The rise of esports in the gaming world has opened doors for players around the world to be lucrative in doing what they love and created a plethora of new career options within the industry. From training to gear to coaching, esports mirrors traditional sports in many ways, with its own set of challenges and rewards. And in gaming and esports alike, women are blazing trails, kicking butt and making names for themselves while overcoming obstacles and reaping the rewards of pursuing their passions.
Three such women are Afro-Latina esports personality, host, producer, and consultant, Erin Ashley Simon (NBA 2K League, Cheddar Esports), Emily Tran, an Asian-American professional TEKKEN player and owner of EQUINOX Gaming and Jeannail Carter, African-American EQUINOX pro gamer and one of the world’s top TEKKEN players. We had the pleasure of speaking with these gaming queens in honor of International Women’s Day.
The conversation, lightly edited for clarity, is as follows. Enjoy and support women in gaming!
You each are prominent in your respected fields. How did you first get into esports?
Erin Ashley Simon: I got in when I started covering esports from a media perspective when I worked at a publication. My friend Kyle Harvey actually worked with one of the esports organizations, T1, but at the time, he was the editorial manager for the company. I was focused on gaming and its cultural impact and everything like that. He encouraged me to start gaming and covering esports. I focused on covering the NBA 2K League because at the time they had just started, and I was like, okay great, this is a league that I can help cover, it’s new and it’s the intersection of traditional sports and esports.
I hosted a Twitch show for them called The Post Up, and that was essentially my first on-camera hosting work for esports. So from there, I eventually connected with Cheddar Esports, and I was there for like a year and some change. The Post Up was my entry, but charity esports was essentially the job that really solidified my credibility in the space. It helped me tap into very different spaces in esports as well. So that’s essentially how I was able to enter into the industry.
Jeannail Carter: I had been competing for a while, but it was very on and off because I was actually in school for a while. When I graduated from college, I was still competing as a hobby. From like 2013 – 2018, for five years it was on and off of going to the events but once I graduated from college, I was given the chance to sign on with EQUINOX because they had seen me play a few months before and had been looking at me play in general. Once I was on their team, that’s when the esports aspect of my life came into play because I was going to an event every month and it became a huge part of who I was.
At the time, I was focusing on my art and illustration but esports started to present so many opportunities for me. I started to claim that role as a professional esports player because it became something I did every single month. If I wasn’t at an event, I was training for an event with my training partner. I was like hmm…I’m getting opportunities from this, I’m making money from this, so I need to start claiming this as my career. And it’s something I love to do. I was traveling all the time, representing American TEKKEN. So honestly, 2018 was when I started to compete in esports.
Emily Tran: I first got into competitive esports back in 2006, 2007. It was with a first-person shooter. It was Halo: Combat Evolved and Halo 2. And I had actually seen a show on MTV: True Life, I’m a Pro-Gamer. I saw a woman playing on that, it was Ali, and she was playing Counter-Strike on an all-women’s team for the women’s CS Cup. And I thought it was amazing, so I really wanted to get into it. However, I didn’t have Counter-Strike (CS), so instead, I played Halo, which was another game featured on True Life.
So I just tried to look into it and look into the tournaments and I saw that there were MLGs, Major League Gaming events in my area, Meadowlands. So I decided to just do it. I found a team on the forums and I went to compete at MLG Meadowlands in 2008, that was like my first event. And we lost really badly (laughs) but ever since then, I’ve been really into esports. I felt like I was part of the community. I joined a women’s clan called PMS: Pandora’s Mighty Soldiers. I joined them to make girl friends so that I could get better and play with people I feel comfortable with. So yeah, it started way back then in 2006, 2007.
When you first got started, were there women in the community that inspired you?
Emily: Yes, so in Halo as well. They weren’t featured on the True Life show but I had learned about them after getting involved in the Halo community. There are two women who were really good, Bonnie Burton who’s currently known as Xena, she currently works now at Bungie, we’re friends. And another girl, I think her name was Smiley. I don’t think she’s active anymore. But they were two women who were doing really well in the tournament and getting really far. I admired them so much. They were just holding their own, they were so young. I wanted to be like them back then (laughs). So yeah, I really admire women who compete. Way back then, especially, there just weren’t that many women that were visible, so it was awesome to see.
Jeannail: Hmm… to be honest. No (laughs). I think I had to be that for myself. I had to be the inspiration I wanted. When it comes to women gamers, we are like the first of our kind in many ways. For me, I just knew that I was taught to have a standard for myself. It’s not enough to be a woman in gaming, that was never enough for me. I love what I love, but if I want to be a professional here, a professional woman, I have to be damn good at what I do. I dug my heels in. You go to the tournaments, you tap in on the high-level technique that players use because they’ve been playing longer and have more experience.
