Why I went into the HLTV off-topic forums

One of the first things you are told when you start hosting or playing in Counter-Strike tournaments is to avoid the HLTV Off-Topic Forums at all costs.

HLTV.org is an indispensable resource, with match pages for every tier 1 and 2 tournament, and great editorial content such as interviews and news articles. None of the broadcasters I work with could do their jobs as well without it.

But when you visit HLTV on a device larger than mobile, you also get treated to the website’s very own “sidebar of shame”, a column that pulls in the latest popular forum posts – many of which are pulled in from the Off-Topic subsection of the forum.

When I work CS:GO events, I’m often amused by the bizarre titles some of the forum posts have, and horrified by posts that appear about myself and my colleagues. Players don’t escape the scrutiny of users either.

But sometimes posts appear that – genuinely or otherwise – request help from the HLTV hive mind. While many of the posts can be downright toxic, most likely due to young users vying for attention – some of them are endearing in their questions, and occasional confessions. Like Reddit, HLTV provides a space where a community has formed. And I decided to reach out to it via YouTube…

What I discovered were that many posts were simply about how to talk to girls. I’ve been female for 30 years, so I figured I might have a little bit of insight to share. I’ve also been made redundant twice in my career and had my fair share of heartbreak. And also, like the users of the forum, I love CS:GO (even if I’m terrible at playing it).

Travelling around the world going from event to event can be a surprisingly lonely experience, and so I totally understand that need to find a space where one can reach out to find others on their wavelength. That’s why I’ve come to realise that not every post in the HLTV forums comes from a bad place. I hope I’ve treated the post writers with enough respect, and I’m aiming to give actual advice. There are some worrying views on the forum, and perhaps I’ll tackle those more controversial subjects in future episodes.

I’m also hoping to find some other guests from the Counter-Strike scene to come and guest on the series, and I’ll do little tweaks such as screen grabs of the original posts. I also need to wear an crease-free t-shirt and sort my hair out prior to recording the next episode…

“When am I not competitive? When I don’t think I can win”

I am ten, eleven years old in my final year of primary school. Michelle (year five) and I have been bestowed the honour of being a “whole player”. The other girls on the playground only count as “half a boy”. I know I will never be passed the ball and so, determined to get a touch, am constantly prepared to run full-stream at a “whole player” and take it from him.

On Tuesdays, myself and a dozen or so girls pay two quid to a man who runs a venture called Club Brazil Girls Football. I pay for football because Thursday football club, free and run by the local vicar, clashes with netball practice. I was admitted into the netball A team, alongside a girl called Natalie, a year before our peers. I know I won’t make the football B team (Michelle is more than good enough but never gets to play for them either). Even though I love football, and own a full England ’97 kit I am fast growing too big for, plus Umbro boots from Woolworths, I stick to the sport I know I’ll get picked for.

My first pair of blades are given to me for my 15th, and I adapt them to make them fit for street skating. Visiting an indoor park without them, I borrow my friend’s caveronous size 9 soft boots and try dropping in multiple times, landing in quick succession on my right elbow. The result is a haematoma (“swellbo”) that I call my “third boob”. The doctor mentions that this could have been more serious had it been elsewhere – people die from haematomas. Fear stops me from trying things out, but I keep skating with my friend Maz and a group of boys from the town. It’s something to do and I know I’ll never be good at it – I’m “just a girl” – so I don’t try.

Going into my final year of GCSE I enter a relationship with someone I meet at the skate park. He slaps me on my arms when I say sorry, tells me he should swap me for Maz, who is dating another friend, and tells me he will never love me. We go to an extreme sports festival, and I go out skating on my own and make friends with some Welsh skaters. I escape for the evening, become my own person again, and return to accusations that I’m a whore on my return. I go from being happy and confident, to someone who cries and who can’t stop saying sorry. When I’m dumped for another girl after a few months, I buy a DVD of Clueless with my Sports Direct earnings and celebrate. Skating eventually stops too. Isolated in the countryside, I spend two weeks in bed after my exams playing Final Fantasy X on my Playstation 2.

