Game: Interrupted

How a teenage gamer in the hottest new esport, Overwatch, became a reluctant icon for South Korea's feminist movement.

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It took less than two seconds to change Kim Se-hyeon's life. In June 2016, Kim, who plays under the gamer tag "Geguri," was competing in an amateur Overwatch tournament from her parents' house outside Seoul. Her team, UW Artisan, had come out firing. The announcers screamed Geguri's name as she and her five teammates shot up their enemies on a map called Lijiang Tower, darting between skyscrapers and pagodas beneath a murky violet sky. After momentarily wiping out its opponents, Geguri's team hung back, and the camera landed on her avatar, a brawny Russian woman named Zarya who wields a comically large gun. Then something strange happened: As Zarya spun around in a circle, scanning her allies, her movements appeared oddly crisp and robotic. Click. Click. Click.

It was a fleeting moment, and it would've gone unnoticed if not for what happened next. After the match, whispers started to surface online that Geguri, then just 16 years old, was cheating. She had already developed a reputation in South Korea for her impeccable shooting and win ratio, stats that placed her among the top Zarya players in the country. But the incident at Lijiang Tower aroused suspicions that Geguri's ultraprecise aim was a little too precise. Several players on Dizziness, the team UW Artisan had defeated, took to the forums to accuse her of "aim botting," or using hacks to sharpen her skills. One of them wrote: "If there is a problem with our sponsors and such, I may visit Geguri's house with a knife in hand. I am not joking."

Geguri's coach contacted Blizzard, the company that makes Overwatch, hoping to clarify what had happened. But in the meantime, the story exploded online. Overwatch, which was released in May 2016 and now boasts more than 30 million registered players, had already cultivated a huge following in Korea. The lurid attacks on Geguri were perfectly calibrated to capture fans' attention -- and to provoke debate about the glaring void of women in esports. While female gamers don't have the same physical disadvantages against males as, say, female basketball players, very few have thrived on a professional level. In Seoul, where corporate-sponsored teams live in gaming houses and play in front of packed arenas, the top players are all men.

The scandal swirling around Geguri felt like a tipping point. She was a unicorn, and people didn't believe she was real.

"Everyone was attacking her brutally," says Kim Young-il, one of the announcers, called casters, who broadcast the tournament. As the online abuse mounted, Kim invited Geguri to stage a demonstration to clear her name. Geguri accepted, but when she arrived at his studio, Kim says, it was clear that the high school girl "wasn't mentally ready" to face the public. She had to tape the introduction several times because she was so anxious, and she wore a white mask to hide her face. After Kim introduced her, Geguri apologized for the accusations and said she didn't even know how to cheat. Her microphone quivered in her hand.

Kim paused, waiting for Geguri to continue, but she was silent. He chuckled awkwardly. "Well, we can all watch her play and you can judge whether she used the assist hacks or not," he said.

After Geguri bowed and dipped out of sight, the feed switched to her computer screen, where she was playing her signature character, Zarya. Not long after the demonstration began, she clashed with an enemy warrior called Reinhardt. While chipping away at his shield, she noticed another opponent, Tracer, a cheeky British pilot, flitting past her. Geguri pivoted and shot at Tracer, painting her with continuous fire. As the demonstration progressed, she racked up kill after kill, and the commenters watching the game praised her mechanics. "She did a brilliant job," Kim says. "Obviously she has good aim -- but there's also the timing of her skills. She plays so smart."

After over an hour, Geguri stood up from the computer and joined Kim. He asked her whether she wanted to comment on her performance. She said she did, then paused, her microphone drooping in her hand like a wilting flower. "I hope you can say something that is on your mind," Kim said.

"I was so nervous, I didn't play well," Geguri replied. Then she went silent. Her eyes darkened behind her mask and she hunched over, crumpling under an invisible weight.