I took on a whole year of traveling and establishing myself as a top American player, fully, by doing that and then by being one of the best players in the world just by traveling and competing. I became that standard for myself by doing that. As I got deeper into the community and met more women by doing certain things, it was great to network. When I first started out, it was definitely just players that motivated me. Not a gender thing or anything. Players I aspired to be like because they looked like me. Some were Black men, and they were down to earth. The fact that they considered me a top player before I even got to EQUINOX, based on skill sets: that is who I looked up to. They were examples of who I wanted to be. The respect that they gave really solidified my confidence to pursue getting better even before I got signed.
Erin: There were various different women that were very helpful. A woman named Amanda Stevens, my friend Narz, my friend Judy. Obviously, there were women outside of the New York City area in terms of my connections, but what really helped to inspire and push and motivate me were the women that were working within the New York City area, especially working at developing and cultivating esports in the New York City area. At that time, one, I wasn’t really traveling that much. Two, there were certain places where I was still learning about certain aspects of the industry and there were certain games I didn’t really play that I had to learn more about. So they were helping me to learn about the space and were very supportive.
And a few I worked with at Cheddar charity sports, whether interviewing them or co-hosting, and there are a few others too, sorry my brain is a little fried (laughs)…Adesina! But yeah, the women in the New York City area played such a tremendous role in motivating me and inspiring me and the camaraderie of the gaming and esports scene in New York is very, very special. We work with each other, we hang out with each other. They really just encouraged me to be me. And it was like the first time in my career where I could truly be myself unapologetically. They were the ones that encouraged me to continue forth with that.
What are some of the challenges and rewards of being women in gaming/esports?
Erin: One of the challenges is dealing with the toxicity and amenity of the internet. Of course, there are just people that really just don’t like people, because they’re different. But there are people that are very supportive of women and just underserved communities in the industry. There is so much amazing camaraderie and support in esports, but also there are just some people who are toxic and not good for the industry and make things difficult, especially for women. I have that multilayer of being a Black woman and even specifically, Afro-Latina. I have to say even as a prominent face in this space, it’s been great. I’ve had people reach out to me and say hey, knowing what you’ve accomplished is inspiring me and motivating me. Or they say, you’re so positive on your Twitter account and that’s what they love, or you always answer our questions.
I’m just happy that that serves the community. Even the challenges I deal with being a public figure in this space, it’s all worth it at the end of the day knowing there are such amazing people and people who are appreciative. Even just appreciative of seeing someone like them on their broadcast, it opens up the doors for others. The great thing is that I’m able to bust down certain doors and barriers not just for me.
Emily: One of the biggest challenges, since the start, as a competitor and now as a team owner, is [that] I struggle with my own mentality. I don’t know whether it’s being a woman and you hear a lot of external criticism or the fact that I sometimes suffer from imposter syndrome. I feel like, as a first-time business owner and as a player, this is an incredibly competitive industry and it’s easy to feel less than when you see other people. Or you feel like you’re not doing enough. Honestly, that’s been the biggest challenge, just myself.
Jeannail: The fighting community is known to have less than, when it comes to money, compared to other games now. So it’s always referred to as getting bread crumbs. So being in a space like this where people think you can just play and get away with just playing… it’s just really important, and healthy practice, to be a well-rounded person. Even if you just want to play, you’re still marketing yourself as a brand and a business. That was something I realized I needed to just study and make sure I was up to date on. Exposure, proper placements, and everything. That was one thing. But what about the branding? That’s what I really started to focus on in 2020. I had to focus on branding myself, covering more social media platforms, putting myself out there, because you have to market yourself. Now I can now say I’m a commentator as well, I’m a content creator, I do streaming, I’m a fundraiser, I work with big brands, but that’s because I had the support, I had the backing, and it’s so valuable.
The reward I got in general from being in esports, honestly, was the exposure. Word of mouth and putting yourself out there is a powerful thing. Especially when you’re not really commonly seen. Black women, especially in esports, and then the fighting community is its own realm. It doesn’t get the same type of exposure as other games. Relationships and networking with people are important and it’s about having a standard for yourself, on and off the stage. When you’re very true to yourself there is a huge reward in that. I’ve done nothing but speak my truth as a player, as a Black woman, how I’ve gotten to where I’ve gotten. It’s really benefited me a lot. I’m blessed and I’m grateful because I want my career to be able to take care of me.
Based on your experiences so far, what would you like to see improved?