When I enter Sixth Form – where boys are admitted to our otherwise girls’ grammar school in Maidstone – I finally get to play football again. Age 17, I am called “GIRL” by the boys in the year above. I haven’t played football for years, but when I’m not working on Music Tech coursework, choir, or other clubs I’ve committed to my entire time in secondary education, I’m out there, beetroot red, curly hair flying, knowing the ball won’t come to me unless I take it for myself. Over a year I fall in love with the boy who plays in goal, who shares Broken Social Scene and Bright Eyes with me. (He is different to our friend, my year 12 boyfriend, who would shout “ELEPHANT” across a dinner table at me if my top was deemed too low, and decided Counter-Strike wasn’t for me.) We play music together. It’s magic. I am the only girl studying A2 Music Tech. On recordings, I sing in a way I think the other boys will want, rather than how I truly sound. When I leave for university my boyfriend will end up with the girl whose stairs I once threw up on at a party. I call it karma.

I discover my love of radio at University. Aged 19, I am given the choice between managing a community radio station and then our student version. I pick the latter, after I doubt my ability to make decisions for the much older male faces around the community station table.

Less than two years later, I record my first national radio show in my Selly Oak bedroom and send it off to be played on the other side of my 21st birthday. I will move far from home to work there and be told frequently that I am only there for the way I look, and that I am annoying and arrogant because I cite case studies from past work experience at the BBC and Channel 4 in the ideas I suggest. My show will be taken away from me, only for them to give it back to me thanks to one of the producers questioning why I need replacing. I will be pitched against the other female producer, and I will be removed from conversations concerning the show I produce.

My contract is terminated, but the presenter doesn’t last much longer than the four weeks of shows (20 episodes) I have pre-produced. I return to London and slowly rebuild my life. In a BBC management training course I am asked why I’m looking at an exercise pinned the wall when I know what I’m talking about. I about turn and present to the room. In that moment I realise I’ve been burying that voice for a long time.

But not everyone is a fan of a woman with confidence. When I speak up and tell a room of colleagues “I know it’s not the decision of anyone here but only one woman in a line-up on 14 comedians isn’t enough” when we’re evaluating a project, I am taken to one side and told I am too aggressive and that I shouldn’t question something that would have already been considered. In a different job I am advised by a man that I “speak too much” in meetings, even though they are meetings about the elements of a project I am leading. At one point I will have a boss who tells me he is not comfortable calling his direct reports “women” and will therefore call us “girls” instead.

In the Twitch office when I arrive in 2016, there are five high-spec gaming PCs. My friend Iain suggests trying out Overwatch, which he is ridiculously good at; I decide to take the plunge and spend thirty quid on the game. My initial games are catastrophic; I have to learn the ability keys and get used to directional controls with my left hand (AWSD, rather than the arrow keys). At one point, I get so desperate I resort to picking up a controller and plugging it in. Iain announces – with good reason – that he will abandon me if I use it.

So I practice; I play in lunch breaks, and after work. I team up with our office manager Nell and HR manager Roisin – themselves seasoned players – and a competitive team, later called “Overlunch” forms. I move from DPS (Tracer) to support (Ana and Mercy). I build a PC so I can start playing and streaming Overwatch at home. I get Twitch Partnered and become part of the community. I am outed as a gamer to friends and my boyfriend. Sometimes I experience aggression over voice chat or someone tells me to mute my voice, but I don’t care; I’m good at this now and I know people I can play with.

When I first appear on a stage, Twitch chat turns into a stream of “GRILLS” and deleted messages. I can make worse jokes about myself than they ever could. I am stage hosting a UK Hearthstone tournament when I am noticed by PC Gamer. When my job is cut by Twitch, I write to tournament organisers and end up in Stockholm, Katowice, Austin and Los Angeles in quick succession. I script edit and collaborate with the team on my pieces to camera for the PC Gaming Show at E3 2018. One joke leads to a bump in my Instagram following. But there are still faceless voices who will object to my presence at the events I move between for the rest of the year.

In Katowice for the CS:GO Major, I see daily forum posts pulled through to the front page of HLTV that discuss my looks and what they would do to me. They compare me to my female peers and call for me to be replaced. As I attend more Counter-Strike events, the dissatisfaction wanes, but the sexual comments continue. My boyfriend Googles me to show a friend’s father what I do for a living and finds a forum post describing me as a “MILF”. We laugh about it.

