A fight is about to go down at the DoubleTree Hilton in Irvine, California, and everyone milling about the hotel conference center seems to know it.
Technically, fighting is what all these people have come here to do. This is West Coast Warzone 6, the first American Capcom Pro Tour Street Fighter V ranking event of 2017. When the tournament starts, these combatants will report to their assigned PlayStations, select a deadly avatar and start jerking joysticks and slapping buttons until one of them is beaten to a bloody pixelated pulp. Two losses warp a player straight home.
As with any game, sometimes things get personal. The world of professional gaming is small. These e-athletes see each other once or twice a month at events all over the U.S. and East Asia. The netherworld of online gaming, where these same players compete almost daily, is even more ripe for conflict. Picture a live chat where participants can actually act out their violent impulses while simultaneously trolling from the safety of a remote location. Stream chats often read like a comments section on steroids. And once someone sticks their keyboard in their mouth, their words follow them at these live tournaments. Sometimes online jabs lead to real-life knuckle-cracking.
The internet never forgets. It was almost a year ago, leading up to the 2016 Irvine tournament, that a player named Ghodere took to web and posted: "going to west coast warzone this weekend, in a pool with gllty and ricki/please god don't let me lose to the two of them i will never recover." Gllty and Ricki are the handles of two women players, Leah Hayes and Ricki Ortiz, respectively. Obviously nastier things have been said on the internet. Still, the implication was clear: "Please don't let me lose to a girl."
Hayes smelled blood. The 28-year-old gamer had already built a reputation for bravado as loud and rowdy as any arcade. When she sat down beside Ghodere for their match at WarZone 5, with the gaming world anxiously looking on, she had no intention of just letting her play do all the talking. "I hear you've been running your mouth on the internet," Hayes said to her foe. "You're about to get f---ed."
After beating him, Hayes privately reached out to her chagrined opponent and the two made up. Still, when this year's Warzone brackets came out with a potential Gllty-Ghodere faceoff in the second round, self-promoter Hayes certainly didn't downplay The Rematch.
That's why this morning, the air carries a buzz that has little to do with caffeine, taurine or vaped nicotine. That's why passersby catch bits of the rumors as they spread across the venue, as if on an after-school playground where a bully is about to get his comeuppance. That's why at this moment, a couple dozen gamers have left their seats in front of the huge projection screens that feature games of high-ranked players for the scrum around a tiny console in the back of the room, where a diminutive woman clad in black sits beside a broad-shouldered man with a dark beard, both with control boxes, or fight sticks, in their laps.
Knocking an opponent out in two of three rounds wins a game, taking two of three games wins the match. Ghodere chooses avatar Zangief, a brutish, muscle-packed Russian bear-wrestler; Hayes plays Dhalsim, a mystic Indian yogi whose punches and kicks stretch across the entire screen. That flexibility does little to avail Hayes against the aggressive Ghodere, who quickly scores two knockouts to win the first game.
Hayes is uncharacteristically quiet. She grabs a drink of water, draws her blazing red bangs behind her ear. Dhalsim now keeps his distance, sniping from the corner with long punches and fireballs, picking away at the burly Cossack to tie the match at 1.
Still all of the jawing is coming from the swarming crowd, which seems to be buying into the rivalry more than the players themselves.
This matchup is sick! says one man.
This is some good s---, says another.
Game 3: Hayes goes on the assault, spitting a stream of fireballs that stun the Russian, setting him up for the quick KO. Ghodere gets one back in the second round, catching Hayes off guard with a windmill of punches. The final game is nip and tuck as both fighters pick away at each other. But just as time is running out and both avatars' life bars are nearing the red, Dhalsim leaps into the air and Hayes scores a downward punch to Zangief's chest, sending him crashing to the ground.
S--- was real close.
The crowd disperses. Hayes and Ghodere say little to each other, no smack talk, no pop-off, just a quick handshake as the two unplug their control boxes and move on. "He was posting on a place talking about me where people go basically to vent," Hayes will later say. "He opened himself up to have fun poked at him. But he didn't deserve for me to not treat him like a person."
Hayes first bruised her knuckles in competitive gaming in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the forum was just starting to shift from arcades onto to the web. That timing now seems serendipitous.
