In our continuing series on women in esports, we're chatting with Lizzie Leader, aXiomatic’s director of communications. She’s been in the business for over three years and was actually the first employee of aXiomatic outside of CEO Bruce Stein. You may have seen the company in the headlines recently, as they just became minority shareholders in Epic Games and acquired Michael Jordan as an investor.
SYFY FANGRRLS spoke with Leader about what her job entails, changes she's seen in the industry, and any advice she has for women who want to get into her side of the business.
Tell us a little bit about your job and what the day-to-day is like.
Sure, well, I know this is often said, but literally, no two days are alike. It's hard to give a typical day, but I'll give you a few examples of what they often look like. I'm the director of communications at aXiomatic. We are an esports and gaming investment platform. We're co-chaired by veterans of what we call traditional or ball and sticks sports world and finance world. We're best known probably for our first and biggest investment, which was into Team Liquid, a legacy esports brand that competes currently... I think we're in 13 titles. That is where a lot of my work is spent, with talking and facilitating communication between aXiomatic, the majority owner in Team Liquid, and then Team Liquid, but we do have investments in several other companies in the esports and gaming ecosystem. Actually, just about a week ago, we were announced as a partner in the big private investment round into Epic Games, the developer of Fortnite.
And then aXiomatic has also invested in coaching platforms like Mobalytics and Gamer Sensei; Taunt, which is a social app that tries to augment the viewing experience for esports competition; Dapper Labs, which is best known for the blockchain consumer hit which is CryptoKitties; and then who am I missing? Super Elite Gaming, which you may be familiar with. They do amateur leagues and in theater gaming. That's our portfolio. My day-to-day, precisely because communications is so dependent on whatever we're either celebrating or crisis that we're trying to avert, it really does vary, and it really is 24/7, especially given the worldwide and global nature of esports. I haven't had a day off in a couple years now, but, what I do, I would have burnt out by now if I didn't find it fascinating. Honestly, one of the things that's been gratifying for me in facilitating the communication between the Team Liquid level, players and executives, and then our chairmen at aXiomatic, the professional sports owners. I think the hope was always that there are best practices from entertainment and traditional sports that can be translated and help bring new power to esports and to Team Liquid specifically, but they're all extremely cognizant that esports is an entirely different beast, and they're not trying to just wholesale take something that's worked in baseball or in hockey and drop it in. They're curious.
I respect that all of these gentlemen say that while they may not even understand these sports fully, they recognize that it's a significant cultural change, that they're losing younger audiences. They want to lean in and learn more about it and be a part of it. I think Team Liquid is as much a teacher to our leadership at aXiomatic as hopefully our leadership is to Team Liquid. With that, you have very different types of people working together.
There's obviously, as in any family, things that come up, disagreements, differences in opinion, experience across generations, but the part that is really gratifying, especially the communications director and facilitating the conversation between these stakeholders, is the way that they learn from one another at the end of the day. Yeah, hopefully, you're working to make something better together by bringing the best of both worlds into play.
Are you a gamer yourself?
I get asked this a lot, and I am always nervous to say yes, because I'm sure a lot of the Team Liquid pros would take exception to my saying that, but I did grow up gaming, mostly on console. I still have my Nintendo 64 with four controllers and 12 game cartridges. I think I'm going to splurge, finally, on a Switch for myself this holiday season, because I'm no longer at an age where I can ask my parents to buy me a video game console. Maybe I'll buy it for myself. I have been playing Fortnite on PC, and I dabbled a little bit. I'm much better at watching League of Legends than I certainly am at playing. I do find it a little intimidating to enter the MOBA scene, but, yeah, I like gaming a lot. I would never claim to be a gamer in front of the pros, but I definitely ... There are games I enjoy myself.
What are the trends that you're seeing in esports? What are the things you're seeing development-wise with Team Liquid?
Yeah, there's a lot, because it's such a fast-moving space, but kind of in line with what I was talking about in terms of what Team Liquid has been able to learn from traditional sports, I do think that we're now at a place where there's a lot more focus on player welfare. Team Liquid moved away from what was sort of the precedent among North American esports teams, which was the gaming house where everybody worked and lived in the same house all together. In our case, we had a bunch of apartments next to each other, and that's where also all the support staff would come to work.
