Ten Years Ago, Dead Or Alive Launched The Careers Of The Highest-Paid Women Pro Gamers

Vanessa Arteaga had been playing fighting games since she was a child, long before she became one of the highest-paid women in competitive gaming history — but her tens of thousands in winnings still pale in comparison to the millions that her male peers have made in competitive gaming in the years since.

Her older brother started her off, because he needed someone to play fighting games with and she was nearby. In 2000, when she was 12 years old, he brought home Dead or Alive 2. She was sceptical. She hadn’t ever played a 3D fighting game before.

Right away, she enjoyed everything about Dead or Alive 2: the characters, the style of play, the moves, the stages and what would become the game’s signature emphasis on counter-attacks.

She also noticed that, unlike other fighting games she had played the ’90s, Dead or Alive 2 had a majority-women roster of fighters. As a young girl, she liked having the option to play as a woman: “I did gravitate towards the females — you look at them, even if they are video game characters, and think: ‘They’re so cool! I wanna be like them!’ Especially when I was young, I would always gravitate towards cool female characters.”

By 2006, at 18 years old, she could dominate opponents online. The following year, she went pro playing Dead or Alive 4 for the short-lived Championship Gaming Series, playing at events where men were pitted against women in a battle of sexes and, later, in a tournament called the Competitive Gaming Series where the women’s roster existed thanks to a gender quota.

She played in the CGS scouting combine at the Playboy Mansion, and she’d play on a game, DoA4, whose buxom fighters were marketed with a commercial featuring two gamer dudes agog over them. She did all this in stride, reigning undefeated in the CGS DoA4 women’s bracket in 2007. In the 2008 CGS season, she only lost against one other player out of 15.

For her efforts, she won $US20,000 ($27,070) in the CGS. According to esportsrankings, a site that tracks pro gamers, that makes her the 2028th best-paid esports competitor of all time. It also makes her the ninth best-paid woman, up there in the top 16 with three other women who played in the same tournament series. That’s because, in competitive gaming, women are hardly present. And they hardly get the chance to make real money like they did in this one strange league that gave them the shot a decade ago.

Very few women appear at the highest levels of competitive gaming. In League of Legends and Dota 2, all of the top teams are full of men. In StarCraft II, Sasha “Scarlett” Hostyn stands out as the sole female competitor to make it into the highest levels of competition. Ricki Ortiz is a top Street Fighter player, currently ranked 15th in Shoryuken’s Street Fighter V player rankings and 40th in the Capcom Pro Tour rankings for 2017. The other top 100 ranked players in both lists are all men.

There’s no indication that on a skill level women can’t compete or have any physical disadvantages relative to their male counterparts.

In 2016, the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication published this study of over 10,000 male and female players to track the speed of their advancement in Everquest II and Chevaliers’ Romance III.

The results showed gender parity. In 2015, a similar study of League of Legends players also found that women advanced at the same rate as male players, but that women had less confidence in their abilities. Specifically, women who played the game with a male partner felt less sure of themselves, and they also tended towards playing assistive and cooperative roles in the game.

From time to time, teams and tournaments have tried to raise women’s profile in esports. All-female leagues like PMS Clan and the Smash Sisters encourage women to participate in both women’s invitational events and mixed-gender tournaments. Counter-Strike still has a strong presence from several all-female teams.

All-female leagues are controversial even among the women who found them. Amber Dalton, who founded PMS Clan in 2002, never competed in women-only events herself but does believe in the power of a woman-dominated space for learning and training: “They have to have the right support units,” she told Compete. “Keep ’em safe. Online it can be a very harsh environment. It becomes the fat girl, the bitch girl, the ugly girl.” For newcomers to gaming, it’s easier to learn without the added scrutiny and harassment that comes with being a minority in competitive gaming.

The issue many women face, and the one the Championship Gaming Series addressed, however awkwardly, is one of opportunity. Women can technically enter any event, from the Intel Extreme Masters to the Capcom Pro Tour, but few women make it into the top ranks.

That could be due to the systemic harassment that women experience, even when they reach the highest ranks of gaming. The first female player in the League Of Legends Championship Series stepped down shortly after receiving an onslaught of harassment.

Female pros in Counter-Strike and StarCraft told PC Games News that they still receive harassment, in spite of being at the top of their field. The persistent but baseless stereotype that women are bad at games can also end up affecting their confidence and performance, according to a study on “stereotype threat” in Computers in Human Behaviour.

When women do get drafted to pro gaming teams, they’re sometimes evaluated and selected based on their looks as well as their gaming skills, which adds yet another barrier to entry.

In 2011, Kim Shee-Yoon, aka “Eve,” was selected to play Starcraft for SlayerS, a professional team stacked with top-ranked veterans. Eve got tapped to join the team on the basis, her manager said, of “her skills and looks.” Even all-female gaming leagues like the Frag Dolls once operated according to these guidelines; in their casting call for women gamers at the Penny Arcade Expo in 2004, the Frag Dolls specified that entrants needed to send in “a few photos” along with their gaming resume.

