Fortnite provides new path for women in esports

Madison “maddiesuun” Mann is one of two female Fortnite players signed by Gen.G Esports and will compete in duos with partner Tina “TINARAES” Perez. Provided by Gen.G Esports

Ten seconds.

That's how long it took for one of Kristen "Kittyplays" Valnicek's Fortnite squad mates to call her a "p---y" after she first spoke in voice chat.

A full-time streamer since 2013, Kittyplays wasn't surprised by the harassment as much as its source: an 11-year-old boy. He was reciting by rote a word he was too young to fully understand.

"It's for the reaction, for the rise," Kittyplays said. "They don't even know what it means; they just heard one of their friends who's coming of age say it. With the internet these days, I don't think it's something you can avoid. I just think they have to learn better."

Where will they learn better, and from whom? The highest level of competitive gaming has always been a boys club whose teachings and cultural norms are set by its insular, monolithic membership. Boys will be boys because there have only ever been boys to learn from. Development of aspiring professionals existed solely through the emulation of older male gamers, who transferred their beliefs and biases to the next generation like hereditary traits.

Breaking open this closed tradition has been a long time coming, and it's Fortnite swinging the pickax. Epic Games' purposeful insistence on featuring popular, skilled female players at the highest levels of its esport is unprecedented. No other game of Fortnite's size has ever integrated top male and female talent to this extent, skirmish after skirmish, LAN after LAN.

The effects are only just beginning to materialize.

Stephanie "FemSteph" Driscoll has been in the games industry for over a decade, working her way up from a college job at GameStop to years in the communications departments of Electronic Arts and Ubisoft. In 2015, she became a full-time variety streamer on Twitch, and this summer she played in the Fortnite Pro-Am and Summer Skirmish Series. It's difficult to overstate what it meant to an industry veteran like FemSteph to see men and women competing on the same playing field.

"To see so many female gamers involved, it was incredible," FemSteph said. "Even on the Pro-Am side, when [Epic] hosted this giant tournament on this big, live stage, over 5 million people watching, there were pros that were female, but there were also celebrities that were women too. ... It's really inspiring as a female to see the turning of the tide, having more people be involved in something so male-dominant. I'm so proud and excited to be a part of that."

FemSteph hasn't been involved in the Fall Skirmish Series despite being drafted by the Dusty Dogs, choosing instead to explore other games like "Assassin's Creed: Odyssey," "Red Dead Redemption 2" and "Fallout 76" for her 215,000-plus followers. Fortnite hasn't gone stale, but at this point in her career, FemSteph sees herself less as a pro player and more as an influencer helping games along their path.

So does Kittyplays, who despite being the winningest female player in competitive Fortnite (she finished third at the Pro-Am with actor Chandler Riggs and ranks first in winnings with $25,700), is reluctant to give up the life she currently lives in order to grind scrims for hours on end.

"I did the two years of 12-to-14-hour streams to build my Twitch to what it is, and that burned me out," she said. "I realized that I want a blend of family and friends, the business side of my stream and travel. Those are all things that are really important to me, and I think it's something you see these pro players having to give up in order to scrim 10-12 hours a day."

In that same vein, Kittyplays recently accepted a position with Gen.G as head of new gaming initiatives, where she'll be responsible for expanding Gen.G's involvement in new gaming frontiers like Fortnite. The hire comes amid a flurry of female Fortnite player signings by major esports organizations: Maria "ChicaLive" Lopez with Team SoloMid, Rachel "Valkyrae" Hofstetter with 100 Thieves, and both Tina "TINARAES" Perez and Madison "maddiesuun" Mann with Gen.G Esports.

Gen.G Head of Partnerships Jordan Sherman knew exactly what he was doing when he signed an all-female duos team. He noticed the way Epic had cultivated a solid mix of male and female players and saw an opportunity to make a statement with the South Korean organization's first esports team based entirely in the United States.

"When we started looking at some of the female gamers, we noticed that they were better than some of the guys," said Sherman. "Their teamwork was great; their communication was great; their strengths and weaknesses balanced off one another. Maddie and Tina have this great bond. When we met them, they were all about winning, all about teamwork, all about playing together, which is everything our organization stands for. So we actively recruited them, flew their families out to San Francisco to meet with ownership and signed them to a pro contract."

The signing of two skilled female players falls in line with Kittyplays' long-term goal of creating more inroads in the esports space for women and girls. It's part of the reason she established a female-only Discord server: to help create the female gaming role models she never had growing up.

When she was a teenager, an environment like Fortnite didn't exist for girl gamers to be viewed positively. The sheer amount of toxicity trailblazers like Counter-Strike's Stephanie "missharvey" Harvey and Starcraft 2's Sasha "Scarlett" Hostyn endured made it difficult to aspire to lives like theirs.

In Kittyplays' mind, Fortnite has the "trifecta" necessary to not only foster female gamers but make their lives appealing to young kids: a developer invested in diverse talent, influencers excited about the game and a fan base open to supporting female players.

"What Fortnite has done is that it's allowed these women to play pro, and be a really good role model for young girls and young boys," Kittyplays said. "They can look at someone like me and say, 'Oh my gosh, Kitty got third at the Pro-Am. That's so cool; she's a girl that did that. I wanna be like her when I grow up.'

"I think you'll definitely see more women in the next three to five years, who are 13 to 17 now, getting into that scene and making it a pursuit of theirs because they see the positive reaction I've been getting from being in this space."

Which brings us back to the 11-year-old boy who, to his credit, immediately retracted and apologized to Kittyplays for the slur. She forgave him. It didn't take the kid long to figure out that his partner wasn't the noob she was pretending to be.

"Why are you so nice to me?" he asked at one point.

"Because you were nice to me!" she replied.

Soon, that 11-year-old was opening up to her about losing his father to a heart attack, being bullied at school and watching his single mother raise five children. They were both in tears before long, and by the end of the stream, Kittyplays and her followers had raised over $500 as a gift for the boy's mother.

"I've always said that video games serve a huge purpose in teaching kids how to interact with other people, about leadership, about guidance," Kittyplays said. "If you're solo-filling [in Fortnite], you're getting three other people to work together for your goal. You learn how to navigate the map, and you learn how to navigate people."