Hayes grew up alone, the only child of a single mom who worked as a secretary in St. Charles, Missouri, a suburb just upstream from St. Louis. While Hayes saw her older cousins playing a vast array of video games, her own household budget was spread thin. In the event that Hayes got a new console, usually long after its release, she had to pick her cartridges carefully. Games like Final Fantasy and Super Mario Bros. were like movies or books with a beginning, middle and end. Hayes gravitated toward fighting games, which didn't have an ending.
This was around the time when the increasingly graphic carnage of fighting games was becoming a political platform for parental outrage. Hayes' mom, Diana Hayes, saw how much the games meant to her daughter. Aside from occasionally having to tell her kid to put down the controller or the book about video games and go outside, she supported the hobby as much as she could.
Tearing characters' heads off and ripping their blood-soaked spines from their lifeless bodies for days on end at age 6 produced a grade-schooler who wasn't shy to computerized violence, but eviscerating the computer did little to alleviate Hayes' social anxiety. She would have friends over to play games and would pack quarters to the local arcades, but groups of three or more sent her retreating to one-player mode.
Fighting games, by this time, were more than just Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots. Titles like Tekken and Street Fighter contained entire universes inhabited by characters who not only had different combat skills, but different looks and backstories as well. When Hayes finally got Street Fighter Alpha for Sega Saturn, she gravitated toward Sakura, a Japanese schoolgirl in a short-skirted, sailor-type uniform and tennis shoes, who, despite her bubbly demeanor, was a fierce warrior who could take on any man. "I always thought that character was cool," Hayes says. "She was sorta tomboyish. I found her relatable."
Just when 12-year-old Hayes was finding herself in the virtual ring, the market for fighting games collapsed. Software manufacturers wanted more 3D graphics and cinematic narratives. "More fantasy fulfillment," says Hayes. But the plot lines of these games, like the Norse-themed Ragnarok or World of Warcraft, were so vast that players could get lost in them, never needing to purchase another game beyond the occasional upgrade. What's more, these fantasies were all being played out online, connecting people from all over the globe while maintaining a safe, if uncertain, social distance.
For an awkward pre-teen from suburban St. Louis, it was a vortex into a parallel universe. "I'm from Missouri, right?" she says. "My experiences are pretty limited. Drink some Bud Light, watch the Cardinals and shoot a deer. The internet is New York. It's California. It's Singapore."
Hayes found she could express herself freely. "I'm not good at socializing with people, but I am good at interfacing with them." And it was in this setting that Hayes, who is a transgender woman, was finally able to explore the feelings she'd had since she was 6. "I could practice being a girl through video games," she says. "On voice chat, if they were bigoted or homophobic, they'd let me know, and I was protected. I have a precise gauge of how well I'm doing in terms of presentation."
Playing online also allowed her to act out as the person she sometimes wanted to be -- an outgoing and feisty persona that soon became Gllty. "It's competitive video gaming, it's not that serious," she says. "No one is getting hurt. I get to be a magnificent b----. And I'm welcome. There may be consequences, but it's nothing I haven't signed up for."
Then in 2008, Capcom released Street Fighter IV. By that time, a then-20-year-old Hayes had built the confidence to return to the arcades and the new Street Fighter events that were popping up throughout the region. The awkward little kid had transformed into a confident young woman. In many ways, she had become the powerful avatar that she had always wanted to play. And now it was time to introduce the world to Gllty.
Day 2 of Warzone competition, a Sunday, is supposed to start at 11 a.m. One of the event organizers sits at the front of the cavernous conference room and yawns into the mic as he reads roll call of the 32 players who advanced to today's second round. Looking around the room at the drooping bodies scattered throughout the hall, it's obvious there aren't 32 of them present.
"Frankie, you here?"
"Mike? Mikey? You play too much [Street Fighter III] 3rd Strike last night?
Gamers are nocturnal. And when a hundred or so come together for an event like this, they often spend their spare nights up in hotel rooms or in the houses and apartments of players who live nearby, plugged into consoles. Sometimes they play for fun or bragging rights; other times they play for cash. After all, while the handful of elite players are sponsored by teams like Echo Fox, Red Bull or Evil Geniuses, and others have scored partial deals with software and hardware companies, a vast majority of these contestants are here on their own dime. They must pay for equipment (a competition-grade fight stick can cost hundreds of dollars), travel and lodging.
The total prize pool for this event is just $2,880, with the winner taking 70 percent. The Capcom Cup, the ultimate annual prize for Street Fighter V world champion is $230,000, but third place drops to $25,000 and finishing fourth reaps only $15,000. Most players either work full-time jobs, or part-time gigs supplemented with money games to stem the expense.
