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Valorant Is For The Women: How Professional Gamer meL Is Breaking The Esports Glass Ceiling

It was hours earlier than the Grand Finals of the 2023 Sport Changers Championship in São Paulo, Brazil, and Shopify Rebel crew captain Melanie Capone (higher identified by her gamer moniker meL) was sitting alone at the back of a van. Sobbing. The all-star gamer, days into the grueling Valorant competitors, had examined constructive for COVID-19, and he or she was being escorted half-hour away to an isolation room the place she’d need to compete remotely. She was, to place it evenly, fairly bummed. “I used to be like, ‘Dude, how may this fucking occur?’” Capone tells Refinery29 a month later. “I’ve such a great time taking part in up there with my teammates. I’m very energetic. I’m very vocal. I like hyping everybody up. I get such a kick out of [talking to the crowd]. … They usually advised me I can’t fucking play due to COVID?”

The championship recreation towards hometown faves Workforce Liquid Brazil was an enormous one for Capone, not solely as a result of it could imply profitable a trophy on her opponent’s turf, however as a result of she felt she needed to redeem herself after her crew’s exhibiting the yr earlier than. Then underneath the banner of Cloud9 White, Capone and her teammates on the time had been anticipated to dominate on the inaugural Sport Changers Championship, the fruits of Riot Video games’ ladies’s Valorant competitors, in Berlin. “Main as much as the [2022] worldwide, we had performed one of the best we’ve ever performed. It was not shut,” Capone remembers. “Going into it, we had been actually assured — we had been speaking a number of shit, truthfully.” Capone and her crew thought they had been going to take all of it; as an alternative, they got here in fourth.

Which brings us again to final November and Capone’s lonely van trip. The disgrace from the earlier yr and the shock at not having the possibility to compete on the largest stage of her profession ran by means of her head. Nonetheless, not one to take a seat in her feels, she wiped her tears and ready herself to compete remotely alongside her crew. In any case, she had shit to do. Because the crew’s in-game chief, she nonetheless known as the strats — albeit by means of a congested nostril, foggy head, and throat so sore she hardly may speak. And after a grueling finest of 5, SR emerged victorious, besting Workforce Liquid Brazil 3-2. “I used to be crying with happiness and pleasure, however I used to be crying out of disappointment that I couldn’t be with my crew,” Capone says, including they “exhausting carried me that day.” “I might have achieved something to be up there with them,” she provides.

Chances are high she’ll have the chance to compete with them on the identical stage once more. As a result of Capone is considerably of a celebrity. The 23-year-old American participant has made a reputation for herself within the esports trade as one of many biggest Valorant gamers within the recreation proper now with 10 match wins underneath her belt. She’s one of many faces of Riot Video games’ first-person tactical shooter and made Forbes30 underneath 30 checklist in 2023, a surreal expertise for a woman who grew up taking part in video video games till 4 a.m. Extra not too long ago, there’s speak that Capone might be the girl to interrupt into Valorant’s Tier 1 league, which is at present utterly made up of solely males. She’s rapidly rising inside the trade, and on the heels of a Sport Changers World Championship, 2024 is already developing meL

Greats aren’t usually born nice, they’re normally made. And that was very a lot the case for Capone. Her introduction to gaming got here, because it does for a lot of athletes, early on in life. However in contrast to the Williams sisters in tennis or gymnast Simone Biles, Capone wasn’t initially motivated by a should be one of the best in her sport or to show a degree; at age 6, she was merely afraid of monsters underneath the mattress. Rising up in Texas, she’d typically have nightmares — that’s till her dad, an avid gamer who was taking part in Resident Evil on the time, got here up with an thought. “[He said], you’ll be able to shoot the zombies within the recreation and you may defeat them,” she says. “I performed it slightly bit. Then I went to sleep and my nightmares went away as a result of I defeated the monsters in my desires.” 

Name it creative parenting or a final resort, both method, she was hooked. Capone expanded her repertoire past the (then) mid-level graphics of Resident Evil. She watched her dad play video games like Name Of Responsibility and Half-Life earlier than ultimately branching out on her personal to “hard-play” Counter-Strike, Valve’s aggressive first-person shooter. She took half in her first in-person LAN occasion for Counter-Strike: International Offensive when she was 16 and positioned third. “I bear in mind I dropped 30 [kills] on anyone,” Capone remembers. “It was actually enjoyable.”

Her schedule turned, because it stays now when she has downtime, utterly nocturnal, with some slight guidelines from her mother and father. “I may keep up till 3 a.m. to play Counter-Strike if I had As,” Capone says. She briefly considered going professional throughout this time earlier than in the end deciding towards it. Contemplating how excessive the ability stage was within the aggressive scene, she’d have to dedicate tens of 1000’s of hours to even attempt to make it at a Tier 2 stage, a dedication the excessive schooler wasn’t able to make. “I used to be out right here residing actual life,” Capone says. “Nevertheless it was one thing I loved after college. I might do my schoolwork, I might do my golf equipment and are available house. After which from 6 p.m. till 3 a.m., I might simply be a common teenager and play Counter-Strike.” 