Geguri (foreground) considered disguising her voice so that male gamers would partner with her. Sunmin Lee for ESPN

The demonstration was a huge success. Despite Geguri's critical self-appraisal, fans flooded the forums to compliment her performance, which was viewed more than 3 million times. Geguri acquired thousands of followers on social media, young girls who sent her messages and hand-drawn pictures of frogs with Zarya's shock of pink hair ("geguri" is the Korean word for "frog"). Blizzard confirmed her innocence; her movements had appeared glitchy because of a bug in the game's camera. It felt like a crack had formed in the industry's glass ceiling. But in the ensuing months, her team's performance took a dip, and as of this past spring, it was rumored she was no longer competing at all.

Curious to learn what happened, in May, I contact Geguri, who agrees to meet me and my interpreter for lunch in Sang-su, a neighborhood of Seoul popular with teenagers. She takes a long train ride from her parents' house and shows up with Jang "AKaros" Ji-soo, a former UW Artisan teammate who is now one of the few female Overwatch casters. While nearly a year had passed since her demonstration, Geguri looks younger in person, with round, rosy cheeks. Her black-rimmed glasses accentuate her girlishness, in the way that precocious children seem smaller when they use big words.

Geguri started playing video games when she was 5 years old. In 2015, when Blizzard released a trailer to promote Overwatch's release, she was mesmerized. "When I pictured first-person shooters, there was always so much blood ... but Overwatch was bright and animated," she says. "I fell in love with it before I played it." After borrowing a classmate's password to play a beta version of the game, Geguri burned through her allowance going to PC bangs, the omnipresent Korean internet cafés, and practiced for several hours every day at home, sharpening her skills on her family's sluggish computer. She tried to find partners, but male gamers didn't want to team up with her when they heard her speak; at one point, she considered buying a computer program to modulate her voice.

After a few weeks, she met AKaros, a college student who was known for her prowess at another Blizzard game, Heroes of the Storm. When the two players first encountered each other on the Overwatch servers, Geguri didn't realize she had run into another girl; it wasn't until they chatted offline that she realized what they had in common. AKaros, now 21, invited her to become a member of her amateur team, UW Artisan. "If she wasn't there, I definitely never would've joined," Geguri says. "Before we met, I never used voice chat because everyone just teased me. But after meeting her, I was able to communicate with others playing the game."

UW Artisan played its now-infamous match against Dizziness not long after that. "[The Dizziness players] messaged me insistently and asked if Geguri was aim botting," AKaros says. "Looking at the videos, she was so good, they were sure about it."

Geguri was flattered at first. "The fact that they thought I was [cheating] must've meant I was good," she says. Then the chatter took an ugly turn. "Because they attacked me publicly, everyone in the community was attacking me, calling me a crazy b----." Geguri reaches under the table where we're eating lunch and holds AKaros' hand. "I was scared."

Geguri's teammates stood by her as the drama unfolded, and once she had cleared her name, UW Artisan's profile rose. Later that summer, the team was purchased by EHOME, a Chinese company, and Geguri moved into its gaming house, splitting time between Seoul and Daejon, where she still attended school. But in the ensuing months, several players left, and the team struggled. AKaros suffered a shoulder injury and was forced to stop playing, so she moved out. Geguri wanted to stay in the house, but her parents, who had approved of the arrangement when AKaros lived with her, insisted that she move home to finish her classes. (Because high school is optional in Korea, many young gamers simply drop out.) Not long after that, Geguri says, she stopped practicing with the team, which phased her out of the starting lineup.

After lunch, the two girls walk to a nearby PC bang. The room is dark and windowless with blood-red walls; it looks like a dungeon that holds computers instead of shackles. A smattering of men sitting in padded chairs are playing Overwatch, their heads swimming in dumbbell-sized headphones. The two girls sit next to each other and tweak the settings on their computer screens. Geguri famously plays with an unusually high level of mouse sensitivity; when she navigates a map and fires her weapons, she barely moves her hand.