"I think I saw her," comes an anonymous response from the back. Hayes is actually wandering around the hotel texting with her mom and a gaming company rep who's trying to woo her into a sponsorship deal. It's not the lucrative deal she wants, but she has to at least consider it. The fact that she's fielding offers at all is quite a statement considering where her career began.
In 2008, Hayes dropped out of community college and got a job at Great American Cookies when she decided to jump back into the e-fighting ring. She saved her money, and in 2009 drove eight hours to Columbus, Ohio, for her first major tournament. She did not do well, but she put herself out there and made connections in the community. "For someone who was not especially outgoing, she talked to a lot of people," says Ryan "Fubarduck" Harvey, a veteran fight gamer since 2000 who first met Hayes in Columbus that year. "A lot of gamers are more introverted. For the most part, people have to make an effort."
The support network Hayes has built along the way has helped not only in terms of friendly coaching and competition as she fought her way through the ranks, but also with couches to crash on as she navigates the circuit. And gradually she's been able to quit the jobs at the cookie company and McDonald's and focus on gaming full time. In 2014, she launched her own channel on Twitch, an online video platform through which she can live stream her games, broadcasting Gllty's trash talk and pop-offs to the world while soliciting donations to keep the whole endeavor going. Last year, her persona landed her on the cast of "ELeague," an e-sports reality program on TBS. In 2016, she also made her first trip to Japan to train against some of Asia's best, and she's since also been to Korea.
Still, funds are tight. The world travel has meant less time and money to spend going home. She's been staying with friends here in SoCal for the last few weeks and she doesn't plan on making it back to St. Louis for another month, if then. She says the Midwestern city just doesn't have the live competition that's going to make her better and playing online isn't the same. "For me to continue to moving up," she says, "I have to make sacrifices."
The hardest of those sacrifices is being away from her mother, who has backed her through every tough choice Hayes has had to make. "I'm her biggest fan," says Diana Hayes. "I encouraged her to do this. I told her 'If this is what you want to do, do it all the way. You've got to try it out or you'll regret it.' "
Leah Hayes calls and texts with her mother constantly. Diana follows Gllty closely on the live streams of her tournaments and on Twitch -- which has led to some interesting mother-daughter moments. "Growing up on the internet, I'm pretty desensitized," Hayes says. "Someone saying they're going to hunt me down and shoot my dog, I'm like 'OK.' My mom did not grow up with that."
At first, seeing strangers razzing or insulting or suggesting sexual situations with her daughter freaked Diana out. But Leah Hayes says her mom has gotten more used to it. In fact, a little of Gllty has rubbed off. "My mom talks s--- on Twitch chat," Hayes says. "They go round and round with her not realizing it's my mom. It's funny to see my mother's smug satisfaction from getting a few people riled up.
"It's me and my mom against the world."
When the round of 32 finally gets going around noon, one of the featured matches is Gllty against Gustavo "801 Strider" Romero. Romero is a tough challenge for Hayes, not only because he's a Top 30 player globally (compared to Gllty's rank in the 500s), but because his chosen character, Laura, matches up well with Gllty's Dhalsim.
"This one's hard," says Hayes, loud enough for those sitting around in her in the gallery to hear. "But hard doesn't mean s---. I'm here to rob people."
As Hayes makes her way to the stage, she passes through the audience of men, many of whom grimace and give her the side-eye. But there are also a few women scattered in the seats, smiling at her and giving her thumbs up. One young teenager with stringy black hair and thick black-rimmed glasses, a novice who has just come to watch, nervously mutters "Good luck, Gllty."
One of the women looking on is Sherry "Sherryjenix" Nhan, one of Hayes' few women competitors. Nhan joined the circuit around the same time as Hayes, and she remembers hearing about Gllty before meeting her. "I heard about this girl pissing off a lot of people at tournaments," Nhan later says. Once she met Hayes, Nhan quickly saw that Hayes was just suffering from the same double standard she had encountered as a brazen female fighting against the boys. "If you have a punk persona as a girl, then you're a b----," Nhan says. "And if you lash out against that perception, then you're immature. You're not supposed to put yourself out there. So you can't defend yourself, and you can't be confident, either."
"She's breaking the stereotype of girls being shy and timid," says another woman gamer in the crowd. "I love that she talks smack. I want more women to be that way."