But that became increasingly untenable for a lot of reasons. Once the big sponsorship dollars are involved, and we have major partners, it's a little bit less feasible to have them come in and somebody's in their boxer shorts and eating SpaghettiOs while you're trying to take a meeting with Alienware, but I also think we were cognizant about trying to create a work-life balance. It is hard because gaming is so many of our pros' passion, but it's a job, and it's stressful nonetheless.
We opened the Alienware training facility in March, which is a whole whopping five minutes away from the apartments where they still reside, but kind of created a separation. We've seen great results from that. Cloud9 has announced they're going to be doing a facility, with the other teams going that direction, but beyond just that, I think sports psychologists, doctors, trainers, not the actual physical athletic trainers, helping them hedge their bets against injuries like carpal tunnel system ... or, syndrome, or bad posture. I think all of those facets that have a long been a part of traditional sports are going to increasingly become and stay in esports, especially because the fundamental conundrum in today is the same. How can you prolong these pros' lives, their careers? Especially in the MOBAs, we see most phase out by 27 at max. We are investing a lot in these players, and we'd like to see them have a lengthier career, if possible. I'm sure that's the same challenge that's faced in baseball and basketball and football.
Franchising is a new development this year. Both League of Legends and then Overwatch are now franchised with permanent partnerships, and it'll be interesting to see what other publishers follow suit. Yeah, I think we have a saying in our group that it's not really ... It's only the beginning. It's the beginning of the beginning. We're certainly nowhere near the middle or the end, so while there has been sort of a stampede of investors from finance and traditional sports coming into the space, I can't imagine that letting up anytime soon.
Something to watch for, which is still really on the verge, is whether more of what we call non-endemic sponsors will come into the space. Mercedes is committing to an event, a tournament, ESL Hamburg, but on the team side, a majority of the sponsorship still comes from endemic partners like headsets, PCs, mice, the like. I think that'll be a real turning point that we're getting close to, but it's not the same cadence and metrics that some of these sponsors would be used to in sponsoring other industries. They're still kind of trying to figure out how to get comfortable around it and the reporting and measure what it means. That'll also be something that will hopefully change, or we're right at an inflection point for.
Are there any sort of programs or outreach to get more women into esports? We've learned through this series that some companies have younger leagues where they're seeing the gender split a lot different.
Differently, yeah. That's a loaded question. I think there's a couple of things at play. One of the things, if we're to look at the Fortnite phenomenon, when I looked a couple months ago, I think there was a Forbes piece that suggested that the player base, which we know also skews a bit younger than traditional esports titles, it's 48 percent female. I'd read a couple of think pieces on why that is. One of the things that kept being mentioned over and over again is that 50 percent, literally 50 percent of the avatars are female and that you just get assigned an avatar, right?
It's totally normal for female players to be playing male characters, but not male players to be playing female characters. It's not like you're opting into Princess Peach, or that somehow there's something where their character is lesser than the others. I think the fact that it's on mobile brought a lot more casual gamers, and there's no negative emotes as of yet. Yes, people can say some unsavory or untoward things on headsets, but in terms of in-game, there actually isn't really a mechanism to allow more toxic conversation.
For all those reasons, I think girls and women, plus that there's this strategy Minecraft built in, have taken a liking to Fortnite. I think there's more that we have games like that where you just need a point of access, right? Even now, I know professional League of Legends, a lot of my colleagues play, but I'm nervous as a newbie to go and log on and be part of a five-person team and some of the vitriol that I might have to assume because I'm letting everyone down. I think that's, I would imagine, a fear that's shared by a lot of casual gamers, a lot of whom are women.
When we see Fortnite and other titles like that making strides to just make it, I think more widely accessible, then maybe we'll see more women in esports. It's something I spend a lot of time thinking about on the professional side. I have to believe that it really is more social than biological. I love the WNBA, but at the end of the day, I do understand that some people say, "I'm used to watching the NBA, and the jumps are just not going to be as high, the dunks."
