We’re starting a new series of interviews highlighting the women of esports on SYFY FANGRRLS! First, we had the chance to chat with Ann Hand, CEO of Super League Gaming (SLG), the amateur gaming league that lets players experience their sport like the pros. Through 16 City Clubs in four regions throughout the country, gamers of all ages and skill levels play on teams that compete in both local and national championships. Super League Gaming operates leagues in partnership with publishers of games like League of Legends and Minecraft.
At the Super League Gaming and Red Bull All-Stars Inaugural Tournament in late June, Hand told SYFY FANGRRLS about how she started working in this side of the business, what it means to her, and the changing demographic of esports.
How did you get into esports?
I’m a little bit of an unconventional esports CEO, that’s for sure! I had spent about 18 years with large public companies, and then met some venture capitalists who convinced me to run a start-up in the Bay Area, so I kind of got my feet wet, so to speak, learning the ropes of early stage companies up there, and I met some of the investors and board members of Super League, who convinced me to give it a try.
At first, I fought it a little bit, because even though I was a big-time gamer as a teenager, the gaming landscape has changed so much. And League of Legends is technically such a challenging game that I kind of feel a little intimidated. So in early days, I kept saying, "I don’t know if I’m the right person for this job," but then I went to some of our test events early on, and what I saw in the audience was... everybody. Everybody is a gamer now. So, all of a sudden, when I saw it as such a mainstream consumer brand, it then started to tap into my background and made sense.
I think we're the same age. I started with Pac-Man.
Yes! I started with Centipede and Galaga! And I will tell you, I remember the feeling of going to the arcade and both of those games—I would always focus on those games because I could always get my name in the ranking. And the pride of putting my name in—my initials, you’ll laugh, were A-S-S when I was growing up, and I knew that would be a little naughty, putting that in the top 10. But since my first name is A-N-N, I just put that in instead. I was probably too afraid that I’d get in trouble if my parents found out! But it was a place where I really felt, for the first time, this notion of "I’m just as good as the boys." And I was kind of proud of the fact that you didn’t think of girls versus boys. It was just all of us in there together, having fun.
I wanted to ask you about that. I know esports is still sort of skewed towards men. Are you doing anything to encourage more women?
Yeah, that’s really so much at the heart of Super League’s brand, it’s really about how do we mainstream esports and make it a much more inclusive, positive experience. And you’re right, of the 13,000 professional esports athletes out there, a very small percentage are female, and yet it really should be much higher percent, because it can be gender-neutral.
And so what we’ve already found is that, because we’re wrapping this notion of defending your hometown and civic pride and the team and League structure, and because we’re a bit of a local matchmaker for gamers, we know once gamers know each other in real life, a lot of that kind of—anything that’s online only, you always get that anonymity, and with it comes the dark side of toxicity. We find that, because we’re the real life connector, all of that goes away. What we’ve found is that, with the LoL product, League of Legends, that we get a higher percent of females joining in. We’ve had events where we’ve had up to 20 percent. And we think it’s because it’s a safer, more positive way for them to get in on this and for them to feel more confident getting into league play.
Do you think that, working with Minecraft and young kids, we’ll see a better percentage with the next generation?
Absolutely. We’re already seeing it at those events. We have 35 or 40 percent of young girls playing. What’s so fun about that product is that, 6-to-14-year-olds, they don’t really know what esports is yet. They just know that they identify as a competitive gamer. And they don’t have any of the stigma or the rules of what games are for girls versus boys. And so in a way, by bringing them in through esports, through Minecraft, we’re kind of changing that generation’s view of what good gaming looks like and the role for girls and boys. We’ve had some funny, funny moments in theaters. I watched two 13-year-old girls go and recruit an 8-year-old boy to their team because aside from—forget gender. Minecraft is an ultimate equalizer. It’s not the biggest kid in the room or the oldest. That’s fun to watch. And the same goes with all these games.
And when you do have instances of harassment, what has been the best strategy you guys have found to help combat that?
Yeah, every now and then you’ll see a little bit of online chat inside our games, and we monitor that and take it really seriously. We have a very clear code of conduct that really, again, supports the fact that this is about better gameplay. We know that when you know the people you play with in real life, that that kind of goes away, kind of dissipates. But also, your skill progression is faster, once you know the people you’re playing with. You’re helping each other out. You’re getting used to each other’s different talents. We monitor that and we do act upon it. So we give people a couple of strikes and then you’re out, so to speak.
We’ve done it only a few times, but we’ve done it to make sure that the rest of the gamers know that we want them to have the best experience possible. So we’ll give them the higher weight in that decision than the one or two who aren’t making it great for the others… we have people in all the communities with all of our game titles who play the game and know it, and know those communities well, so they know, too, about how to strike the right tone with those communities. And we’ve also found, particularly with the LoL community, that there is a lot of their own self-policing. So if somebody does behave in a way that’s kind of not in the right kind of team spirit—actually, Riot Games kind of did a good job in coaching us to sit back and wait first, and watch how the community corrects itself. So often we’ll find that it will be other players that will say, that’s not what we stand for here. Let’s turn this around. Most of the time it corrects itself, which is neat to watch.
What other games are you looking at now?
We’ve already started running experiences around Clash Royale, which we’re excited about. We’ve started to do some neat test events around Buffalo Wild Wings and alternative venues, because, being a mobile title, it really is easy to spin up experiences and distribute Super League in a much wider way. Then we had a great meeting with the Epic guys at E3, so you know, we got a lot of support from them about rolling Fortnite into Super League. As well, we’ve done some events in the past with Rocket League, so we have them in our plans as well for this fall.
The idea of Super League is really that everybody is a gamer and you don’t grow out of gaming anymore, like maybe my parents perceived when I was riding my bike to the arcade every day. So it’s important to us that we continue to bring in top-tier game titles that represent how people grow through their lifestyle of gaming. So the kid who’s playing Minecraft is probably—the older one is probably starting to play Fortnite or Overwatch. We wanted to think about that because we want people to have a relationship to their team in City League throughout their gaming lifestyle. And we’re finding, too, it’s kind of fun to watch the multigenerational effect kicking in. We have a dad who plays for our LA Shockwaves [League of Legends] team, and his little daughter Henrietta plays for our Minecraft team. By the way, she’s so tiny and so her jersey is past her knees. And the best part for me about that story is that—you know LoL is obviously a much more intense, hardcore game, and for the last three seasons of League of Legends, we’ve had our Chicago Force turn into a little bit of our dynasty. They won all three seasons. But on the Minecraft side, it’s the LA Shockwaves that are constantly the national winners. So the dad for the LA Shockwaves said, "Who would have thought it was my little daughter who would be the national champion in the household?" So they’re both wearing their LA Shockwaves jerseys, but in household, she’s the champ, which I think is a pretty cool story.