In Japan, where there are even fewer women gamers, Hayes' brashness is actually more accepted. "I feel like Gllty is reacted to better than other female players," says "Hatsume," one of Japan's top women e-athletes. "In regard to the trash talking and trolling, I think many people take it as some sort of American thing or a style of performance."
Hayes says that she doesn't believe most players, men or women, have a good command of their image or stage presence, the type of self-promotion that, along with skill, will take players and the sport overall further into the mainstream. "They look lost on camera," she says. "They're just afraid of putting themselves out there. I'm trans, which focuses a lot of the jabs, but nobody is immune. There's just a very simple, by-the-book way to s--- on me."
Anyone who wants to come after Hayes for her gender or her demeanor had better be aware that she welcomes the hate. In fact, it's part of her strategy. "That stuff does not phase her -- it actually powers her up," says Chris "imashbuttons" Lent. "You're just giving her what she wants. You've made it easier for her to make it awkward for you. She'll do everything she can to make you look dumb."
Of course, those mind games can only overcome so much skill. And as Hayes pulls on the hood of her black sweatshirt and plugs into the console across from Gustavo, in his sponsored purple Winter Fox team jersey, and the computer cries "Fight!," it's clear that she is no match for him. Hayes doesn't even have time to talk trash -- it takes Gustavo less than four minutes to score four knockouts and take the match.
Hayes shakes hands, unplugs and storms off, past a row of men wearing uniform grins, toward the terminals in the back of the room, looking for a sparring partner to blow off some steam and work on her mistakes for the next match.
Suddenly the young girl in glasses appears and works up the courage to approach Hayes.
"Wanna play?" she says.
"No," says Hayes, walking by without looking up.
Hayes is looking for more seasoned competition. But seconds later, she remembers herself and apologetically yells back at the crestfallen girl. "Talk to me after the tournament."
Being a role model for women is not something Hayes is particularly interested in or feels worthy of, but she understands that it comes with the territory. "Whether I see myself as a role model or not, other people will," she says. "So I have to be careful of my actions, sticking it to people, to the man, so to speak. It's complicated. To the people who look up to me or have expectations, it's like I want to say, 'I'm the f---ed up one.' It's a role reversal that I haven't completely processed. I don't consider myself the best advocate for anything but me and my family."
As her career begins to take off, Hayes has found herself increasingly drawn away from that family, at a time when her mother's health isn't the best. The situation has created a difficult paradox. On one hand, Hayes wants more than anything to be home to help take care of her mother; on the other, the best way for her to help her family is to stay out here on the circuit, making money and promoting herself.
"I can see myself staying there and becoming nothing," she says. "I can also see leaving and becoming something of an anchor, to give something back that way."
A few weeks following WarZone, she'll make the decision to move in with a friend permanently and stay in SoCal. And as if to reward that sacrifice, months after her move, Hayes will score a sponsorship deal with Team GRAPHT that will cover her travel, greatly easing her financial burden. "I just wasn't getting what I needed in Missouri," she will say. "Here in California, there's an event every day. There's more competition." There's also the unavoidable truth that, socially, life is a little easier on the coast. "Being transgender from small-town Missouri, any type of success feels like a slap in the face of a lot of the people in the society I grew up in," she says. "And I'm a vindictive b----, and on some petty level that drives me."
Now that the Gllty persona has taken on a life of its own and started paying dividends through Twitch and TBS and now GRAPHT, the next phase of Hayes' professional growth will be controlling that spiteful impulse.
Her next match at WarZone is against a Canadian called Ceroblast, a player in the 200s. Hayes hangs back as her opponent comes out aggressive, and that patience is rewarded as Dhalsim is able to score hits with his extended punches and kicks, setting up for a fireball KO. Another quick knockout puts Hayes up 1-0. She smiles for the camera.
The second game starts much the same, with Dhalsim sniping blows and points. But midway through the first round, Hayes misses a scoring opportunity, leaving herself open to Ceroblast's attack. Hayes facepalms as Dhalsim hits the ground. Her smile is wiped away as she's knock out a second time. 1-1. Now Hayes is on tilt, with Ceroblast storming out in the deciding game and notching two quick KOs. Hayes is eliminated.
She shakes hands and then gloomily walks off, out of the hall and out of the building. Gllty is done for the day. Hayes wants to be alone. She finds a quiet corner in the alley, slumps to the ground and pulls out her phone to call home.