Whenever she logs in to a new game, strangers notice her tag. "Hey, it's Geguri," writes one player in the chat thread. Another adds: "You're that girl!" As Geguri toggles screens to check her stats, she mentions that she's often recognized online. Many of the messages she receives are from fans; others come from trolls, men who mock her looks and tell her she needs plastic surgery. "In the beginning, I cried a lot," she says. "But I got used to it as time went by." Over the past year, she explains, she has grown tougher -- less vulnerable to the doubts people cast upon her as well as the ones she had sown in her own mind. "I wasn't always like this, but I decided I needed to believe in myself to be good," she says. "I need to play with no regrets."

One of the game's characters, D.Va, has become a feminist symbol, her flag flying at Seoul's Women's March. Courtesy @crumpled_kyul/Twitter

Every week, APEX, Korea's professional Overwatch league, holds matches at its esports arena, which sits inside a nondescript office building in a business district of Seoul. On a Friday night, dozens of young women flood the lobby, piling onto couches and sipping cold tea. A few wear curlers in their bangs, which they'll unfurl before the fan meetup after the competition. One of the squads playing that night is Kongdoo Panthera, a team of young men with lustrous hair, buttermilk-colored skin and, not unrelatedly, a rabid fan base. (The team knows its audience; later that night, the players come out in matching sailor outfits.)

Two college girls are sketching anime-like renditions of Kongdoo stars on paper signs, called "cheerfuls." When I ask them why they've come to the event, they rave about the team -- but add that they too are gamers. "We play more than 10 hours a week," says Park Seung-un, a 20-year-old college student.

While Blizzard says it has no way of breaking down Overwatch's players by gender, the company acknowledges that the title is "over-indexing" with women. Some of this has to do with the design. Because Overwatch is a first-person shooter, it's more accessible than, say, StarCraft; the game also offers a variety of roles. Unlike most shooters, which tend to use dusty, bombed-out settings, the game is visually stunning, with a rich backstory and diverse characters. Overwatch's heroes -- nearly half of whom are women -- belong to an Ocean's Eleven-type squad assembled to combat a robot uprising. Tracer, the female character posing on the cover of the game, is a lesbian. "I think we've done a decent job of getting over the notion that a shooter has to be a game with a grizzled dude in camouflage sitting on the cover," says Jeff Kaplan, the game's director. "Heroes are male, and female, and sometimes, goddamn it, they're gorillas and robots too." (One of the heroes, Winston, is a gorilla scientist.)

While Overwatch is popular with female gamers, very few have climbed the professional ranks. As of this past spring, there were a couple of women competing in China's top league but none in Korea or North America. This isn't unique to Overwatch; women are scarce in popular esports like StarCraft and League of Legends, for reasons that are varied and complex. The number of female gamers is rising, but they're still outnumbered on the servers, and titles are primarily marketed to boys. Girls also face unique logistical challenges. In Korea, it's considered taboo for unmarried women and men to live together, which makes it hard for female gamers to move into team houses. This stigma applies in other countries too; North American coaches have expressed concerns that coed players might develop romantic ties.

Every female gamer I meet in Korea tells me she has been harassed -- typically with profane, sexual insults -- while competing. Many have also faced accusations of cheating, a trend rooted in the "fake geek girl" meme, which is born of the paranoia that women with traditionally male interests are lying to attract attention. Cheon "Ezz" Yeong-Hyeon, a 22-year-old Heroes of the Storm player who recently became the first woman to win a match in the game's top Korean league, says that before she started competing at live tournaments, "everyone was like: 'You can't be that good as a girl. Your boyfriend must be playing for you.'" Others accused her of "elo boosting," or hiring someone to play on her account to inflate her statistics.