I have tried playing CSGO but have been previously kicked off a public match and the experienced has stuck with me, so I have resorted to playing solo and Wingman modes.

Someone sends me a link to Pop Flash – suddenly I can get round my inability to set up a lobby and I am able to play with my community. The first 5v5 stream is fun, but in the second it appears we’re playing with at least one stream sniper, who decides to repeatedly attempt to zap me with a Zeus. I sometimes look at my keyboard because I have not played enough hours of CS for all the actions and key binds to be instinctive yet. Most of chat is supportive, but today comments declaring that “I don’t play many video games” and jokes at my glances downward strike a nerve. Usually I respond to comments with a joke, or ignore them. Today I more or less tell them to fuck off. I am impatient and I am angry; the night before I witnessed the negative reactions to a women’s tournament being organised by DreamHack and my head is ablaze.

I stay frustrated for the evening. My friend messages to see if I am ok, having heard what happened on my stream. I watch catch-up TV, but the rage stays with me and I regress into my past.

I am angry I didn’t try this sooner – that I was a solo player almost my entire life, even when supposedly in a team. That I wasn’t invited to the LAN parties. That I wasn’t encouraged to try. I am upset that I am only starting this now, but feel like I will be forever judged by it. I am outraged by seeing women dehumanised on the internet with constant debates about “females” being scientifically proven to be lesser at video games, even though there have been no specific studies detailing the differences between men and women playing the same game.

Daily, I see “males” tell women they are terrible, but then refuse to play with them, kicking them off servers or abusing them over voice comms until they can prove themselves – or calling the women that do, cheaters. I see women set up their own spaces so they can find people they can trust to play with, only for men to question why this is necessary. I see segregation as the longterm result of when the dominant part of the community has abandoned the other. I want women to be taken seriously.

But I can’t go back to solo queuing because I need people to play with who won’t kick me and I want to stream, so I resolve to keep streaming. I’ve only just started, and I’ve discovered I’m extremely good at head-shotting my own team with a Scout, and at least hitting something is promising. I remember that I stumbled upon the esports world in 2015, and now I get to be part of it. That I only started FPS a few years ago, and I ended up reporting on coach strategy at the 2018 Overwatch World Cup – a dream come true as a devoted player. I get paid to play and talk about video games. The voices that post graphic opinions of my body, or that tell women they aren’t entitled to play for a $100,000 prize pool – what do they get paid for? It’s not that, and they certainly don’t get paid to do what I do.

Together, we can level the playing field – all of us. We need to remember that the women who are playing CSGO and other shooters haven’t necessarily been playing it as long as men. That, particularly in the past, girls weren’t always invited to play with boys. That women need to be scrimming against male rosters in order to have opportunities in the same tournaments, and when scrims occur, both sides take it seriously and don’t pick up the Zeus. We need to bear in mind that for women to learn CS in the first place, they need to not be kicked from servers upon hitting the push-to-talk button. We need to let women know that if they want to play, they are welcome, and that they can succeed.

As star female players break through, we should see them considered by more orgs with the money to support their growth. When female-only tournaments happen, we need to remember that sponsors actually want to support the growth of talent and its their money, and then can spend their budgets where they decide – it’s not taking money away from established male players. In fact, it’s putting money into an area of the scene that’s been under-resourced and needs to grow.

We are often told that women don’t have a competitive streak, that we don’t want to put ourselves out there and go for titles. “It’s not in our nature”. But when am I not competitive? When I don’t think I can win; women like me are told their entire lives that they cannot win. We are led to believe that any competitive quality is undesirable and our confidence is chipped away from being told we are not good enough.

To the ladies reading this – you are good enough, despite all of those personal experiences throughout your life that told you otherwise. You deserve to be confident and do what is best for you without judgement. So if you think that an all-female scrim server is for you, ignore the dissent and join one. If you want to work in esports but worry you’ll be rejected for being a woman, join the Women of Esports Discord group, and trust me when I tell you that there is more than enough room for you here. And if you’re looking for people to start playing CS with, come play with me. I promise that if I shoot you in the head, it’ll be totally accidental.