Now, I would argue it's equally entertaining and takes the same amount of skill, but that is a fundamental biological difference. When it comes to gaming, I don't think that exists. Seemingly, men and women should be able to compete on exactly the same plane. If anything, I would say women multitask better, so we may be slightly predisposed to be even better at esports. I have to think that it's been a social stigma that's prevented women from pursuing it in a more meaningful way, but those are all just my musings because I spend a lot of time thinking about it, not data backed, for sure. I love the few women casters that exist. I've been vocal that I wish Riot in North America would bring on a female caster or a more diverse panel. I think Overwatch League has done a good job with that, but beyond pros, there's a variety of roles even on camera that I think are definitely ... There's a skewed representation there and I don't always understand why that's the case.
It's good to get more information on different parts of esports where it's not just the players. It's not just the audience, but it's people who are working in communications, who are working in marketing, and all of that. A lot of people think the only way to get into esports is to play.
Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, no, there's a variety. Just like in any industry, there's a variety of positions to be serviced. I would argue all of them, including being a professional player, are ripe for the taking, just for women, just as much as men, but obviously, there's an imbalance there that exists for a reason. Hopefully, we'll see more and more women gamers, but just in the industry at large and all of the behind the scenes and business roles as well. I also wonder, I mean, on a similar note, I've often heard people say, "Well, women like social games like Words with Friends. Then, in the same breath, I hear people point to Hearthstone, the card game. I think that also skews about 50% female. The thing is, there's not an in-client chat for Hearthstone. I think it's less about it being a card strategy game.
I wonder sometimes if that's part of the appeal. I think that any woman who has spent time on the internet chatting with strangers, whether of their own will or not, some of you just don't want to have to deal with potential toxic languages or advances. Yeah, I could see why laying in bed at night, I'm wanting to play Hearthstone, where I don't have to potentially come face to face with that, and I'm not trying to paint with a broad brush and say that everybody that plays games or Hearthstone are toxic. It's just that the possibility that might exist, is something that keeps some girls and women away from playing games. While I hear the argument, yes, females are social. They enjoy social games. I actually think in Hearthstone's case, the lack of that social dynamic is probably one of the attractive traits. Again, these are just all my own personal musings.
Is there advice you would give women who are looking to ... or, just people in general who are trying to get into a role like the one that you have?
Yeah, I have a lot of advice, only because I just hosted 30 students from my alma mater. Well, I went to Claremont McKenna College, but it's part of the Claremont Consortium, I think about 30 minutes east of LA, and about half the attendees on this trip were from Scripps, the all-female college. I was so excited to see so many women interested. But, yeah, I think, I mean, my advice tends to be a little bit more general than it is even esports-centric. I think forging connections, I got kind of ... I had a somewhat unconventional past to esports.
I was in Hollywood before. Both are entertainment, and there are definitely parallels, but I got brought over by Bruce Stein, our CEO, who I worked for, was consulting the entertainment company that I formerly worked at. I think forging authentic connections...Somebody once said to me when I was young and I don't think I knew what it meant at the time, fresh out of college, it's easier to go to the well when you don't need the water. I said, "What does that mean?" It's, you never know who down the road actually may be able to help you advance in your career or offer you a new opportunity.
It's important to stay in touch with people and forge authentic relationships so that when the time comes, they can really be genuine in their referral. They're enthusiastic about making sure you get in front of the right hiring official. I think not that all women are the same, but because there are so few of us, there is just an intrinsic kinship there. I would love to help any woman that reached out to me or any recent grad. I think that is a special sort of network, the alumni network equivalent that exists because we are few and far between.
Attending networking events, reaching out to alumni from your school, and especially for women, connecting with other women who can be mentors. I just think that that's really been sort of the game changer in my career, that I've had people that have championed me who I don't think I necessarily knew ... I wasn't developing the relationships to be opportunistic or based on my advancement. I just was lucky to find great mentors who have brought me along with them in their new endeavors. I think that's especially important for women to find support and advisors, given how few of us there are in the space.