Park, the college student waiting outside Apex's arena, says that while a woman has yet to break into the Premier League, it isn't for lack of desire. "It's not necessarily that female gamers don't want to be professionals -- there are a lot of female gamers out there who wish they could," she says. "But the market is already dominated by guys." As she speaks, there is a rustling, and her eyes widen: Geguri and AKaros are walking through the lobby, stopping every few feet when they are approached by female fans. When Park sees them, she leaps out of her seat and runs over with her friend. They bow and shake their hands, then take a photo with them. Geguri smiles, her cheeks flushing a deeper shade of pink.

While Geguri hasn't competed for a couple of months, she is still practicing for several hours a night, hoping to find a new team. (At the time, she ranked in the top 100 individual players on the Korean server.) She says she has no hobbies outside of Overwatch and, other than AKaros, no close friends. She is trying to persuade her mother and father to let her transfer to a different school next year, one that would let her take time off during the day. "My parents were against it at first, but I told them: 'All I've been doing since I was 5 is playing games,'" she says. She is even open to moving abroad: "It doesn't matter where I'm going -- I just want to be the best."

Before the match begins, she and AKaros pick up tickets from a counter in the lobby and walk into the arena. As the lights dim, two groups of young men in soccer-style uniforms emerge onstage, their heads bobbing as they trudge toward their booths. Geguri finds a seat in the front row, where she stares at the screen, her mouth set in a grim line as she watches the competition, relegated to sitting alongside the other female fans.

"I didn't raise anyone's hand," Geguri writes on Twitter. "I am simply a shut-in who likes video games and dreams of playing professionally." Sunmin Lee for ESPN

A few days later, several dozen young women dressed in black gather on a sidewalk in Seoul's ritzy Gangnam neighborhood, where they assemble a banner that tells the story of a murder. One year ago, a man waited near a bathroom outside the Gangnam subway station around 1 a.m. and stabbed a random woman to death. The women now plan to hold a memorial in the victim's honor, culminating in a march to the subway station. They sit on the steps of a nearby office building, passing out dainty white flowers. Around 7 p.m., one of them walks to the front of the group, hoisting a megaphone to her lips. "It's been one year since the death of the woman, and we can never go back to before it happened," she says. "Let's speak up. Let's go out. Let's be angry."

The murder at Gangnam Station marked an inflection point in Korea's nascent feminist movement. Over the past few years, women's rights groups have sprung up across the country, shining a spotlight on gender inequality -- and spurring a backlash among some men, who have accused feminist organizations of extremist tactics. Women have made incremental gains in Korean society, but they still lag behind. Female workers earn, on average, 37 percent less than their male counterparts, an income gap that ranks 35th out of the 35 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. While more women than men go to college in Korea, they hold just 2 percent of management positions at the country's biggest companies, and they continue to bear the brunt of household labor.

Jung So-rim, who works for one of the cable networks as a caster, says that earlier in her career she earned significantly less than her male colleagues. "When I first started, they'd say to my face: 'Hey, you have kids -- are you going to do a good job?'" she says. Jung persisted, going on to cast games like StarCraft, CS:GO, Sudden Attack and, most recently, Overwatch. But after nearly two decades, she, like AKaros, is one of just a handful of women in the booth. "When the audience sees a female caster, they'll say: 'She's a woman, what does she know about games?'"

Jung pauses, then adds: "They don't say it to my face."

As the sun sets in Gangnam, the march swells to more than 700 people. A number of progressive groups carry large flags, one of which is hot pink and white, with a cartoon drawing of a smirking bunny: the logo for D.Va, Overwatch's Korean character. D.Va, who hops around in a pink mech suit, is a StarCraft gamer enlisted by the government to battle giant robots.

Back in January, the D.Va flag appeared in a photo taken at Seoul's Women's March, and the image went viral. Not long after, it was revealed that the flag belonged to an organization calling itself the National D.Va Association, a female gamers collective that had come together "so that in 2060, someone like D.Va could actually appear." The group's founder, a 24-year-old photographer named Kim Ji-young, is snapping pictures at the Gangnam memorial. Kim, who is wearing a black leather jacket with a tiny D.Va pin, says she believes all Korean women -- whether they're working, studying or playing on the Overwatch servers -- wrangle with the same forces of oppression. "It feels like everywhere in Korea ... people don't treat women like human beings," she says.

