It was a night to remember in June; female gamers getting together to smash to smithereens stereotypes about women in gaming. More than 150 hardcore girl gamers were treated to a night of shoot-em-ups, car races and hairdos all for getting girls to plug in and play.

This is the brainchild of Sam Wright, known as ‘Tech Girl’, quite the YouTube sensation in South Africa, who believes women should get in on the action.

“It came down to sitting down here at the NEXUS [a gaming smart hub in Johannesburg], my first time here. There was another gaming journalist upstairs, I thought I didn’t want to play. I realized the reason I didn’t want to play was because I suck at video games, I love playing them, but I suck, and I didn’t want anyone to see me suck in public.”

This moment of dejection led Wright, the 30-year-old blogger, to launch the #AcerForGaming event, the first of its kind in the world. Hosted at the NEXUS, Wright asked girls who felt intimidated by gaming in public to venture out of their rooms to play.

Sam Wright (Photo by Jay Caboz)

Her ultimate goal is to encourage more women to compete as professionals in the fast-growing $109-billion global gaming scene.

“The problem here is there are girls who are playing and they want to play, but they don’t want to feed the stereotype because girls are scared that if they suck, it’s because you are a girl, when in actual fact guys suck as well,” says Wright.

“I was really scared that no one would come. It’s a lot of working parts. I wasn’t sure if people would understand what I wanted to do. When we launched it, I was terrified. Then the tickets were booked out within 24 hours,” says Wright.

You Can’t Get The Kids Off The Computer

Girls from all over South Africa heard the call, including four who flew from Durban, 600 kilometers away, to come play. High school students turned up with computers to LAN, even though they weren’t asked to, and girls as young as seven took to the machines like pros.

Even mothers got in on the action. Zoe Hawkins, a video games journalist who runs Born Geek, an online mommy blog, brought her husband Dean and her two-year-old daughter Harley Wednesday to play.

“In the last five or 10 years we woke up and were like ‘oh, right, there are women’. I see it on my channels, even though we’ve always been here, the producers are now reaching out and getting involved.”

“It’s so validating to see there are more than us and we are worthy of our spot in this industry. When you are home and alone you think you are the only one…Then you come to an event like this and there are hundreds of us,” says Hawkins.

Zoe Hawkins (Photo by Jay Caboz)

Born Geek was born in 2015 when Hawkins decided to blog about pregnancy and parenting with her geeky take on it. Now, it has an average viewership of 5,000 a month across Facebook and YouTube.

“I didn’t think people would want to sit and watch me in my study with a baby, honestly. The reality is you are not necessarily watching for what the person is talking about, you watch because you are curious to see what’s going to happen [with Harley],” says Hawkins.

“That’s the most interesting thing to see, she gets upset. Dean comes over plays with her for a bit, she then eats something off the desk. That’s what live video does, no matter how well you plan it the script goes out the window when your kid throws your mouse across the room.”

The Nerd Herd

It is now even more important women like Wright and Hawkins push the agenda of women empowerment in gaming.

“Gaming events are generally built for men. It’s not that they are built against women, but if you are a bit shy, as a woman, you can feel that events are not made for [women] and you won’t join in. Whereas [tonight] is come and play games, get your hair done, and have cupcakes. There is more on offer than more than just a beer,” says Hawkins.

41% of gamers are now women

The games industry has now hit the $109-billion market, according to Newzoo’s Global Games Market Report. It reports that games have now become the number one favorite past time; in just five years, the industry has grown 56% illustrating how game companies have not only pioneered new ways of engaging and entertaining consumers, but have also led the way in innovating business models to suit the digital age.

The numbers speak for themselves. In the past five years, there has been a significant increase in the number of female casual gamers; 41% of gamers are now women, according to the Entertainment Software Association’s 2016 Essential Facts About the Computer and Video Game Industry.

“I cannot believe we have ignored this market for so long. No one is talking to this market. It has been traditionally a male-dominated arena,” says Charmain van Niekerk, Gaming Strategist for Acer Africa at the NEXUS.