Emily: Interesting. We have been seeing a lot of improvement in terms of some representation and more support and uplifting of Black creators, voices, and players. We’ve noticed that in the past year with the whole movement. That’s been really nice. I’ve enjoyed seeing more representation. But I really hope now that it’s March that the energy keeps going, that it’s not just performative for one month. I thought it was amazing that Twitch and all these orgs were featuring Black people and marginalized groups. It’s been overlooked for so long and is just happening now, so I would like to see the continued improvement of representation and uplifting people. And more moderation. I’d love to see all of that. Just make the space safer.
I noticed before that there is a lack of moderation. It’s how things are if you’re going to play, that’s what it’s like, right? But now there’s this kind of energy like, we’re not going to put up with that. I feel like I’m a part of that with Jeannail and using our platform. There’s still a lot of improvement to be had but we’re definitely going in the right direction. I heard that apparently now the majority of gamers are actually women, so I think that’s really interesting and that’s awesome. I think it’s really improving, for sure.
Erin: I think diversification is the number one thing. Obviously, there are always these conversations around diversity. People usually think diversity means 1) unqualified and 2) just hire people because of the color of their skin. But that’s not what it is at the end of the day, right? I think it’s about being better at these overall conversations around diversity, equity, and inclusion. Diversity of talent. Diversity of region. Diversity of background. The industry can look monolithic and I think it can be more diverse. There’s always more that we can do, especially when it comes to the educational standpoint.
We in the industry have to be okay with letting go of some of those toxic fans or racist fans or sexist fans, which may mean losing some money but overall making the industry better and safer. It’s definitely getting better. The outside media is like “Toxicity! Gaming is bad for kids!” No, this industry is very amazing. There are a lot of amazing individuals. There are a lot more women in executive decision-making roles than there were 10 years ago or even beyond that. So it’s improving, the industry is always improving, but there’s always more we can do. One of those things is creating a safer environment for everyone and letting go of fans that don’t want the industry to be safe or good. So those are some things we can start working on to make things better.
Jeannail: Lately, I’ve seen underrepresented groups in both of these spaces really come to push for the inclusion they deserve without having to worry about losing opportunities because they’re speaking up with the negative energies and harassment that comes with people of color on these platforms and what we have to deal with. Ideally, I’d like to see people being able to be themselves on these platforms, unapologetically, without having to worry about the harassment, the violence that can come with speaking up and saying “hey, this is not okay.” We get invited to these events and asked to speak but people need to also remember that we are professionals and we are damn good at what we do, and not have to be looked at as “aww man, you’ve been through so much.”
Talk to us about what we’ve accomplished, celebrate us. There’s this narrative that we deserve more. We do a lot of work. So appreciate the people here because we’re doing it in real-time. When underrepresented groups and people of color get these Ws, these wins, we let the whole world know what we’re capable of. I don’t think these spaces always celebrate all types of game-changers and leaders the same. Because they don’t do the research and the exposure is not put on these groups enough. We’re doing twice as much as the usual demographic sometimes because we’re also making safe spaces for people. We’re building our own brands and legacies. We’re making people realize, if we can do it, you can.
What are your personal goals when it comes to esports and gaming in general?
Jeannail: I just want it to be safer. That’s the goal. For it to look safer and for it to be safer. People being accepted as they are. So they can come here and not have to worry about so much. Like, “I’m a woman. Should I do this? Maybe I shouldn’t stream because I’m going to get harassed.” Women have removed themselves from gaming scenes because of sexual harassment and discrimination. And it’s so hard to focus and trust people when you have these things around you. Whether it’s gender or sexual orientation. That’s just a huge goal. I hope that happens and I’ll know it when I see it.
Emily: I would love to just become more confident as a leader in the community. Use my platform and my voice to help others and really spread the message. The imposter syndrome makes me nervous sometimes about putting myself in the public eye but just saying things and speaking up about things. I really admire how Jeannail always speaks up and she’s just not afraid (laughs). I would love to be more confident and to do that for myself.
Erin: I’d say my biggest goal is to change lives in whatever way. I think in my line of work I’m already changing my life, but I hope that through the work that I do that’s already changing my life, it can somehow and in some way, help change someone’s life in a positive manner. I think one of the biggest and best things anyone can do as a public figure or influencer, is change someone’s life for the better. Even if it means changing one, two, three, five lives, that’s better than none. I hope that what I’m doing and the doors I’m breaking down can change someone’s life. Especially the lives of Black women, Latin women, Black men, Latin men, underserved communities, individuals. Hopefully, breaking down these barriers will help to change their lives later on as well.
You can connect with each of these awesome women on the various social and gaming platforms and support them in their respective movements.
Erin Ashley Simon: @erinasimon and erinasimon.com.
Jeannail Cater: @cuddle_core (Twitter) and @tk_cuddle (IG).
Emily Tran: @NyxRose @EQNXgaming (Twitter) and @eqnxgg (IG).