In our continuing series on the women of esports, we’re speaking with actress, host, and writer Michele Morrow. She's co-anchored Blizzcon since 2014, hosted ELEAGUE for Tekken and Street Fighter V and is also known for being the co-creator, EP, and lead actress of YouTube Red Original series Good Game.
SYFY FANGRRLS had the opportunity to chat with Morrow about gaming, the state of esports, and the future of the sport.
How did you get into gaming? Which games did you start with?
Well, when I was a kid, my mom got the Commodore 64. My sister and I were playing things like Impossible Mission. Jumpman was my favorite. And then I graduated to the NES. I got it on my 10th birthday, and I was the only kid on the block who had it. Growing up with video games was an activity that everyone in the neighborhood would come to your house and do after school.
About 10 years after I moved to Los Angeles, I got severely injured in a bad accident. I was in a neck brace for a better part of a year. I played a bunch of games, including God of War II and World of Warcraft.
So how did you take your love of video games and turn it into work?
At first, I was just really bored and trying to figure out what to do, because I was bedridden and trapped at home. I couldn’t drive or do anything. So a friend of mine was writing for HelloGiggles, and they wanted someone who wrote about video games. So I started to write for them. I did that for a couple years [from 2011 to 2014]. A column called “Level Up.” Every single month I spotlighted one female character. I was able to really use that experience at HelloGiggles and translate into hosting. A friend of mine was working for a company called BiteSize TV, and they needed somebody to review apps. BiteSize TV gave me several opportunities. I started writing for Nerdist a little bit, and a couple other outlets, like Cinefantastique. I was writing so much on World of Warcraft and I was such a big fan—they were looking for a new host for BlizzCon, and I auditioned and I got it. 2014 became my first year co-anchoring BlizzCon.
And, of course, you have characters in the game!
Oh yes! That’s one of the coolest things that have ever happened in my life. I’ve got two characters named after me in World of Warcraft. One is me and my husband in Mists of Pandaria, in the starting zone. And we have our own little pagoda. And what’s really special about it is that our two cats, Samus and Azrael, run around the pagoda with us. What’s special to me is that Azrael was sort of like my familiar. He was my battle cat. He was my baby. When he passed, it was really hard, so what makes it really cool is that I can always go visit him inside of the game. Sometimes on his birthday, fans have gone and visited him, and blown bubbles, because he liked bubbles. I have a little video of it. It’s just really cool, and a very special thing.
I have a garrison follower named Mychele Morrowsong in Warlords of Draenor. And I voice Alleria Windrunner in Hearthstone.
So how did you get involved in esports?
Getting involved in esports was a bit accidental. I was always a fan of World of Warcraft arena, and I had watched some League of Legends, but I wasn’t a hardcore fan. I wouldn’t call myself hardcore. But BlizzCon 2014 sort of forced me to pay attention to StarCraft II, and to learn about the players and to learn about StarCraft’s community, which is much different than a lot of the other esports, because it’s the granddaddy of them all. I entered BlizzCon and learned about StarCraft right off the bat, even though I’m still not great at it. [laughs] But having to learn about StarCraft right away sort of entrenched me into the world of esports, and learning about how it’s seen globally.
Then, it was about six months after that, Blizzard called and asked if I could host the very first Heroes of the Storm tournament, Heroes of the Dorm, which premiered on ESPN 2, and it was the very first time in America that esports had played on television in a live-format type of way. There had been a few exhibition-type things, and there was a DOTA 2 match, I think, but there wasn’t a big, live tournament like this before. It was cool because the players could win college tuition for the rest of their time at school, which was huge. It made esports palatable and understandable to the mainstream. Even though my parents and the general public didn’t understand the video game that they were seeing on ESPN on television, they knew how to cheer for two different schools, and that’s what I think the genius of Heroes of the Dorm was. It allowed Blizzard to define and localize esports, which I think is the big hurdle for the mainstream. It’s this global phenomenon, and Blizzard made it this localized collegiate tournament that we could all follow and understand, whether or not we understand the actual game this is being played. We understood the structure, and we knew how to cheer for the school.
What do you think the current state of esports is in America?
It’s in a big flux right now. Esports is growing up. It’s been a global phenomenon for a very long time, but it hasn’t had a lot of structure to it. It needs more structure if it wants to succeed in the mainstream, so that people can follow along. So people that are new to this can say, "Oh, I understand," or feel like they are invited in. So currently we’re trying to figure out what the best method to do that is. Every single esport is doing it their own way. If you think about sports as an umbrella, you think about it like football, baseball, soccer, hockey, etc. Each one of those has its own league and rules and whatnot. But they all started at different times.