Van Niekerk has been in the industry for over 20 years, long before it began to flourish. When she started working, at Electronic Arts, a gaming company, she was one of the few women in the industry. This is a far cry from where she is now.

Charmain van Niekerk (Photo by Jay Caboz)

Van Niekerk believes girls are beginning to migrate from cellphone games like Candy Crush to more serious gaming.

Games are taking Africa by storm. The PwC Entertainment and media outlook: 2016–2020 predicts the gaming market will reach R3.7 billion ($285 million) by 2020, up from R2.8 billion ($215 million) in 2015. In 2015, for the first time in South Africa, social gaming revenue overtook traditional game revenue and will be the key growth.

The same report showed games are almost twice the size of the cinema revenue in South Africa expected to reach R2.1 billion ($162 million) in 2020.

“Just looking at the genres of games girls are playing, you would think it was casual gaming but it’s hardcore gaming that is happening. Again it speaks to the PC market. We want to give [girls] a safe environment to explore the possibility of eSports as a career path, or a really serious hobby. Give them access to programs, the products and give them a complete environment so that they can explore the possibility of serious gaming,” says van Niekerk.

Girls need to get in on eSports

It starts with a generation of kids playing eSports, where gamers now play for a profession. Millions in prizes and lucrative sports deals are up for grabs in this $463 million industry, reports Newzoo.

Whole stadiums can be filled and online eSports fan viewership reached a staggering 292 million viewers in 2016 – just 10 years ago, these players, including Wright’s brother, would have been laughed at for saying they wanted to play games as a profession.

“My brother used to play DOTA competitively in South Africa, but he was too embarrassed to tell my mom. I found out my brother was competing at rAge downstairs and he hadn’t told anyone – by day he is an investment banker,” says Wright.

“I knew the eSports scene. I couldn’t understand why nobody was talking about it, seeing my brother and how excited he got about it. I thought no one else is going to put a spotlight on this.”

Mmabatho Mogomotsi was so spurred on by her daughter Utlwang Molefe’s glee she played a game for the first time and could not get off (Photo by Jay Caboz)

Numbers of women who compete are low. Quantic Foundry, which looks specifically at gaming titles, reports that 18.5% of core gamers are female. There are few women leagues to compete in and it is even harder to track down serious competitors. Wright wants to change this.

“I know [women] are online, I know they are there, they just don’t want to compete and play for various reasons,” she says.

Mind Blown By Drone At 160km/h

Fresh female talent provides the perfect opportunity to attract sponsors to South African shores.

“The only way to grow the sport is to get players overseas, I know a lot of the teams go over, but when they do go they don’t really feature. But there is one player that has gone overseas and has featured and that’s ShazZ [see below],” says Wright.

“It’s a stereotype girls are not at the same level as the guys yet, but I don’t think that’s a negative thing. If we put together an all-girls team that’s South African and eSports group put the funding in training, we could get them overseas and they could win a title.”

Rise of female YouTube stars

From eSports to gear that needs to fit into your skinny jeans, Tech Girl was a hobby that started off as a joke and grew into a business that gets 25,000 views a month.

“All my stories start with me drunk in a bar. I was out with my mates drinking and in a bit of a drunken stupor I was trying to explain why a Sony [cellphone] was better than the other phones. The justification was it fitted into my skinny jeans back pocket better. We took some photos as proof. Someone suggested we put it on the internet,” says Wright.

“So I put up a little blog, put the story up… In a short space of time, people were saying it’s really cool.”

At the time, Wright was living a double life. By day, she worked freelance in an engineering firm and advertising agency. By night, she became a caped tech-crusader unpacking boxes of headphones, spending hours playing computer games and commentating on eSports over weekends.

“Tech Girl was a dirty little secret in the background. Everyone in the office knew because I had to declare it. Tech Girl is quite young and funky and fun, while at work, I was quite serious.”