The Twin Flower Girls, an all-female gaming team based in Beijing China, told Motherboard this year that they evaluate potential applicants based on looks. Yu Hao, the team’s current manager, explained that the decision was all about money: “If there are two CVs in front of an investor, with one showing a girl with good appearance and the other with good skills but who is ugly, the investor will definitely choose the first.”

Back in 2006, the Championship Gaming Series kicked off with two invitational events, each of which featured a Dead or Alive 4 competition. Amber Dalton, co-founder of the all-female gaming league PMS clan, served as a consultant for these events and weighed in on the games that got selected, as well as the decision to showcase female players. Dalton told Compete that Championship Gaming’s organisers “were definitely interested in women players and they were definitely interested in a women’s event. I actually advised not to do a women’s event because if they wanted women representation, they could choose a couple of games that had women top players… I recommended choosing a game that we would see females rise to the top.”

Microsoft was the event sponsor, so it had to be an Xbox 360 game. Dalton asked her peers in PMS Clan about which Xbox game would serve as the best way to feature top women players, and she soon learned that a handful of women had begun to rise to the ranks in DoA4 scenes, including Vanessa Arteaga.

Arteaga backed up the choice, since she had been running into female opponents in the game online ever since she first started playing: “I wasn’t used to finding any females who played fighting games. Or any games at all. But some females were more open to try Dead or Alive. I’m not sure what it was about the game that appealed to females. But more of them were willing to give that a chance than, say, Street Fighter.”

That sealed it. They picked Dead or Alive 4.

The series has a controversial reputation. Some fans love the sexualization of the majority female cast of the game (and the spin-off beach volleyball series). Others don’t see it as that far outside of how other games depict women. Arteaga theorised that the game’s poor reputation among fighting game fans, even to this day, is because the game used to have a three-point counter system that was considered to be too simplistic. But, Arteaga adds, “the female characters didn’t help. It got categorized as an easy button masher, with big boobs.”

Both the female fighters in the game and the women who play the game have had an uphill climb when it comes to getting taken seriously. In one intro segment during the first invitational tournament in 2006, a commentator introduced the game by saying: “All I know is, there’s hot chicks in this game, and they fight, and I like them a lot.” This was the event that gave female pro gamers their most promising shot at an esports career.

Vanessa Arteaga made her debut in the second Championship Gaming invitational, which aired on DirecTV and preceded the CGS. Arteaga played a close match against Ryan “Offbeat Ninja” Ward:

The tournament organisers put Arteaga in an opening bracket against Ward, and in the run-up to their face-off, the show created a segment highlighting how the pair had previously dated, thereby introducing some drama to the battle of the sexes. Arteaga described this moment as a “curveball,” albeit one that made for “lively TV.”

At the end of their match, after Arteaga’s narrow loss, the commentator joked that “it looks like all the guys are disappointed” to see her leave — with an emphasis on the word “guys,” hammering home that her looks mattered. Ward’s physical appearance never came up.

Ward didn’t necessarily see Arteaga as his equal. Ahead of the match, he told USA Today that he believed men are better at video games than women: “it seems like it’s easier for men to grasp the intricacies of games.” When asked the same question, Arteaga said she believed men and women are equal: “I think we are on the same level as males. We have the same tools. We are very competitive, no matter what men say. And a lot of us have the willingness to learn, too.”

Arteaga was one of three women who competed in these initial mixed-gender invitational events. The other female competitors also had to fight for respect from their opponents. Marjorie “Kasumi Chan” Bartell appeared in both invitational events, and in the first one, her male opponent trash-talked her throughout the match. Near the end of the battle, he told her, “My friends told me if I came here, I can’t lose to any little kids, or to any girls. So I can’t go home if I lose to any girls.” Then, he loses.

For the second invitational, the organisers set up a lengthy interview with Kasumi Chan’s opponent. He wears a shirt that says “I <3 Girl Gamers” and spends his entire interview telling jokes about how he can’t bear to be beaten by a woman again:

These early invitationals and subsequent Championship Gaming tournaments also featured another visible job for a woman: the “referee.” Her job responsibilities did not mimic that of a referee in any other sport, but instead bore more similarity to the “ring girls” of boxing and professional wrestling. Before each DoA4 round, the camera would cut to her posing and saying, “Ready? Go!” During the invitational tournaments, she wore a belly shirt and micro-shorts. In the later CGS seasons, she donned a referee-inspired striped shirt with micro-shorts.

