Pro Hearthstone player Xiaomeng “VKLiooon” Li made esports history last November by defeating seven top players at the 2019 Hearthstone Grandmasters Global Finals. Unleashing a barrage of Hunter attacks, she took home the $200,000 prize—and became the world’s first female Hearthstone global champion.
After receiving the trophy amid a flurry of confetti and cheering fans, Li covered her face and cried silently for a moment. Then, encouraged by the supportive crowd, she took the microphone.
“I want to say to all the girls out there who have a dream for esports, for competition, for glory: If you want to do it, and you believe in yourself, you should just forget your gender and go for it.”
Several months after her monumental win, Li hesitates to declare herself an esports icon. “I would not call myself a role model,” she says. “I’m just seriously invested in what I love.” She’s also acutely aware of how female players are perceived in the broader esports community. “Everyone should be equal in esports,” she says. “More people should start realizing that esports is not a men-only event.” Li began playing Hearthstone while studying law and political science in college. A year after graduating, she decided to dedicate herself full-time to the pro Hearthstone circuit.
Everyone should be equal in esports. More people should start realizing that esports is not a men-only event.
The community wasn’t particularly welcoming. During one of her first live tournaments, Li recalls, a player shouted at her, “Girls don’t come to the bench!” And things just got worse as she climbed the Hearthstone ranks. “Many people claimed that someone else—probably a guy—was playing,” she says.
Roughly half of all videogame players in the U.S. are female, according to the Entertainment Software Association, but professional female players make up less than a quarter of esports teams. “Despite the strengthening numbers of women playing games of all kinds, we see too few competing at the top tiers of esports,” says Morgan Romine, cofounder of AnyKey, an advocacy and research group dedicated to fostering inclusive esports communities. “Women are told that esports isn’t for them and that they can’t possibly win.”
But with champions like Li to look up to, more female players will be inspired to train, compete, and persevere through gender-based toxicity, says Emma Witkowski, codirector of the Playable Media Lab at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. “Li represents a growing pool of women who can call themselves champions in esports,” she says. “They show us anybody can win and open up the possibility of a lifelong career in games.” For her part, Li says she’s willing to use every platform available to her to try to make a difference. “Women cannot be ignored in this field.”