Happy International Women’s Day to my fellow women in esports!

On Friday 8th March I kick off my guest appearance on LEC in Berlin.

It also happens to be International Women’s Day while I’m here – a public holiday in Germany – so I wanted to take the opportunity and say thank you to my fellow women in esports and gaming. Some I’m lucky to call friends – and all of them are inspiring.

I first discovered how utterly brilliant women in this industry are working on the League of Legends World’s coverage back in 2015 (sorry, yes I know I mention this quite a lot). Julia Hardy was presenting online videos, including interviews with the players, and as we roamed around Wembley Arena, she introduced me to Becca Henry and Kirsty Endfield who were working with Riot at the time – Henry is now VP of Communications for Misfits, while Endfield runs her own gaming PR agency, Swipe Right PR. We also walked past Eefje “Sjokz” Depoortere, who was hosting the show, and Julia explained just how much Depoortere was (and still is) loved and respected by the LoL community.

When I moved from the BBC to Twitch, Brit Weisman was always there to show me how to slay at work, leading by example on the Twitch Studios team – I miss putting the world to rights with her over frequent Google Hangout meetings. She gave me courage in my convictions and still has my back. One of the other highlights of being at gaming expos is being able to catch up with Twitch Marketing Managers Kelsey Christou and Caroline Westberg – I have no idea how they run massive projects, whilst also managing incessant requests for Twitch party wristbands… I also had the opportunity to work alongside producer and zombie slayer Mary Kish and Nadja Otikor – the latter of whom taught me about “keeping my poops in a group”. I also met one of my favourite people in the entire world, publicist Rochelle Snyder, while working on a PUBG-focused documentary (which Mary also helped to produce on location at the Game Awards in LA).

From initially working with the ESL UK team as a Twitch producer, to working for them as a host, I’ve witnessed Caroline Oakes go from taking care of the business side of things, to front of camera as an esports host for events like the ESL UK Premiership – she’s recently joined PCGamesN as a full-time presenter.

While at Twitch I also worked with Anna Robinson – one of the best public speakers I’ve ever witnessed – and started to meet esports hosts like Rachel “Seltzer” Quirico (who can turn her hand to any esport) and Kelly Link, whose positive energy radiates onstage. Kelly was one of the first people to tell me she thought I could be a good host – I’ve never forgotten it.

Producing one of my first event stages for Twitch gave me the opportunity to work with Soe Gschwind-Penski – who I’d go on to team up with at the Overwatch World Cup at Blizzcon 2018 (along with Emily Tang, Mica Burton and Fiona Nova) and is, quite frankly, and icon for young esports fans around the world, and Marcelle “Nysira” de Bie, who is finding deserved success with her own motoring show in her native Netherlands. The following year I’d end up loving Paola “Pancakepow” Alejandra‘s energy on the Twitch x gamescom 2018 stage, as I booked her alongside the multi-talented ShannaNina.

After I was booked for the DreamHack Austin PUBG Showdown last year and the standard talent WhatsApp group was setup, Lauren “Pansy” Scott was the first to welcome me on board. At the afterparty, I got to properly meet Sue “Smix” Lee for the first time, as producer Dagny Veinberg bought us a round of the largest shots I have ever seen. (No regrets, Dagny.)

It was a month later that I finally met Sjokz in person – grabbing the lift to the dressing room at the Mercedes-Benz arena at PGI Berlin, she ran up to the lift just to tell me she thought I was doing a great job. We’ve kept in touch ever since (and I shall lobby for her to host every Esports Awards henceforth so we can have more nights out in London). Having her seal of approval means everything as she’s an inspiration for pretty much every host in the biz – and I really hope we get to appear at the same event in future.(Tournament organisers, that is definitely a hint.)

Awards shows are great places to actually meet other women in the industry – at the Esports Awards I first met regular LEC interviewer Laure Valée, while the Stockholm International Esport Awards was where I initially encountered League analyst Froskurinn – who I’ll be working with this weekend.