Championship Gaming was all about making pretty women part of the decor. The team draft that kicked off the whole thing on June 12, 2007 took place at the Playboy Mansion, with two Playboy bunnies posing on the stage. The following year, the 2008 draft took place at South by Southwest, where two female models stood on the stage in belly shirts, mini-skirts, and pigtails.

After the first player draft for the CGS teams at the Playboy Mansion, Amber Dalton of PMS Clan stepped away from consulting on the tournament. She believed that some of the CGS team managers were choosing women players based on their looks, rather than their gaming skills.

“I didn’t like some of the things that I saw happening during the coach session rounds. A Counter-Strike player ended up being selected as one of the DoA fighters, and… there were better players. I don’t think she won a single round. There were girls that won a majority of matches and they weren’t picked. I believed that it had to do with appearance. And I didn’t agree with making that much of a concession for video. I believed that was detrimental to esports.”

Craig Levine, the owner of the CGS Team 3D and a key consultant in the partnership between the CGS and DirecTV, told Compete that “it was up to each GM to draft their team. I really can’t speak to the decisions each made.” Compete also reached out to Jason Lake, co-founder and former general manager of compLexity Gaming, but did not hear back before press time.

Those coaching decisions, as well as the presence of professional models in the background of the events, underscored the fact that looking good would benefit any woman who hoped for a long term career in esports, even though physical appearance isn’t a factor for their male peers. After the CGS teams disbanded, Arteaga, alongside her fellow CGS competitor Katherine Gunn, joined Less Than 3, an all-female group whose members are both professional cosplay models as well as high-level pro gamers. All of the past participants in this group, including Gunn and Arteaga, possess both good looks and gaming skills.

Both Gunn and Arteaga also went on to appear on WCG Ultimate Gamer on the Syfy Channel. Gunn and Arteaga are the only two female competitors from the CGS who are still working in esports to this day, and both women currently host popular Twitch channels where they stream competitive games.

Although good looks aren’t a requirement to get on TV or succeed on Twitch, or to make money in esports, it doesn’t hurt. Given that female players are so frequently judged by their looks as well as their skills, it makes sense that this would be a pattern among the women who’ve stuck around in the field.

After the two initial invitational events, the setup of the Championship Gaming Series changed so that men and women were no longer competing against one another in Dead or Alive 4. In 2007, the CGS organisers separated Dead or Alive 4 into women-only and men-only brackets.

The entire structure of the CGS ramped up into a worldwide team-based tournament, broadcast live on DirecTV. The new team structure mimicked the NFL, with every team hailing from a different major city. Six of the teams came from the United States (New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas, Chicago, and Charlotte). The other teams came from countries around the world: Korea, Australia, Malaysia, Mexico, Rio de Janeiro, Korea, Germany, Sweden, China, and two teams from England (one from London, another from Birmingham).

The decision to separate the male and female DoA4 competitors did unfortunately suggest that women wouldn’t be able to hold their own in a co-ed competition, which some fans criticised at the time. But that gender division guaranteed a slot on every single gaming team for a female pro gamer, so long as she could play Dead or Alive 4.

The gender quota also helped prevent the matches that women were in from being treated like a sideshow. This team-based tournament structure required that all DoA matches get taken seriously, regardless of how organisers, participants, or audiences may have felt about the game or the players. Every single member of a CGS team needed to do well in order to secure the top prize at the tournament.

Each team had ten players: a five-person Counter-Strike team, two racing game players, one FIFA player, and the two DoA4 competitors (one male, one female). If the Counter-Strike team won their match, they’d earn five points for their CGS team. When a console gamer won one of their rounds, they’d get a point for their team. This structure ensured that the women’s DoA4 matches mattered just as much as the rest of the games getting played, since they counted towards each team’s final tally.

The gender division also changed the way that female competitors got described before and after their matches. In the 2007 and 2008 CGS team tournaments, there were no more segments that positioned the female players as romantic interests for the men around them. Instead, commentators defaulted towards describing the women competitors in the same way as their male peers.

For example, an introductory segment for the 2007 CGS event describes Vanessa Arteaga as “one of the greatest Dead or Alive pros in the world [and] the best female player.” The interviewer makes no comments about her looks, nor does he ask questions about her past relationships. Instead the questions focus on her DoA training regimen and her budding career as a pro gamer. Other than the mention up top about Arteaga’s gender, the segment follows the same format as those made about the top male competitors in the CGS lineup.

Since the CGS teams needed players for a set array of games, from FIFA to Project Gotham Racing, savvy players who wanted a spot on a team could pitch themselves for games that had openings. For example, Alessandro “stermy” Avallone switched from Quake, at which he’d already won several tournaments, to FIFA, which he’d never played before.

That kind of meta planning also made sense for the women who wanted in. Any woman who wanted to get drafted into a CGS team could increase her statistical chances of making the draft by focusing on DoA4 specifically. Women could try out for a shot at any of the other games, but they could halve their competition by focusing on the DoA4 women’s bracket (which also was the only game for which teams were required to select women players).

