Editor's Note: As the NCAA board of directors meets this week to consider regulation and/or support of varsity esports competitions, we looked at the various issues surrounding the increasing number of scholarship-sponsored competitive gaming teams throughout the country.
In the basement below a cafe where students wait in line for lattes and study for exams, six Overwatch players for Stephens College, an all-women's school in Columbia, Missouri, drum furiously on chunky keyboards, their eyes darting across their computer monitors in a synchronized dance with the mouses in their right hands.
The walls of the room are cold and windowless, barren save for a few posters put up by the players. Its floor, conversely, is covered in the kind of soft, patterned carpeting you'd expect to find under your grandparents' fancy dinner table.
It's not where you'd expect the school's most prominent varsity team to play, but that's exactly what the Stephens Overwatch program has become. This nondescript room belies the impact the Stars could have on collegiate esports nationwide.
"Athyris," the team captain, leads the team into its regular-season opener against Kansas Wesleyan University. She calls out things like "Focus on tanks and Mercy" and "I'm gonna rez you" to her teammates over their headsets.
"CavesOfIce," "Chip," "Jinx2715," "Lilo" and "MurderHeSays" try their best to follow her lead and communicate with each other. Those aren't their real names: They're the BattleTags each player goes by in-game.
"Jinx as Pharah, I want you to focus the Reaper," Athyris calls.
"You mean Murder as Pharah?" Lilo asks.
"Murder, yes," the captain replies. "Why do I mess you guys up?"
The Stars just started playing as a team this fall, so their communication and teamwork are still works in progress. And at a school with an enrollment of less than 900, the talent pool is much smaller than most of the competition Stephens faces. Those disadvantages would affect any program, and the Stars know there will be growing pains this year.
But in a community that often looks at women through a different lens than it does men, every move, every death, every point dropped by Stephens means more than it should.
There's a good reason the college wants the Stars to be known by their BattleTags rather than their full names.
There is, on paper, no gender barrier in esports. Unlike football, there are no physical differences to prevent fair competition between women and men. But the culture around video games, and by extension, esports, does create obstacles for women.
Women make up 41 percent of game players, according to a 2016 Entertainment Software Association report. But women are notably underrepresented in esports. Despite Overwatch's diverse cast of characters, there has been only one professional female Overwatch player: Kim "Geguri" Se-yeon, who played for the ROX Orcas during the most recent season of Overwatch APEX in South Korea.
Geguri was internationally known before her time with ROX, though. She was accused of cheating after a particularly impressive display of her aiming skills during an official tournament with an amateur team in 2016. The accusations didn't stop until Geguri put on a public display of her skills via livestream to prove she wasn't cheating.
This case is extreme, but this kind of skepticism is a common issue for female gamers. That's partially why, without Stephens, you could count the number of female varsity Overwatch players on one hand; Boise State is believed to be the only other varsity program in the country with a woman in a starting role, captain Maggie Borland.
Stephens College president Dianne Lynch knew the risks. Two years ago, she had the idea of starting an esports program as a way to gather interest for a computer science program. Lynch was fully aware of how the gaming community might react to a women's college team, regardless of success, but she says Stephens doesn't have to prove anything about women in gaming.
"I think what we're trying to do is to not prove but show that there are women in the world who want to play esports, and that they're capable of doing that," Lynch said.
According to Lynch, the only reason Stephens' team is really news is that women don't get the "cultural support" men get when it comes to playing video games at a young age.
But despite cultural stereotypes against women, most of the Stars have been playing some form of video games since they were little.
Some are old-timers. Athyris, the team captain, started gaming with the original Super Mario Bros. on her parents' Nintendo Entertainment System. Chip, the team's source of never-ending optimism, grew up playing Super Smash Bros. on Nintendo 64 and Crash Bandicoot PlayStation. MurderHeSays, the team's oldest member in both age and spirit, started with Harry Potter computer games and transitioned to racing games on the original Xbox. Lilo, who introduced Athyris to Overwatch, has been playing games since she got a Gameboy Color.