When Kim created her group -- which she says currently has about 50 members -- she cited Geguri's case as an example of the sort of sexism female gamers encounter online, positioning her as a feminist icon. But Geguri has shied away from the role, pointing out that Dizziness accused her of cheating because of the glitch and her skill, not because of her gender. She later pushes back when women's rights activists try to enlist her to their cause. "I didn't raise anyone's hand," she writes on Twitter. "I am simply a shut-in who likes video games and dreams of playing professionally."

Kim would remove the references to Geguri from the National D.Va Association's website, acceding to her wishes to be left alone. But at the march, she says that while Geguri might not see herself as a feminist, she is still battling on behalf of other women. "She's under a lot of pressure," Kim says. "She's fighting a lonely fight."

While Korea's second-tier professional league, Apex Challengers, features just eight teams, hundreds dream of making the cut. On May 13, about a dozen of them meet in a PC bang in Bucheon, a city southwest of Seoul, where they will vie for two spots. Geguri's old team, now called EHOME Spear, has qualified for the tournament, and the six boys are sitting at a row of padded chairs. As they fiddle with their hardware, Geguri, who is standing a few feet to the side with AKaros, scans the room of young men and sees one of her old teammates, Park "Radio" Jae-song. He silently mouths hello.

EHOME's first game is in Numbani, which is set on the outskirts of an African savanna. After a heated team fight, their opponents easily push their payload -- in Overwatch, a payload is a vehicle that a team must push forward -- and win the map. As AKaros comments on the game ("They were overextending," she explains), Geguri watches silently, frowning whenever the team makes a mistake.

“Everyone in the community was attacking me, calling me a crazy b----. I was scared.”

- Kim "Geguri" Se-Hyeon

The team's coach, a 28-year-old former StarCraft 2 player, says he was hired by EHOME not long before Geguri left the house. While her departure had played a role in her benching, he says, he also wanted to give another player a chance to start. He compliments Geguri's mechanics but mentions that her "team communication" was a weakness at times. "I don't know if it's a gender issue, but ... girls and guys naturally think differently," he says. "When guys have issues, girls may not be able to understand them. You have to be able to understand each other to communicate."

After EHOME loses its second game, AKaros and Geguri leave the PC bang to grab lunch at a nearby restaurant. They take off their shoes and sit cross-legged as a waitress serves gamjatang, a heavy Korean stew made with pork bones. As the two girls eat, Geguri admits that it's painful for her to watch her old team. She's concerned that when the team struggles, her reputation as a player suffers too. While she hasn't competed in months, she still has many female fans. "I don't feel like I've lived up to them," she says. "I want to prove that I'm really great."

When they return, the PC bang is eerily quiet -- then suddenly erupts into a cacophony of male voices. Players bark orders at their teammates and the room grows chaotic to the point of hostility -- like the trading room floor of a stock exchange. Amid the clamor, I almost don't notice that Geguri has sidled up to me. "When I first started playing, if I spoke up, they'd say: 'I don't want a girl on my team,'" she says. "But nowadays, I'm shot-calling." She stands on her toes, raising her voice to make herself heard above the screaming men. "I want to lead the game."

Geguri and AKaros stick around for a few more hours, then leave for the train station. Both have long trips back to their parents' houses. The next morning, I go online and learn that EHOME Spear had advanced to the second round, then lost. I look up Geguri's statistics and see that since the previous morning, her rank on the Korean Overwatch server has risen. After she had parted ways with AKaros and gone home, she logged on and played for several hours, fighting, all by herself, deep into the night.