With the massive expertise pool, possibilities of going professional appeared slim so Capone resigned herself to working behind the scenes within the gaming sphere as a producer, technical director, or observer. However in June 2020, when Valorant was launched, these desires modified. “I instantly [said]: ‘I’m going to try to go professional on this recreation,’” Capone remembers. The sport was contemporary, one thing that appealed to the then-19-year-old. Plus, she may use her information of FPS video games like Counter-Strike to climb the ranks as rapidly as doable. She did her homework, finding out CSGO VODs extensively in anticipation for the discharge of Valorant and filling a journal with notes. “I used to be doing every part [and] going exhausting earlier than it got here out as a result of in my head, I used to be like, ‘I’m going to go professional on this recreation. That is it, that is doable.’”

Melanie “meL” Capone (heart) along with her Shopify Rebel crew

When Valorant got here out, she did simply that, first competing alongside teammates alexis, AnnieDro, Jazzyk1ns, and katsumi underneath the title MAJKL, earlier than signing with Cloud9 in October 2020 to change into the org’s first all-women’s Valorant crew. Beneath Cloud9 White, the crew took house six first-place VCT Sport Changers North America finishes till their devastating fourth place ultimately yr’s world championship. Shortly after, she and fellow teammate alexis joined Version1, the place Capone turned crew captain. Beneath Capone’s management — alongside crew coach Loic “Effys” Sauvageau — V1 dominated, taking house gold in Sport Changers’ North American Collection 3 times. These successes had been, largely, because of Capone’s persistence. 

“She’s at all times 100%,” Sauvageau says. “Lots of people are available in and form of half ass it and present up as a result of they need to, however they don’t actually care. That’s not one thing that meL does. meL is at all times on and he or she’s at all times right here to play and enhance day-after-day. That’s one thing that’s extraordinarily uncommon in esports.” “meL is an exceptional participant,” Anna Donlon, SVP and Government Producer of Valorant, tells Refinery29 through electronic mail. Between her common taking part in and her perseverance in Brazil, “she has proven us that she is a drive to be reckoned with.”

And it comes with a number of work. As a lot as Capone could appear to be a natural-born participant, like all athlete, she works exhausting at it. Arguably the most important enchancment hasn’t come from her technical abilities on display, however relatively her communication abilities off. “The most important signature that has modified [for me] has been my calling,” Capone says. “I used to be not excellent. I was form of poisonous again within the day.” 

meL is at all times on and he or she’s at all times right here to play and enhance day-after-day. That’s one thing that’s extraordinarily uncommon in esports.

Loic ‘Effys’ Sauvageau

Bettering her communication to help her teammates has helped her additionally evolve into being a pacesetter and help system outdoors of the sport, particularly coming into V1. Because the veteran, Capone says she looks like extra of an enormous sister or mom determine to the newer gamers, a task she loves. “I really had expertise to deliver to others,” Capone says. “I felt a number of goal in that, and it’s been actually fulfilling to have the flexibility to do this, but in addition to have your teammates belief you to do this. And that belief is one thing that I’m actually grateful for.”

“She has grown quite a bit as an individual within the time I’ve identified her,” agrees longtime teammate alexis. “She’s gone by means of a number of crap in her private life, and I’ve been alongside her by means of a number of it, and to see her persevere and get by means of all of it is unbelievable.” The duo, who’ve been teammates since 2020, met in 2016 by means of a mutual good friend once they performed Golf with Mates. “That’s my trip or die,” alexis says. “I genuinely don’t see her as my ‘teammate.’ I simply see her as certainly one of my favourite individuals I’ve ever met, and I hope to crew along with her for so long as I can.” 

Along with the web dynamics that avid gamers already take care of (CC: web trolls), Capone is a lady on the web, and one who has the “audacity” to need to not solely play, however dominate. It’s not information that ladies in gaming have a tricky time (IYKYK). Regardless of ladies making up practically half of all avid gamers globally, solely 5% {of professional} gamers are ladies, in accordance with 2019 estimates. 

And, as Refinery29 famous final yr, whereas there have been a handful of co-ed groups throughout completely different titles over time, they usually floundered or had been by no means taken critically. Like in most industries, ladies in gaming need to work twice as exhausting for even a modicum of respect. There’s additionally issues about security each out and in of the sport, a actuality for therefore many feminine and marginalized avid gamers whether or not they’re skilled or informal. The entire inception of Sport Changers was to assist ladies and non-binary people escape into the aggressive discipline. However success there doesn’t essentially imply success in the remainder of the trade.