Others grew up on newer consoles. CavesOfIce, a freshman player whose Overwatch talent is second only to Athyris's, started playing Call of Duty on Xbox after watching her cousin play Pikmin on GameCube.
And some of them had a competitive streak before coming to Columbia, too. Ormr, the varsity team's newest addition, started playing games when she was about 6 years old because she wanted to beat her brothers.
Lynch says her ultimate goal is to give Stephens' students a way to express their love of gaming in a world that doesn't accept it, to help encourage them to be proud of playing and to give them a platform to compete.
"That's a win," she said.
But right now, the Stars are losing.
Stephens is on attack during the first round of the team's season opener against KWU. The team's initial push gets shut down, and Stephens' players start to conga-line into enemy fire, trying unsuccessfully to take on the entire KWU team by themselves. KWU's players remain strong behind their Reinhardt's shield, and their Reaper ambushes the Stars again and again to ensure their defeat.
"That Reaper's a pain in the ass," Athyris says.
"Yeah," says Murder, also a DPS player. "He is."
Later, Ernest Utterback, one of the team's co-coaches, would later tell the Stars that KWU's Reaper wasn't that good; he only did so well because the Stars didn't work together to take him down.
There's a lull between games as there's some confusion about how to choose the next game's objective and location.
"Uh, do you know where we're going next?" Athyris asks.
She's supposed to be in charge, but like everyone else in the room, she's new to this.
Before the match against KWU began, Athyris stood up in front of her chair and put her hands on her hips in a "Wonder Woman pose," which, she explained, is supposed to increase confidence. She looked forward at the Overwatch-themed motivational posters hung above her computer, most of which she'd made herself, complete with stylish typography:
"Teamwork makes the dream work"
"Support your local support"
"Goddammit," she exclaimed, her teammates all around her, "I'm the leader of this team."
Her black hair is shaved on one side. She has a particular style: she likes to wear flannel over black pants and boots. She describes herself as "dark, quirky and creative," and a friend said her brand could easily be summed up as "the semi-queen of darkness."
"I cut a rug in the shape of a coffin. It's great. It's my welcome mat."
Athyris, like all the other Stephens players, just happened to end up in this role. A junior graphic design major, she came to Stephens because it's pet-friendly, allowing her to keep her cat, Luna, who she says keeps her mentally stable. She started playing Overwatch in early 2017 when Lilo wanted someone to play it with her and her boyfriend.
"I leveled up a lot during the summer," Athyris says. "I didn't stop playing, even when I was at my job."
Now, she mainly plays as Mercy, a blonde healer with robotic angel wings. Well, that's normally what Mercy looks like, anyway: Athyris uses the skin that makes her look like a witch.
At the team's inception, she and Lilo had the most Overwatch experience of anyone on the team, so one of them was bound to be chosen as captain. Athyris' summer obsession with the game paid off. "Athyris just has a great sense of the battlefield overall," Utterback says. "She just has that good sense of the ebb and flow of the game."
But Athyris is still new to competitive teamplay. She's still learning how to effectively lead. And as a support player, she faces another obstacle when it comes to shotcalling.
Since healers are almost always focused on their teammates and often in the back of the group, it's hard to get the full picture of what's going on. Good teams will target supports first, too, so without proper protection, Athyris is likely to go down before she can effectively make calls.
This means that communication among the Stars is especially important. And the team has been working on that. Game after game, the coaches' main feedback to the team is communication-based:
"Following a bad order is better than not following any orders at all."
"You need to be calling out priority targets."
"Someone said, 'Go left,' and everyone went right."
It's just a matter of getting enough practice as a team, something Stephens doesn't have much of yet. The team remains winless through its first four varsity matches, but there are little improvements.
"We can't become superhuman players overnight," Athyris says. "It takes time. And since this is our first year as a program, I'm not expecting us to come out and win the championship. I'm expecting to compete to the best of our ability."
"If we're silent," she adds later, "we aren't doing our jobs."
But outside the game, Athyris has to be silent about her involvement in the team. The identities of the players are kept secret, and even small tells aren't worth the risk.
"The main thing that worries me is that I can't have any Overwatch memorabilia on my car because I don't want my car to get attacked."