AKaros is now one of a few female Overwatch casters. Yong Woo "Kenzi" Kim

A few weeks after the tournament in Bucheon, EHOME Spear disbands. Then, just before the new season of Apex begins in August, news breaks that Geguri has landed on a new team. ROX Orcas, a Challengers-level squad that had recently been promoted to the Premier level, signed her to replace one of its players, making her the first woman to ever play Overwatch at the highest level in Korea. After her tryout, Geguri had persuaded her family to let her switch to a school that would allow her to take more time off. "My parents weren't that fond of it, but I was stubborn, so they eventually gave in," she says.

The team's coach, Kim Bum-hoon, says that while ROX had looked at a few players, he picked Geguri because of the skills she displayed while streaming, noting that her unusual mouse sensitivity magnified her game awareness. He says the idea that ROX signed her to attract publicity is "completely false," adding: "We actually had been looking at Geguri for some time as a potential sub-tank candidate, purely because of her skill." If anything, he continues, her gender worked against her; the team has rented separate living quarters for Geguri, housing her at greater cost.

On a Wednesday night, ROX plays its first match against Afreeca Freecs Blue, an experienced squad with several high-profile players. While Afreeca has built a large following over several seasons, ROX draws a sizable contingent of fans, including several girls carrying signs dedicated to Geguri. One has drawn a smiling frog wearing sunglasses, with lettering that says: "Wow -- you're so cool!" A young woman named Lee says she has rooted for Geguri since the days of UW Artisan. When she heard the news about her joining ROX, she says, she almost cried. "She had to go through a lot, and to a lesser extent, so did her fans," she says. "To see her in the booth now, to see her finally make it, to see her skills be recognized ... I'm so happy."

After the lights in the Apex arena flicker off, pounding music thumps over the loudspeakers and the teams come out. Geguri, who is wearing a red and white ROX jersey over black pants, walks at the rear of her team, stumbling a little before the players circle for a high-five. The two squads break their huddles and line up in front of their booths, and Geguri crosses her hands in front of her body like she's standing for an anthem, her face impassive as she faces the crowd.

Before the game begins, one of the American casters, Wolf Schroder, announces that Geguri is Apex's first female Overwatch player. He tells the story of the cheating allegations. "She defied the expectations people had for her online," he says. "She defied people who said, 'No, you can't be this good.'"

The first match takes place in Nepal, a king-of-the-hill-style map set in a snowy monastery. From the outset, ROX's relative inexperience is obvious; while the team holds its own in early fights, it suffers from a lack of coordination, wasting opportunities to close out games. After ROX loses the first match and the competition moves to a different location, Geguri switches from D.Va to Zarya, her trademark character, and the crowd cheers. At one point, when Afreeca's Reinhardt charges her team, she burns him down with her cannon, then snaps around and targets another opponent, going on a brief killing spree.

Lee, her longtime fan, is awestruck. "I can't believe this is real," she says.

As the competition wears on, ROX slowly improves, and by the third round of matches, the team is pushing Afreeca on point after point. In the final game, on a Russia-based map called Volskaya Industries, ROX performs well at first -- but near the end, playing defense, one of Geguri's teammates deploys his ultimate ability at the wrong time and the side collapses. After Afreeca wins in overtime, Schroder, the Apex caster, praises the underdogs' effort. "The team definitely performed better than many would have expected," he says.

The camera pans to ROX's booth. The team seems drained but not dispirited, and the coach beams as he walks in. A few seconds later, Afreeca players file into the booth, and as is customary in Korean esports, they bow and solemnly shake their opponents' hands. After they exit, ROX's players stuff their belongings into their backpacks, chatting and laughing while they wrap up their keyboards and mice. As they prepare to leave, the broadcast lingers on Geguri one last time, capturing her as she smiles, eyes shining, before cutting away.

Additional reporting by Young Jae Jeon and Genie Kim

Mina KimesMina Kimes is a senior writer for ESPN.

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