For competitors like Vanessa Arteaga, this was lucky, since she already excelled at the game. However, up-and-coming female pro gamers who didn’t play Dead or Alive 4 had to learn the game fast in order to capitalise on this unique opportunity.

Livia Teernstra, who served as one of the DoA4 competitors for the Berlin Allianz team, had previous competitive experience with Unreal Tournament and Quake. She told Compete that she started playing UT in earnest at age 16 after seeing pros playing it in the 2002 World Cyber Games, an esports tournament series that had a similar structure to the CGS but smaller prize pools.

Teernstra soon joined an all-female gaming league called “girlz 0f destruction” and competed in Quake 4 with them until 2007. During that time, she moved into a gaming house in Sweden called the “House of Chrome,” and she met other up-and-coming esports enthusiasts, including one of the commentators tapped to host CGS. He convinced the then 18-year-old Teernstra to look into learning Dead or Alive 4 so she could qualify for placement on a European team in the 2007 CGS. Livia Teernstra bought her first Xbox and got down to business. The CGS teams weren’t drafting UT or Quake players, but she still wanted to be a pro gamer — so why not try her hand at DoA4, even though it was a completely different genre?

More importantly, though, DoA4 was where the money was for a budding pro gamer like Teernstra: “I saw a lot more money matches for DoA than Quake or UT.” And, of course, there was that CGS salary to earn, if she managed to make the draft, plus the potential for even more winnings, should her team win.

The CGS team draft offered more money than any pro gamer had ever earned before, and because of that, the women who competed and won remain in the top ten highest-earning female pro gamers, according to EsportsEarnings.com. Vanessa Arteaga and Marjorie Bartell appear in that top ten list, alongside fellow CGS competitors Katherine Gunn and Sarah Harrison. Livia Teernstra clocks in at number 16. All of these women earned tens of thousands of dollars from competing at Dead or Alive 4 on their CGS teams.

These women’s winnings look like small change in comparison to their male peers in esports. The 10 highest-earning male esports pros all have earnings in the millions, with the top male esports pros earning just shy of $US3 ($4) million. Every single player in the 500 highest-paid esports pros makes six figures. Only two of those pros are women, and one of them is Katherine Gunn, who got her start in the CGS.

Originally, the CGS planned to stick around for decades to come, setting the gold standard for esports broadcasts and leagues to follow. Instead, the organisation went out of business in 2008. When the CGS shut its doors, the company made a statement about how they had “invested wholeheartedly in the venture and presented viewers with a top-notch production, but the economics just didn’t add up for us at this time.”

The investors behind the CGS had taken a huge gamble on the event. According what participants told Compete, the players who got drafted to a CGS team received an annual salary of $US30,000 ($40,606) on top of their winnings. Every team also had a full-time manager. HLTV reports that each player also had an additional $US50 ($68) daily stipend for meals.

The prize pool was massive, too. In both the 2007 CGS tournament and the 2008 reprisal, the prize pool totaled one million dollars. The winning team took home half of that prize pool ($US500K), and the rest of the cash got marked out for the second, third, and fourth place teams. These winnings were calculated based on overall team performance, not individual performance. That’s why Vanessa Arteaga didn’t win as big from playing DoA4 as some of the women who lost against her.

Still, those salaries and winnings are still high by today’s standards, particularly for the female competitors involved.

CGS should not necessarily be remembered as a high point for women in esports. The DoA4 gender quota created a situation where many pro female gamers had to learn a game because of what an event sponsor had chosen. The gender division of the event also made it harder for women to get seen as equal competitors. In spite of all of that, the women who competed rose to the occasion and made the most of the opportunity they had.

The event was a high point for women pro gamers in terms of salary, visibility, and opportunity. Yet this supposed high point is a drop in the bucket compared to the plethora of opportunities offered to men in esports — opportunities that don’t revolve around looks, and opportunities that pay far more.

Amber Dalton believes the modern-day esports industry should look back on the CGS missteps and improve on the format, rather than abandoning it. “Women are a very small minority in the esports scene, so having an event where they can compete and get that sense of drive helps them get to the next level,” she said. “[Women-only events] are an entry level to get that experience in live competitions that is completely different from the online experience and also just acquire the talent that is needed.”

Dalton also emphasised the value of the mixed-gender format of Championship Gaming’s initial invitational competitions: “It can be done. And it can be done well. For instance, invitational events where women can play against guys. That’s the only way they get better. There need to be programs and training with the men. That’s how you get better.”

Vanessa Arteaga remembers that tournament a decade ago fondly. “I’ve always enjoyed competing. I never really knew before CGS that there was a gaming world like this,” she says. “It was a great opportunity. It was a professional gaming league.”

There had never been an opportunity like the CGS before. And there hasn’t been one since.

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