Tina Perez, Madison Mann, Carlee Gress, and Hannah Reyes — known online as TINARAES, maddiesuun, Carlee, and Hannah — had never been to New York City before. Three of them live in Los Angeles and train in Fortnite at Gen.G’s North American headquarters. Hannah, who’s 17, is still in high school and lives at home. The women of Gen.G’s Fortnite team were in New York City for the Fortnite World Cup Finals, the highly anticipated $30 million event that was held at Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens, a 23,000-seat tennis stadium best known as the home of the US Open.
None of Gen.G’s players were at the event to compete. Out of the nearly 200 players that participated in the Fortnite World Cup’s solo and duos events — 100 players in each, though some qualified for both competitions — no female players qualified to play in the main event. (Multiple female players competed in the Celebrity Pro-Am, including Soleil “Ewok” Wheeler, a 13-year-old player who announced her signing to top e-sports team Faze Clan during the event.) Though the women from Gen.G, who play together in two separate duos teams, didn’t compete at the event, it was important for them to be there. “I never had [a female role model] growing up in the e-sports scene,” Perez said. “I want to be the role model that I never had for these people.”
Fortnite, like colorful first-person shooter Overwatch, has one of the more diverse fan bases in the industry. The Fortnite World Cup was a testament to that: Arthur Ashe Stadium was filled with men and women, with families, with people young and old. In March, developer Epic Games told Engadget that its female player base at the time was estimated at “roughly 35 percent.” Women are playing the game — and not just casually: women are competing in Fortnite at its highest levels. But despite that, women weren’t competing in the solos and duos events at the Fortnite World Cup. The reasons are complex and entrenched.
Fans want to support women competing at the highest level, like Gen.G, and to see themselves in top Fortnite players. In New York, a fan called out to the Gen.G Fortnite team while they were walking into the YouTube Creator Lounge, an area set up amid the theme park-like atmosphere at the Fortnite World Cup. Over the noise of the crowd, Perez, Mann, and Gress did not hear the fan — but Reyes did. Most of the team was already in the lounge when Reyes noticed, but she gathered the group and took them on a mission: to find the young woman who was calling out to them for a picture. “We literally chased her down as a squad and had a conversation with her and thanked her for supporting us,” Perez said.
Like the Gen.G players, Wheeler wants to be a role model for the women who play the game. “I hope to see more girl gamers play Fortnite,” she told The Verge. “There are already pro girl gamers in Fortnite, and big girl streamers of Fortnite who play well. I hope that by me joining Faze, they will take their grind more seriously and believe in themselves.”
The reasons why there were no women in the main event of the Fortnite World Cup are multipronged. The Fortnite World Cup’s qualifying process was open to anyone above the age of 13, with rounds happening for 10 weeks before the main event. It was meant to bring meritocracy to the game: “If you can climb to the top, you’ll unlock access to the Fortnite World Cup Online Open tournaments,” Epic wrote in its announcement post. Players could grind in the Arena Mode to qualify for the Online Open semi-finals. Those who made it past the semis would enter the $1 million Online Open finals. The highest-ranked players from there were invited to the Fortnite World Cup.
Epic said that 40 million players participated in the online qualifiers for the event. A gender breakdown of the participants hasn’t been made available, but The Verge has reached out to Epic for more information. Perez estimated that the pool of women that participated was very low, with barriers like harassment or fear keeping women from competing.
“That’s something I want to change,” Perez said. “I want as many girls to compete as possible. We’re all given the same opportunity for this, and I want everyone to capitalize on it. Part of the reason they don’t is that women are afraid that they’ll do bad, or don’t feel like they’re skilled enough, or that they’ll be harassed. That’s what we want to change.”
It all goes back to an industry that’s historically been uninviting to women, and though that’s changing, it’s been a slow process. We’re seeing more women playing video games than ever before, but there’s still a gap. And that gap feels especially wide when you look at the top levels of the competitive scene. There’s a smaller pool of women trying to compete in Fortnite, and so it makes sense that there’s a smaller pool of women at the elite level. It doesn’t mean that women aren’t as good as men or can’t play at that level, though. Many of Gen.G’s players have, in fact, played at the highest level and won a lot of money doing it. In October 2018, Perez placed fourth in the North American Fortnite Fall Skirmish and won $25,000 with her teammate. “Getting fourth place was super rewarding because not only did we win $25,000, but it was cool to see myself — a woman — in the top 50 teams.”
When a woman is competing, she’s usually faced with the added pressure of being the only woman. Women in the scene don’t have the luxury of just being another player. “Before joining the Faze Clan, I was kind of well-known as the deaf girl gamer who got hosted by [Timothy “TimtheTatman” Betar],” Wheeler said. “After joining Faze Clan, it was like a validation of me being a Fortnite pro. I got a lot more followers, which is great to see. I hope to inspire many more.”
Most women in e-sports want to be treated like any other player, but plenty are embracing their roles as role models for women in the industry. “Right now, it feels good. There’s motivation from the World Cup,” Mann said. “But the past few months have been on and off with emotions, a little more pressure because you want to qualify and be a figure for people. It’s hard, I’ll be honest.” Perez said that the team members get criticized a lot more than the average male player because they’re women signed under Gen.G, a tier-one organization. “Day-to-day, we get tweets, clips, or people talk about us on stream very negatively when we kill them [in Fortnite],” she added. “It’s just our average day, pretty much.”
It’s something that other women in e-sports, Fortnite included, experience. During the event, Perez tweeted directly at her fellow women playing Fortnite: “I want to see you girls grind your heart out for the Fortnite Champion Series coming out!” she wrote. “Let’s break the stereotypes and show we can compete too. Gaming is for everyone. Anyone’s name can be on the big screen next year. Let’s do this.”
Her message resonated with plenty of her fans, but the response was mixed. In the replies, there was a lot of support, but some people were saying the very same things that Perez believes discourage women from competing. “I want to break the stereotype where women can’t compete,” Perez said. “People are out here saying that there’s a reason they didn’t qualify and it’s because they suck. No, it’s because many of them are afraid to play.”
Among the comments, some women spoke out about the harassment they, like the Gen.G team, face simply for being a woman. Sometimes, it’s bad enough to drive women to not compete. “One of the main reasons I don’t stream / even try to compete is because how much shit I get for being a girl,” one person wrote.
The support that Gen.G’s Fortnite team gets from its organization, which fields e-sports teams in Overwatch, Apex Legends, and League of Legends, among others, is essential in their success. Mann told The Verge that the organization treats them the same as any other player group. The women practice at the same high-tech facility that the other teams do, living nearby in Los Angeles. They’ve got the best computers and the highest-quality internet to use. There are coaches, support staff, and streaming facilities. But the help goes beyond just playing the game. Gen.G is especially interested in helping its players deal with the stresses of pro play, and that means therapy and sports psychologists.
Perez said that a lot of professional gamers struggle with their mental health due to the pressure of competing at the highest level and in front of large audiences. Gen.G pays for mental health support, like therapy, which Perez said she has each week. “If you’re not OK, it’s going to show in your gameplay,” she said. That support is necessary to create an infrastructure where everyone can succeed at Fortnite and other e-sports.
“We’re trying our hardest to open these doors for them, potentially get other women signed to other teams or even under Gen.G as well,” Perez said. “That’s just our biggest goal right now.”