Wright is a far cry from the girl teased for being fat when she grew up playing games with her father in Alberton. From the moment the internet came out, her father made sure she was on it. In January, Wright quit her day job and embraced her alter ego and hasn’t looked back.

“I’ve freelanced for a few tech publications and during my time writing, reviewing and speaking to other women, I’ve realized we consume technology differently. We have different demands to our male counterparts when it comes to apps or smartphones and most importantly, we don’t take ourselves nearly as seriously as ‘tech savvy men’. We caught on a while back that technology is meant to make life easier but also be fun.”

Along with the astronomical rise in gamers has come a new generation of kids who enjoy watching others play games. They call them Twitch streamers and they make millions a year narrating video games. Similar to YouTube celebrities, they are fast moving into the lucrative mainstream media lane and South Africa is no exception.

Jules Bish (Photo by Jay Caboz)

One of them is 21-year-old Jules Bish, an eSports personality and Twitch streamer. Bish has played for Energy eSports’ all-female team and was one of the first females to compete in an all men’s team in a game called Call of Duty in South Africa, and she was just 16 at the time.

“I think people expect me to say ‘oh I’m a girl, it’s so hard for a girl to get into teams’. It’s not about that if you are good at something, and truly better than anyone, then what reason do people have not to be in that team. Gaming is not defined by gender, it’s defined by your passion and your skill.”

Bish reached a turning point in 2015, when she was invited to Dreamhack Winter, in Sweden, where she starred in a commercial. Here she noticed that South Africa was just dipping its feet into the water and needed more people to talk about this growing industry.

“I noticed after that that there was a massive lack in the scene for people growing and getting the word out. Media-wise, South Africa gaming wasn’t necessarily booming as much as the community was.”

Bish’s solution was to begin building a brand as a Twitch streamer. The channel, much like YouTube, allows her to interact over the internet with her subscribers. She plays games, gives away sponsored gear and even self-designed Bish emoticons.

“My main thing is to play a game and get subscribers to play together. Twitch is much better integrated for gaming. You pay to stream with me, that’s how you make your money on Twitch. I quickly learned to build a platform you need to provide a really good content of streaming material.”

‘Cos We Play

For four hours, four days a week, Bish streams with 1,700 subscribers over Facebook and Twitch. Her goal it to reach 5,000 by the end of the year. This is just a drop in the ocean compared to some of the world’s most famous streamers, like PewDiePie who has 56.5 million subscribers on YouTube.

Fresh off the back of a recent trip to Taipei, Bish was blown away by the global geek culture. Here she streamed live from the lobby of her hotel room as if it were normal. It is also here, she says, you don’t take your girlfriend to the movies, you take them to watch eSports, in nine-storey malls dedicated to gaming.

“That is the difference. Gaming culture and geek culture, it’s a culture. It’s a community. It’s a sport, it’s everything.”

At 14 years old, Bish started playing computer games with her brother in her mother’s garage.

“Then I went to my first Organised Chaos, a monthly LAN party held in Cape Town at the Bellville Velodrome. It had 1,000 people at the time. It blew my mind.”

Explaining that this could be a profession to her mother has also been a challenge.

“If you are at the age of 14 literally living in the garage day in and day out playing games with your little brother it somehow becomes okay after a while… Only after [my mother] saw the success of me being out of school and been to rAge a few times, actually had paid jobs, sponsors, paid flights, media covering my stories, my streaming and the success that come from that like Taipei, it really opened her eyes to what gaming really is becoming.”

In June, Bish moved to Johannesburg to take streaming on full time. It meant giving up on a degree in Oral Hygiene in Cape Town, where she was studying to be a dentist and working at a clinic in the Mitchells Plain.

“I had a conversation with a boy once, his mom threatened to take away his Xbox, and I said ‘ah dammit my mom used to do that to me all the time’. He said ‘you play games?’ I said ‘actually, I’m a professional gamer and he lost his mind’. [The mother] actually saw me on the TV show, Espresso, and recognized me. They got star-struck that I was their dentist in Mitchells Plain. [The teenager] texted his friends that I was a gamer. It made me so proud because I could relate.”