Something I observed at IEM was the constant comments on Reddit and HLTV that were desperate to complain and compare me to other women in my field. The thing that no one seemed to observed is that we were all there! Smix hosted the Starcraft II finals – including a beautiful winner’s interview, and Freya Spiers brought her trademark class and knowledge to the Intel Challenge stage. Other women rocking it in Katowice were Sheever (when does she ever give less than 110%?) reporting for Dota 2, and Lottie Van-Praag curating Miss Harvey and Potter on the Intel Challenge desk. To my delight, I was lucky enough to bump into Ukrainian StarLadder host Tonya Predko backstage as she filmed with Na’Vi, and I got to catch-up behind-the-scenes with ESL UK member Kat, ESL Junior Product Manager Sabrina, ESL Poland Product Manager Marlena and ESL UK’s Head of Communications Heather “Naysayerz” Dower. (There are a HUGE number of women working behind-the-scenes in esports.)

This year I’m going to try and work harder on featuring women on my interview series My Life in Pixels – so far we’ve had Ray Gaskin – who has since left Red Bull to head up esports at Right Formula, Rochelle Snyder, my infamously hardworking host and cosplaying friend Tabitha “Artyfakes” Lyons, Women of Esports founder and journalist Saira Mueller, and Lottie Van Praag. You can listen to the podcast on iTunes, Spotify, or find episodes for Android devices at acast.com/getfrank. I also need to get Sam “Tech Girl” Wright involved in a future episode – she’s a prominent host and caster from South Africa you may know from Overwatch Contenders Europe and CS:GO. Oh and Marissa Roberto – who is one of Canada’s most prominent voices in esports.

Despite the fact that there appears to be an infinite number of talented women in this industry, there is still a very vocal portion of the esports community who appear resistant to our existence. They overlook our resilience and focus on rating our looks, rejecting us not for our work ethic, but on their personal ideals. And I won’t deny that I want to look presentable on camera – that’s an element of the job – but I’m never intending to distract from the work I am actually doing; none of us are. Instead a mob mentality can ensue – kids behind keyboards bond by uniting in their angst at our involvement.

Laure Valée recently gave a very interesting, heartfelt interview to the Shotcaller YouTube channel at the LEC studios on this topic, revealing how the horrendous comments she had aimed at her during her time so far on the show had kept her awake at night and shattered her confidence. A few weeks earlier, in an eye-opening episode of the LEC podcast EUphoria, Sjokz and Froskurinn also discussed the treatment of women by esports viewers.

Both of these interviews struck a chord with me – hearing a community question my abilities (often before they’ve even seen me on a broadcast) has led me to various confidence problems in the past. Visiting HLTV during the IEM Katowice Major became a nightmare as I’d see negative forum posts about me pulled onto the front page as I checked out the latest headlines, while Reddit featured commenters calling me unprofessional (even before I made a joke of nicking a bit of pizza in the final week, which led to intense vitriol). As someone who puts the necessary hours of prep in, never misses their call time and treats production with the respect they deserve, it was comments like these that particularly struck a chord.

Something I’ve found at previous events is that I’ll go out of my way to prove my knowledge, when often my job is usually to ask questions – I don’t need to provide the information, I need to know how to find it. That’s not to say I don’t have insight, but it does mean I shouldn’t fret about what people think of me; my feedback should come from production and my peers, not people who aren’t on my team or paying my invoices. As that’s how jobs usually work, I’m going to apply it to my own occupation going forward; I think it’ll help with my performance in the long run.

It’s a hard thing to improve and grow in a role that is so public, and I am very grateful for the positivity that has been sent my way – from the women I’ve mentioned above, to the people who send me tweets to say they enjoyed my involvement in events such as IEM. This year, I hope I can support these women back – we’re stronger together, and this industry is stronger for having us in it.

LEC Week 8 kicks off on Friday March 8th at 5:30pm CET, and concludes at 4:30pm on Saturday 9th March Riot Games’ Twitch channel.

The art of the interview

Don’t be fooled by the title of this blog; I don’t have the answers or the ultimate advice for the perfect interview. In fact, the “perfect” interview surely doesn’t exist.