Final September, Capone discovered herself unwillingly on the heart of debate round fairness after esports reporter Rod Breslaue revealed on CS legend and present esports caster Sean Gares’ stream that Capone had been turned away from Tier 1 groups because of her gender. In response, Capone confirmed she had been denied the chance to trial for co-ed Valorant groups as a result of she was “too beneficial of an asset to launch” from a ladies’s crew and that there was no less than one occasion the place she was advised that “a [male] participant was not snug taking part in with a lady.”

“It was a shock to me,” Capone tells Refinery29 of discovering out by means of the grapevine that she’d been ignored. The gamer chalks this as much as “just a few dangerous apples” and has maintained simply how welcoming and inclusive the Valorant group has been for her and her teammates — a stark distinction from the various headlines about ladies in gaming that persons are used to seeing. And even when her private expertise has proven this to be typically opposite, the pushback simply acts as additional motivation. “That’s simply the story of being a girl in male-dominated areas,” Capone says. “It’s simply one thing that I’ll have to beat, and it’s simply one other story to inform if I someday do break these limitations; it simply makes it that a lot sweeter.”

I feel the best realization of that dream is that if an all-female crew made it to Tier 1. That may change issues much more than only one individual.

melanie ‘mel’ capone

Leo Faria, Riot’s international head of Valorant Esports, is assured the trade is shifting in the precise course, and that Capone is the one to take the following step, not solely due to her expertise, however as a result of she actually cares concerning the sport and needs it to be higher for everybody; even when that typically means having the exhausting conversations. “She’s extremely wanting to make progress,” Faria says. “She’s not pleased with simply being in Sport Changers, she needs extra.”  

Final July, Capone took to social media to share her frustrations over promotion and media round the latest Sport Changers Championship, saying it lacked the identical promotion to the yr prior, leaving up-and-coming gamers at a drawback. “I used to be lucky to return up by means of [Game Changers] at a time when the promotion of the occasions [really] helped me to realize a foothold within the scene,” Capone wrote. “I really feel like a number of the up and coming gamers now deserve that very same alternative.” Capone has additionally been outspoken concerning the want for the Sport Changers schedule to higher align with the Tier 1/Tier 2 co-ed competitions — giving GC gamers extra alternative to compete in these tiers and transfer up.

In the beginning of the yr, Riot launched its schedule for the 2024 North American GC season, and Capone wasn’t completely happy. Particularly, the gamer famous that the shut timing of GC qualifiers and North American Challengers League Qualifiers prevented a seamless pipeline for Sport Changers gamers (aka ladies) to vie for a coveted Challengers spot, that are all held by males. “It’s irritating delivering suggestions for years and feeling as if it’s been ignored or seeing the exact opposite come to fruition,” Capone wrote on X. “I hope Riot can revisit these modifications so we are able to higher obtain our shared dream of seeing ladies and marginalized genders compete on the highest stage someday.”

In response to Capone’s newest tweet, a Riot Video games spokesperson advised Refinery29 through electronic mail: “We repeatedly collect suggestions from stakeholders throughout our ecosystem — which incorporates skilled gamers like meL, crew house owners, match operators, and the VALORANT fan base. This has been beneficial in growing improved insurance policies, guidelines, and codecs. Over the previous two years, because the VCT calendar expanded to account for International Occasions, Worldwide Leagues, Challengers Competitions, the Sport Changers program, and the Off-Season, the amount of occasions and dependencies has resulted in some schedule conflicts. We observe these cases carefully and search to deal with them through the format improvement course of for every subsequent season.”

As for what Capone thinks about whether or not or not she’ll be the primary girl to interrupt right into a top-level crew, a convo that’s largely been had with out her (and usually by a number of male sofa casters), the gamer is usually unbothered. “I’ve at all times been one to essentially simply deal with the gameplay greater than the rest,” Capone says. “It’s a privilege for me to be thought to be one of many [female] gamers that may broach the Tier 1/Tier 2 boundary someday, however when these conversations occur, I do want it was extra concerning the recreation than something.” 

It isn’t nearly being the one one who’s breaking boundaries for the esports queen both. “I feel the best realization of that dream is that if an all-female crew made it to Tier 1,” she says. “That may change issues much more than only one individual.” Nonetheless, she is aware of there at all times must be a primary to assist these behind them really feel prefer it’s doable.

And ultimately, Capone is assured we’ll get there — even when, after making cracks, she’s not essentially the one to shatter the gaming glass ceiling. “I at all times check with the four-minute mile. It had by no means been achieved earlier than by people,” Capone provides. “After which somebody did it. They hit the four-minute mile; after which BOOM, subsequent yr a bunch of individuals began hitting it. After which the following yr much more individuals began hitting it. Nevertheless it solely took one individual to point out that it was doable.” 

In the case of breaking limitations in esports, one thing tells us that individual is meL. 

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