts — to Overwatch. In fact, Kim was enjoying her newfound pastime so much that, when esports teams began to crop up around the rapidly growing game, she decided to take on managing duties in addition to her law studies in South Korea. She earned a spot managing an aspiring pro team, Frecia Gaming, in the third-tier Overwatch Open Division. When her first semester of law school concluded, Kim spent the summer going to the arena, watching scrims (exhibition matches) and giving the players feedback.
And so when she found herself opening that civil law textbook and staring blankly at its pages, she knew that a leave of absence from law school was in order. It was time to chase her passion.
Overwatch is more gender-diverse than any other first-person shooter, with women making up 16 percent of its player base.
Nicknamed “AVALLA” in honor of her beloved iced vanilla lattes, which she drinks every day (even in winter), Kim quickly rose up the ranks. She went from Open Division to Contenders, Overwatch’s second tier. Word spread about AVALLA’s unusual coaching style. She’s bilingual, thanks to her English teacher mom, and she uses a unique method of compiling video clips of her players’ scrims and matches and then pointing out and correcting their mistakes while they watch.
“Some other coaches want to implement this method, but it’s very difficult because you have to have the video editing skills, because a lot of the coaches didn’t necessarily go through college,” Kim says. “It takes a lot of time for them to do it, but I’m so used to doing it from high school, college and law school.”
It wasn’t long before Overwatch League (OWL) teams — the highest tier in esports, with the finals televised on ESPN — were inquiring about hiring Kim full time. But even after she secured a leave of absence from law school, there were obstacles. She almost signed with a team, until one of the players objected to a female coach. “In Korea, it was not the first time I experienced that kind of thing,” she says. Prior to going all-in on coaching, Kim was such a talented Overwatch player, peaking at No. 78 on the Korean Overwatch ladder, that she was accepted to a Contenders-level team. “But the sponsors didn’t want a female on their team because of the team house situation, and I’d have to commute from my house to [the] team house,” she explains. Communal esports team living dates back at least 20 years, to StarCraft pros living together in South Korea.
Though Kim understands the cultural mores at play, it was nonetheless disappointing. But not long after, the Washington Justice reached out to make Kim the first-ever female OWL coach. “She’s one of the few coaches to have made playoffs in both North America and Korea, and that experience has been critical when putting together a team that represents America’s greatest global city,” says Kate Mitchell, Justice’s general manager.
Washington head coach Kim Hyeong-seok (aka WizardHyeong) uses an analytics-based approach to coaching players that jives with AVALLA’s own. Because he played under Kim in the Contenders league, Justice player Hyeon-woo “Hyeonu” Cho says, “I feel comfortable and used to her coaching style,” which “helps me understand it and follow it better.”
Unlike in Korea, Kim’s gender hasn’t been an obstacle to her North American success. She lives in the team house in Los Angeles (where all OWL teams are based, though the league aims to base them in their home cities next year) with the players and is well-liked by her fellow coaches. Mikael Skjønhaug says Kim always has a smile on her face, which “makes the work environment so much fun.” While Kim stresses that she’s “eager to show my other qualifications and things that I’m capable of,” she does think her barrier-breaking makes a difference. “Then the industry notices that we actually do have female coaches that are capable at the level of coaching professional players,” says Kim, whose No. 1 jersey is in honor of her first. “That has a lot of impact; in Contenders, there are three female coaches now.”
Overwatch is more gender-diverse than any other first-person shooter, with women making up 16 percent of its player base, according to research firm Quantic Foundry. When it comes to the pro ranks, Overwatch is much more homogeneous; Se-yeon “Geguri” Kim, of the Shanghai Dragons, is the only female Overwatch League player. Sexism among some members of the gaming community has made it difficult to establish more of a pipeline from lower levels. In December a North American Contenders team, Second Wind, announced it had signed the first female Contenders player, “Ellie,” but a wave of complaints, doxxing threats to reveal her identity and other negative reactions led Ellie to step down from the team. Then Ellie was revealed to be a male player known as “Punisher,” conducting what he called a social experiment to see how the esports community reacts to female players.
But women are built into the structure of the game. Female characters such as Mercy, a “support” character, are popular among female players. Kim played supports when she was coming up through the Overwatch ranks; now, she’s one of few coaches in the league who focuses on coaching support players. It’s become something of a stereotype in the Overwatch community that women only play supports, whose primary objective is to heal characters who are at the forefront of battle, as their main character.
But Kim doesn’t see it that way. “It is true that a lot of women play supports, especially our beautiful hero Mercy, and that is what builds up the gaming community experience,” she says. Moreover, supports are becoming ever more crucial to Overwatch, as the best of the best face off in the annual World Cup.
While she has put off her studies for now, Kim would eventually like to attend a U.S. law school and focus on immigration law, especially as it relates to the business of esports. “Every time I come here all the visa issues are a huge problem, and a lot of players aren’t able to come to the States because of visa problems,” she says, perhaps at last finding a happy coexistence between her vocation and her passion.
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