In the darkened hallways of the NEXUS, where computers whirr and keyboards click, it is even more important to find talent, says Bish.

“When I walked down in the lobby, there were girls in their high school uniforms. Immediately it put me back to how I felt in high school. I never played high school sports. I was always the one going to LANS. I was always in the IT club always around the guys, always talking about gaming. At that point, it was socially unacceptable, people thought I was weird. It made me feel uncomfortable, but I loved gaming so much that I couldn’t stop. I want to show the girls here that competitive gaming is something they can get into,” says Bish.

Wright also shows future gamer girls the ins and outs on a computer. She is impressed most of the girls know exactly what to do when sitting behind the desktops. It’s just one more reason why Wright walks with a spring in her step.

“The hairstylists are here and [they] are not even interested in that. The girls just want to play games.”

They are serious, and here to stay. Game on!

‘All I Am Doing Is Waiting For A Kidney And Playing CS:GO’

 

Sharon ‘ShazZ’ Waison (Photo by Jay Caboz)

Among those playing games at the NEXUS in Johannesburg, is professional girl gamer Sharon “ShazZ” Waison, the only South African to have won an international medal in a competitive arena. The 25-year-old won gold at the Copenhagen Games in 2015, when she teamed up with American-based Team Karma now called Team dignitas.fe.

“Thulani Sishi, a close friend of mine I’ve known for six years through gaming, introduced me to the team. They took a gamble on me, as I had never competed on an international level, so they decided I should go with them to Copenhagen Games,” says ShazZ.

“It has always been my dream to see how I compete with females. Because up until then, I had only played in South Africa with guys. I had never played with females, always with the gents. I wanted to see how I stand with other girls overseas.”

These days, ShazZ plays against men. Playing for Mythic Gaming, ShazZ plays a game called Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, or CS:GO. This is a first-person shooter game where a team of five tries to thwart bombers. In tournaments, teams play off in a best-of-three taking turns to attack and defend.

CS:GO is one of the most popular games in South Africa. Globally, it is the third highest-earning eSports game, with 7,619 professional players competing for $35.3 million in prize money, according to esportsearnings.com.

“It was very hard in the beginning for me, because you are a girl in a very male-dominated industry. I had to prove myself for a few years. I got a lucky break where someone took a risk and it kind of paid off,” says ShazZ.

At the age of 10, ShazZ was diagnosed with the autoimmune disease lupus. She was unable to play sport outside, so she took up computer games.

“In school, I was very sporty. I used to do every sport, netball, soccer. I was the only female in my school that played cricket. Then I got sick and couldn’t go in the sun anymore. I got very depressed, I loved doing sport, then I found CS:GO and found out I could compete and play for prizes.”

At the end of 2015, ShazZ found out she was in renal failure. For the last two and a half years, she has been unable to move overseas and continue playing for her international side because she is on the kidney donor waiting list.

“My kidney’s sitting at seven percent function. I can still get through my day, I am just tired. Pretty much all I am doing is waiting for a kidney and playing CS:GO… Games make me forget about everything. You go into another world, you focus on that game and you become the character in that sense,” says ShazZ.

Although the industry is booming, it’s not easy for players to play professionally. Many players, like Shazz, have to convince their parents eSports can be a real job.

“At first, my mother wasn’t impressed. At school, my marks decreased because I was so focused on gaming. I remember my mom coming into my room saying ‘why are you doing this, do something with your life, you are just sitting behind a PC playing games. Go out and do something’,” says ShazZ.

“In 2015, after I had been playing for 10 years, the Copenhagen Games was the first time my mom watched one of my CS:GO games. She sat with the family, having a braai, watching me play. It kind of felt like my mom approved all of this, that my time on the PC wasn’t wasted.”