As for online abuse, she says, "if it happens, it happens." Athyris expresses an attitude most of the Stephens players share: microagressions are just a part of being a woman in gaming. It's an unfortunate reality, but one they've been living with since they started playing.
Despite her lack of concern about being personally attacked, Athyris is not blind to the context. As the first women's college-sponsored team, the spotlight is on the Stars, and much of their success rests on Athyris' shoulders.
"I want to show that ... we're not a group that can just be stomped on just because we're women," Athyris says. "We're a group that put up a fight, even if we are women. We put up as much of a fight as other groups are going to, even if they are comprised of men."
After that first-round loss to KWU comes a Control round. This time, the Stars gain some ground. Lilo sneaks her Junkrat's RIP-Tire behind enemy lines and takes out two of KWU's players. Then Lilo is killed, but as her peg-legged Junkrat hobbles back to the fray, her teammates somehow take the point from KWU.
"Yes!" Chip shouts.
But the round isn't over.
"Maintain!" Athyris barks back.
The captain is right to be skeptical. KWU regroups at its spawn point, and the Reaper jumps down onto the Stars as his teammates come in from two separate entrances to cut Stephens off. It's pure carnage. The spectator camera jumps from player to player as each person's character is ragdolled into the air by enemy fire.
As the Stars respawn, they conga-line once again back into KWU's line of fire. The volume level in the small room builds to its peak as the players shout frantically over each other, competing with Chip and Caves' cries of despair.
After a few more minutes of "Damn, the Reaper," and other frustrated callouts, the team lets out a collective "Ahhhhhhhhhhh!"
And the round is lost.
Missouri, home of collegiate esports
Collegiate esports has become synonymous with the state of Missouri
There are eyes on the Stars, both on the Stephens campus and across the nation. In the developing world of collegiate esports, the Stars are eking out a spot for women, whether they mean to or not.
"If you do one thing bad," says MurderHeSays, a senior English major and DPS player for the team, "then everyone is like, 'Women are bad at this,' because there are so few of us."
MurderHeSays -- or just "Murder" for short -- is the oldest of the players. Murder at times feels like the oldest one in the room, even when the coaches are there.
"They're all, like, 19," Murder says. "I don't get some of their references because I'm not, like, in their world."
That's probably due at least in part to the fact that Murder's top three movies of all time are "The Apartment" (1960), "Mildred Pierce" (1945) -- "which," Murder notes, "is, like, an obvious one" -- and "Stage Door" (1937). Murder's BattleTag comes from the name of a 1943 Betty Hutton song called "He Says Murder, He Says."
"I was in a Betty Hutton phase," Murder says.
Murder is an editor of Stephens' literature magazine, a member of the English honor society, assistant social media coordinator for Stephens' Citizen Jane film festival and has a job at the school's archives. And Murder's not the only busy one on the Stephens roster. Along with commitment to the varsity program comes, for almost every player, extracurriculars and jobs.
So what makes this worth it? Why did the Stars decide to represent their school?
"Part of it is definitely proving that ... we're just as competitive as male gamers," Murder says. "I just want to build the team into something that we can be proud of because I think it's really cool what we're doing."
Athyris is quieter than before. Apart from an initial last-ditch push to fight for what could be the final round, her urgency is mostly lost.
She knows the Stars can't win.
A player calls out some variation of "Reaper's low" or "Roadhog's almost down," notifying their teammates that one of their enemies is close to death. Then, "dammit," and another ragdoll. The rhythmic clicking of mouses and the low crunching of keyboards fills the long gaps between their callouts.
Then, it's just over. The silence continues as a blazing "KWU Wins!" flashes over the final scoreboard.
The Stars have lost their first official game. It feels like the air has been sucked out of the room.
But then, Chip chimes in.
"I don't know about you guys," Chip says, "but that was so f---ing fun."
That's hard for the players to focus on in the moment. But about a half-hour later, as they eat "sadboi tacos" at the Taco Bell near campus to numb the pain of the loss, Athyris, Caves and Lilo are already looking ahead, talking strategy for their next game.