By Jim Cooke (images from Fiverr)
Earlier this week, on Fiverr.com, I selected Biu's "Basic" package which, in exchange for $US5 ($7), granted me her company for five Overwatch games. In her profile's image, a helicopter selfie, Biu is wearing a t-shirt with Zelda's Link and sticking out her tongue. "If you want a good healer," her gig page reads, "I'm a Mercy main." A few hours later, my new, paid Overwatch companion and I queued up for a Quick Play match.
Biu, 25, is a student in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. For extra cash, she charges for her time playing Overwatch, typically as a healer. She and four other women I interviewed or paid to play Overwatch with me supplement their income by putting a price on sharpened skills, good-humored commentary or, in Overwatch terms, "pocket" healing.
It's an increasingly popular gig. There are more than 200 listings on Fiverr for paid Overwatch companions. Dozens of those listings are fronted by pictures of women. Companions charge for graduated packages ranging from $US5 ($7) to $US15 ($20) for five, ten or fifteen games.
"I have free time and I'm using it to game. So why not play and get paid for it?" Biu told me.
I learned of this practice of women charging clients for Overwatch sessions through a viral Tweet. A screenshot of their profiles was accompanied by the caption, "so........its come to this.....". Replies were mixed. Someone referred to these women as "Overthots."
But for every "oh my god WTF" or jab at the lonely virgins who'd pay to game with girls was an "OK, so?". What those commenters discerned, and what I later learned in practice, is that this service can lead to some surprisingly positive gaming experiences.
On the character select screen, I informed Biu I would be playing the tank Roadhog. "OK, I'll heal you," she said, picking Mercy. We were on Watchpoint: Gibraltar and our team composition was miraculously ill-equipped to defend against the attacking team's pushes.
Biu was roped to me, feeding me health as I absorbed enemy fire. Four enemies plunged into the first choke point and overwhelmed me. Biu yelled out when I died. Moments later, she used her "Resurrect" ability, just for me.
"My first game is always bad and then I get better," I said, a little embarrassed. "It's always like that," she sympathized.
Biu pocket healing me
Of the three women I paid to play Overwatch with me, Biu did the most emotional labour. She laughed when I made fun of our team's Genji. She yelled out when the enemy McCree warned, "It's high noon." And, when I got a triple kill defending King's Row, she exclaimed, "Oh, that was good!" I left the session feeling gleefully accomplished, a gold medal Overwatch player, which is basically all I want these days.
Like Biu, KawaiiDesu, also 25, plays a lot of Mercy (all three women I played with had the same Mercy player icon, by coincidence, I assume). It's a stereotype in games like Overwatch that women prefer healing, or find it easier than DPS. KawaiiDesu says, for her, "I play what the team needs, usually a tank or a healer. . . I hate being a cliche in the sense that I play healers, but it's genuinely what I do. It's not a choice, though. No one wants to do it."
KawaiiDesu's Play of the Game
KawaiiDesu originally entered this line of work as a Platinum League of Legends player who coached newbies. After a while, she noticed more interest in Overwatch boosting. She's not physically healthy enough for traditional work, so after she stopped selling handmade goods on Etsy, she started doing this.
Her reviews are glowingly positive, describing her as an "experienced" player who sells "helpful" sessions. Undoubtedly, KawaiiDesu carried each game I played with her, earning herself a very impressive "Play of the Game" on the Dorado map.
Another Overwatch companion I interviewed, BabyPoro, describes her services as Overwatch "coaching." She said she's a Grandmaster-ranked Ana main whose clients "don't look into me being female much; They just really thrive to become a better player." The women I played with earned MVP cards every match except one.
Regardless of her skill, KawaiiDesu and others said that gender does play a role in the gig. I asked her whether men sought her out as a more sexy Overwatch companion than their regular crew, or as a skillful player who also happens to be a girl. "On one hand, I don't want to believe it has anything to do with being a girl, but that's probably why," she said.
"I'm not opposed to playing with girls. I don't want to just play with guys." So far, all of her -- and other sources' -- clients have been men. Last March, a critic messaged her on Fiverr, asking her why she preys on lonely men for her own financial gain. He said she was contributing to a toxic stereotype about female PC gamers, citing her cosplay photos.
"It's bullshit," she told me. "You're entitled to your opinion, but I'm just a really friendly person and I like playing Overwatch with people who don't have that many friends."
A paid Overwatch player who goes by "Yolo" disputed that her gender plays a big role. It was her boyfriend, who's in the same line of work, who told her about these Fiverr gigs. She admits that some clients might like the "gamer girl" aspect of it, but she says that's not the main draw.
She's level 341. She practices every day. "Most of the time," Yolo told me, "people I play with are just starting out. I'm a higher level, so I'm boosting them." That doesn't protect her from random trolls -- like the two other women I played with, a man had contacted her asking whether she'd whisper seductively into the mic while playing Overwatch. All of the women were repulsed.
I initially didn't have strong feelings about paying women to play Overwatch with me and, frankly, liked the idea of paying people to be entertaining teammates who play the objective -- at least until Biu told me that, sometimes, her clients choose her hero for her. It's not to cherry-pick for optimal team comp, but to laugh at her struggling to grasp a new moveset. I thought that was extremely rude.
But I also enjoy a range of emotional experiences, many of which are morally questionable, so I asked her to play Torbjorn. She fumed a little. Guilt washed over me. But then she laughed, asking where to place her turrets. That was the one match she didn't earn an MVP card. I felt like I'd wasted her healing talents for a small humour. Most of the time I let them play who they wanted to play and had a good time because of it.
Frankly, though, having a pocket healer was the grossest but most effective part of paying someone to play Overwatch with me. At the end of our first match, Biu was commended for healing 13,000 damage. I had done very well as a result, earning more up-time, perhaps at the expense of our struggling Reaper and McCree.
Seeing Biu's MVP card, one of our teammates called her out in chat. Biu translated from Portuguese: "He's complaining that I'm just healing you." We both laughed and voted for each other's MVP cards.
"It's nice to be appreciated," her character, Mercy, said.