C9 White’s meL on VALORANT squad’s success, inspiring next generation of women in esports

by Mitch Reames

On Jan. 19, Renegades took on Cloud9 White, the org’s all-female Valorant team, in a qualifier for an upcoming tournament hosted by the World Showdown of Esports. As C9 White closed a dominant 13-4 victory over Renegades, captain Melanie “meL” Capone popped off.

“If you ask any of my teammates, I am the biggest clown [while we play], I try to keep everyone’s energy up, the vibes good and just make them laugh,” said meL, who didn’t know her comments would be caught on the stream. “Nothing I said was personal, I just thought it was a good moment to make everyone on the team laugh as we enjoyed the win.”

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Popping off is awesome, in my opinion, and the Renegades players certainly didn’t take any offense, complimenting the team on the win in the Twitter replies. While C9 White finished one round away from qualifying for the four-team WSOE bracket, wins over Renegades and Able Esports showcased a team with a ton of talent that will be one of the teams to watch in the VALORANT Champions Tour Challengers qualifiers over the next several weeks.

Before being picked up by C9, the team went by the name MAJKL in the first few months of VALORANT esports. Made up of Alexis “alexis” Guarrasi, Annie “AnnieDro” Roberts, Jasmine “Jazzyk1ns” Manankil, katsumi and meL, MAJKL’s first big splash on the scene came after finishing first in Nerd Street Gamers’ FTW Summer Showdown, part of Riot Games’ Ignition Series and the only women-exclusive tournament in the series.

“Cloud9 reached out to us a couple of weeks before the Ignition Series, but we ended up signing with them after we won,” meL explained. “Cloud9 was actually the first Tier 1 organization to reach out to us. After we won, we had a lot of Tier 1 orgs reach out to us, but Cloud9 was the first, way ahead of everyone else.”

Cloud9 might be the most notable, but they aren’t the only all-women VALORANT squad. Dignitas formed Dignitas Female in May, and Gen.G announced in October that they were looking to form a female VALORANT team too. On Wednesday, Evil Geniuses announced it was fielding a roster with men and women. Some people online have been critical of the need for women’s teams and tournaments, but they’re a necessity given the current demographics of competitive gamers in esports.

“Women’s tournaments are really important for engaging the female demographic of a game and lighting a fire underneath them to compete,” meL said. “There are a lot of things that girls experience in public social spaces, you just go through a lot of extra s— to be honest. Having these tournaments encourages them to keep playing the game, there’s a payoff at the end if you get through all the extra BS you wouldn’t normally get.”

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Despite esports existing on a level virtual playing field unlike traditional sports, there is still a huge gender disparity. In the last few years, more and more women have broken through to the top levels. In Rocket League, Jamie “Karma” Bickford played multiple seasons in the RLCS. Moqii Zoldyck and Tina “TINARES” Perez both won big Fortnite events. Se-Yeon “Geguri” Kim played in the Overwatch League, and Chiquita Evans played in the NBA 2K League.

But the game that has featured the most female pros over the years is CS:GO. Teams like CLG Red, Dignitas Female, Copenhagen Flames, Besiktas and more have competed over the years in both women’s tournaments and co-ed events. That trend has carried over to VALORANT, the game that’s most similar to CS.

“VALORANT is carrying the tradition of the successful female team and will elevate it to new levels,” meL said. “It’s a new game, so the skill ceiling is lower, and in CS:GO it’s a lot harder to reduce the barrier to entry given how long the game has been around. In CS, you really have to grind your way from the bottom. VALORANT is a bit of a new slate, although there are a lot of fundamentals that transfer over from CS:GO.”

While VALORANT resembles CS:GO, the developers behind each game are quite different. Riot Games spent 10 years solely focused on League of Legends before expanding into a multigame, multimedia company over the last few years. Valve, on the other hand, is notoriously hands off. CS:GO events are largely organized by third-party tournament organizers like ESL, FACEIT and BLAST Premiere.

While Valve’s hands-off nature has allowed many companies in esports to flourish, it has also created games that feel virtually unmoderated, save for sweeping Valve anti-cheat bans that target hackers. For female CS:GO players, Riot has been more involved when it comes to community moderation, even if the company itself has been embroiled in its own gender discrimination lawsuit.

“Riot has done a really good job at the high levels of moderating,” meL said. “I had a clip that blew up on Twitter where someone was being outwardly sexist, borderline harassing me. Multiple people from Riot reached out, and they escalated the tickets to get the tags of who it was. I also want to say, this VALORANT community has been the most positive community. I dabbled both casually and competitively in CS:GO and Overwatch and Valorant’s community has been the most accepting by far.”

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Compared to CS:GO, where there is a community meme that in-game reports go directly to a trash can in Valve’s office, Riot has taken a much different approach. Valve has, however, tried to make steps toward moderating verbal abuse in 2020. That’s not to say any game is 100% toxicity free. Spend some time in the comments of a female team announcement, or clip, or even just a random female player on Twitch, and the toxicity won’t be hard to find.

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In-game toxicity is not even the biggest issue for female gamers. Gaming, and especially esports, had an industry-based MeToo movement in the summer of 2020 with story after story about harassment, abuse, grooming, and, in some cases, horrific sexual assault.

“As it stands right now, child grooming is a f—ing issue,” meL said. “There will be young girls, who have talent, who go to these games and older men see that as an opportunity to start conversations, sometimes with the intent to start inappropriate relationships. And this isn’t something that’s rare, I had to block or tell off a couple random people, but I was honestly lucky. If you ask any woman who is a decently high level at CS or Valorant and they will tell you they know someone [who was roped into an inappropriate relationship with an older man].”

That environment, one filled with potentially dangerous people, is one of the reasons there is still such a stark gender disparity in most esports. And while some environments are improving, a woman’s experience in ranked play or at LANs can differ greatly from that of a similarly skilled male player.

While companies can do their part in moderating, it’s also critical for the player base self-moderating, calling out bad behavior and working diligently to create a safer place for all to compete. There’s a long way to go to making gaming a safe space for all, but esports organizations, esports companies and players have been speaking out more often about these issues lately.

“A bunch of people on Reddit, a bunch of people on Twitter, they love to see us fail,” meL said. “They hope we fail, they want to see us lose but because of the fact that we are women with a contract that pays us to play the game. All of that becomes worth it if we become Tier 1 or we inspire someone else to reach these levels some day.”

That inspiration via female representation in the VALORANT community is crucial for the next generation of female gamers. For meL, it was CS:GO players Stephanie “missharvey” Harvey and Christine “potter” Chi who provided that representation.

“There is so much extra pressure, you feel like you are representing a whole gender when you compete,” meL said. “Honestly, the fact that I am playing and young girls might be watching me and looking up to me is still very surreal to me. I don’t think I will really actualize it until LANs start happening. At one point I felt a lot of pressure, now I see it as a great thing I get the chance to inspire younger women. I think I’ll become a Tier 1 player in the next year, but in the instance I don’t, I hope I can inspire other women who see me and think ‘I could do that even better’ for them to be Tier 1. That would make everything worth it.”

MeL and the rest of C9 White will keep breaking barriers starting with competing in the VALORANT Champions Tour qualifiers hosted by Nerd Street Gamers starting this week. While they have proven themselves as one of the best female teams in VALORANT, the next goal is to drop “female” from that sentence. Here’s hoping for many more pop-offs.

Image credit: Cloud9

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