With esports, all of the video games, all of the different disciplines, it’s all sort of hitting at one time in America. Globally it’s hit at different times and people have been paying attention to it. But hitting at once, I mean, in the sense of investors and people who want to create content out of this, people who want to make leagues, people who want to pay money for players to succeed. This was not an option years ago. It’s starting to become structured, and right now, every single esport is doing it at the same time, and trying to figure out their structure and their rules and what their league means, and how that converts to different countries in the world. It’s incredibly complex.
We’d love to hear your take on the state of women in the sport right now. It’s been pretty male-dominated. What do you think the current situation is for women in the sport and where it’s going?
It’s never looked better than now. We are in a good place in the sense of opportunities are being created. People who own teams are aware of the disparity. However, a lot of work still needs to be done. We need boys and girls playing together at a young age. Sometimes I hear the argument from people who say, well, that’s going to take some time, and yes, it will. However, my argument back to that is, the players are young. They’re already playing at 15, 16, 17, and they’re becoming pro, some at 18, 19, 20. They’re already there, so the organizations need to kind of put their money where their mouths are and start building leagues where boys and girls can play together in different communities and bring them together so that women can feel comfortable playing. I don’t think it’s as bad as it used to be for women who want to play pro, but there are still a lot of hurdles in the way.
A good example of someone who has fought through it is [Kim “Geguri” Se-yeon]. She is a player for the Shanghai Dragons for Overwatch. It was a really tough road for her because she was harassed so heavily in the past. And then all of these people started to fight for her. It became more attention and spotlight on her situation, which was difficult for her, all in all. I think Geguri is an important example in the space to see somebody who has worked her ass off and done it with tons of people harassing her all at once. So not only do you have to be a pro and be really good at your job, but you also have to be able to avoid a ton of harassment, not just the regular harassment that you get as a pro player, but the additional harassment because of your gender or because of your race or because of your sexual orientation. But it’s getting way, way better than it was. I’m not going to pretend like it’s fixed, but it’s on the way.
And I would say on the talent side for women, for broadcast, and on the hosting side, it’s becoming more populated with women, and it’s becoming more inclusive in general. Every time I see an esport announce their talent lineup, I look at the placard and I almost always see the photos and there’s always one girl. I really want us to get away from this only-one-girl thing. It’s so silly to me, but it’s always five guys, one girl, or four guys, one girl. A lot of times the girl is the sideline reporter. Girls are helming desks, which is great. Some girls are analyzing. Some girls are hosting. A lot of girls are hosting. The problem is when you don’t have that many roles available for women, it creates a competitive environment for women. And women who should be allies to one another end up having to be up for the same jobs because there just aren’t enough. I don’t think it needs to be that way.
Can you give us an example?
BlizzCon did a really great job last year, because they brought Anna [Prosser Robinson] and Rachel ["Seltzer" Quirico] onto our coverage team, which was fantastic. Not only are they both well versed in esports and Blizzard gaming, but they’re both women who are incredibly intelligent. It’s nice to see that there is diversity, that there is inclusiveness, that things are changing. For half of the season for ELEAGUE for Street Fighter V, I helmed the desk. I had to take off the other half because I screwed up my knee, and Malik [Forte] was able to take my place, which was fantastic.
I’m not saying that women should replace men at all. I want that to be clear. By no means. I just want more opportunities and more roles to be opened up so that women can be seen in those jobs. There are a lot of men in esports that have worked their asses off to get where they’re at. They've been around for well over a decade, and have been laying down the tracks for this to work, and it is. And their contributions should not be overlooked in this. I’m not saying that they should have every single opportunity on Earth, but I am saying they work their asses off and they deserve credit. There are a lot of women as well, but I do see that men kind of are getting the short end of the stick in some ways, and I don’t think that they fully deserve that. I think there’s a lot of really great allies in men that we have in esports, and I think that there are a lot of men who are trying to understand the landscape of women in esports.
We recently spoke to Ann Hand from Super League Gaming, who said the split between boys and girls was better with the younger leagues.
Yeah! Younger kids are doing better with this because they’re not seeing each other as a gender anymore. That’s sort of how it was in the ‘80s when I grew up. I was gaming and all those kids in my house, it was not about gender at all. It didn’t matter if you were a boy or a girl. You were just playing a game.
What I’m hoping is that this next generation is less worried about the societal pressures that come from the images and the internet that we see on a daily basis, and they’re more apt to play together and accept each other as a community and as friends, doing something they like together. That’s how teams are made, and if you learn to work as a team at that young of an age, then you’re only setting yourself up to be champions later on.
In terms of women we should be looking at in esports, Morrow says we should be watching Geguri from the Shanghai Dragons, Scarlett from StarCraft II and cuddle_core from Tekken 7. You can follow Morrow on Twitter @MicheleMorrow.