I say this, because not everyone will enjoy an interviewer’s style. Luckily, that’s something I am aware of – especially when my work is predominantly on Twitch, where feedback is instantaneous with the live broadcast.

Interviewing is a role that leaves you vulnerable due to its unpredictable nature; will your interviewee take kindly to your questions? Will they be able to articulate their thoughts under the pressure of performance and environment? Do they even want to speak at all?

The CS:GO Major at IEM Katowice is my only my second time delivering CS:GO interviews (the first occasion was at StarSeries 6 in Ukraine in October of last year). Usually I try and pre-interview teams – even if I’m in a desk hosting role – and there are a multitude of reasons for this, including finding out the story a team wants to be told, their English language skills, and to also find out how best to interact with different players on camera. There are multiple players at the Major (particularly in the Challenger stage) who have never been interviewed before – therefore my responsibility is to guide them more carefully on camera into representing themselves as they would want to. And in terms of even the more experienced players, if we’ve not spoken on camera before, I need to establish a sense of trust.

My aim is to ask fair questions – and yes, if a team is having terrible T-sides, despite being seen as a top five team, then it is fair to ask them why. If I ask a player an open question (ie. a question without a binary yes/no answer), and they give me a one-word response, I will more than likely enquire further. And if I do ask a closed question, it’s usually to cut quickly to a point that I want to expand on, or (more often than likely) a sharp way to end an interview before throwing to the desk.

Screen Shot 2019-02-26 at 22.46.35Talking to players in the moment before the camera tally light blinks red is also essential; when Ninjas in Pyjamas’ Christopher “GeT_RiGhT” Alesund spoke to me after their first victory at the Challengers stage, he seemed subdued so I began the interview by asking about the reasoning behind his mixed emotions. Given that I’m often trying to capture the feelings of a player (the plays themselves can be broken down by the analyst desk, so my focus is usually exploring the emotive state of the teams and how this impacts how they played), being able to open an interview by asking them to share what’s on their mind is a way to then lead into what actually happened on the server; did a misbuy in what would otherwise have been an eco-round happen because the team had a disagreement or lost confidence? Is group resilience something the team need to work on before their next match?

The fantastic opportunity of the Major extends beyond the fact that it’s the freakin’ Major; three weeks of intensive CS:GO (eight Bo1 matches in a day can mean twice as many interviews where time allows for pre-match interrogations) offers the opportunity for development. I’m very fortunate that CARMAC – aka ESL’s king of the Intel Extreme Masters events – gave me invaluable feedback over the first couple of days about how to make my interviews more dynamic; when I watched baScreen Shot 2019-02-26 at 22.45.17ck footage I saw my energy was lower than normal when trying to speak slowly for non-native English speakers, and my questions sometimes had too much preamble. (Oh, and I was stood so far away from players that my left arm got a microphone-based workout!) Now I try to keep things to the point where I can, and actively listen for points that I can explore further – something I was fortunate to learn about in BBC interviewing training way back in my BBC Blast Arts Reporter days.

Something that’s new to me for this event is working more closely with the desk to generate talking points in my player interviews. We discuss topics that they want to  explore in their analysis during matches, and I can then hunt for that info when talking with my subject. I always listen to commentary too – casters will know the game inside out and will call out successes and problems I can then question teams about after the game concludes – or cross-reference with notes from previous games to detect patterns in teams’ play styles and recurring issues.

I’m also getting to grips with doing interviews between maps – stage manager Oli will do his best to grab a player or coach from one of the teams after the conclusion of a game so we can discuss what has happened so far in the series, and look ahead to the next map. These questions are almost entirely gameplay focused, which leaves the end interview to allow players to reflect more on the bigger picture (ie their “journey” in the tournament and their ambitions). It’s one of my development areas for the remainder of the event – especially as I need to learn to guide the thoughts of players who are overwhelmed by their achievements (imagine making the playoffs of a Major for the first time – you’d be speechless too!) – but it’s also exciting to be very much involved in telling teams’ stories as they unfold.

Next week, I’ll be diving into the crowd and getting fans to share their stories – it’s another challenge, and one I can’t wait to get stuck into.

I’ll be adding behind-the-scenes snaps to my Instagram stories, so be sure to follow for updates!