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Celebrating Women in Esports Part 1: A View from the Top

Mar 8, 2021

This is Part One of an annual series on women in the esports industry. March 8 is International Women’s Day and to celebrate, The Esports Observer highlights some of the talented women working and serving in prominent leadership roles within the esports industry. Esports offers a career path for a wide variety of interests and as we have found, many women are rising to the top. For our 2021 Women’s Day edition, we are highlighting both high-level executives and those who are still climbing that ladder. This year’s diverse group of movers and shakers come from the worlds of tournament organizers, teams, advocacy groups, and more—each with a unique perspective on the industry. In this edition, we asked top leaders in the esports industry to share their origin stories, responsibilities, lessons learned, and what they are most excited about in 2021. Here are their stories, presented in no particular order: Jasmin Haasbach, Director of Global Brand Partnerships at ESL, became an expert in digital and youth culture during her time at MySpace and Viacom International Media Networks. While building a joint venture with Axel Springer, Haasbach found herself attracted to ESL’s “entrepreneurial spirit and vision of shaping the future of esports.” Together with her team in Cologne, Haasbach often serves as the first point of contact for possible clients and agencies that have recognized the potential of esports and  gaming. “My focus lies within the area of Business Development, specifically on New Businesses such as creating and expanding ESL’s portfolio,” adds Haasbach, noting that she maintains long-term relationships with DHL, SAP, and McDonald’s. Despite the hardships of 2020, operating in unusual situations served as a major lesson in flexibility. “When the world had to face the global COVID-19 pandemic we needed to adapt quickly,” Haasbach says. “Not only did the product have to change and adapt to an online environment, but also the commercial team had to customize and adapt to clients’ needs.” Looking forward, Haasbach is excited to launch new partnerships in 2021, bring existing partnerships to the “next level,” and build on “zero-to-hero” initiatives like the ESL Mobile Open. For Joanie Kraut, CEO of Women in Games International (WIGI), working at SteelSeries allowed her to witness the company’s approach to collaboration with professional esports teams. While earning her MBA, Kraut worked with a European esports apparel company to research its expansion into the Asian market. “In doing so, I examined esports from a business perspective, analyzing economic drivers, market trends, and projected future growth on a global scale,” says Kraut, who adds that she is pushing to find “meaningful ways to support the broader gaming industry, including outreach to the esports community.” As CEO of WIGI, Kraut leads strategic planning and restructuring efforts, which includes the esports and tabletop gaming markets. It’s no surprise, as leader of an organization that supports women in the gaming industry, that Kraut says that representation is the biggest lesson she’s learned so far. “I know for me, seeing was believing,” she recalled. “Witnessing someone like me dominating the Board room changed my career trajectory instantly. Promoting workplace diversity and inclusion globally increases that representation. WIGI champions initiatives that support women in opening doors for themselves, empowering women to realize their full, incredible potential.” As 2021 rages on, Kraut is excited to find new ways to empower women by helping them empower themselves. This includes disputing the “norm” for the global gaming industry, providing resources, mentorship, access to conferences, and more. Alinn Louv, Head of Community for PlayVS, had always been a casual gamer but didn’t feel that a game publisher was the right workplace fit. While working for influencer-driven subscription box service Quarterly, Louv heard the pitch for PlayVS from founder and CEO Delane Parnell and knew she had to get involved. Today, Louv leads the creative and community teams in design, content creation, social channels, and the execution of various programs. She has launched a number of programs including PlayVS Academy, Super Coach, and Game Changers, which promotes more girls in gaming. “My day-to-day can range from tweaking positioning and messaging for new product launches to reviewing wireframes for our website to brainstorming new topics for our community events,” Louv explains. “I work cross-functionally with various teams to ensure that we’re keeping our community and player experience top of mind at all times.” Interacting with users, she says, is the biggest lesson she’s learned so far. Start-ups tend to move quickly and pivot as needed, but schools are not as flexible. Coaches and teachers, Louv, notes, are different than everyday consumers. Louv is looking forward to the return of in-person events. “The energy in the air at a competition is different; it’s amazing to be able to showcase these players and esports on an elevated stage,” she explains. “It also helps change the perception that some parents and administrators have about esports, as they get to see these amazing students in action firsthand.” Paige Funk, Vice President of Marketing at Nerd Street Gamers began her career in traditional sports, working in sales and marketing for the Philadelphia 76ers and a subsidiary of MLB Advanced Media. While exploring esports for her next move, a colleague turned her on to Nerd Street Gamers and Funk was “instantly drawn” to their business model. Today, Funk is responsible for overseeing all marketing efforts across Nerd Street Gamers and Localhost, including digital, grassroots efforts, partnerships, communications, events, acquisitions, and more. “One of the biggest — yet quickest — lessons I’ve learned since I entered the gaming industry is that there are many different communities within the space,” says Funk. “Each community, from fighting games to VALORANT and Rocket League, is unique and lives as well as trusts different platforms for communication. As a marketer, it is our job to identify those platforms and communicate effectively and genuinely with each group.” As esports continues to grow from the ground up, Funk is excited to watch it happen and be directly involved. “It’s so fulfilling to see new opportunities exist in the space, whether it’s providing young gamers with structured coaching and their first tournament or offering amateur teams a platform to get exposed to professional orgs, which leads them to get signed. To be in the midst of it all is rewarding, encouraging, and inspiring,” adds Funk. Samantha Yu is the Chief Marketing Officer of Astralis Group. This was her first foray into esports, but definitely not the world of marketing. She worked nearly a decade reaching young women as the VO of Brand and Integrated Marketing for VICE Media Group’s Refinery29. “For quite some time I was hearing rumblings about the esports and gaming industries … stories of passionate fans, exciting brand partnerships, creative campaigns, and immense growth,” recalls Yu. After meeting with Astralis co-founders Nikolaj Nyholm and Jakob Lund Kristensen, she says she left the conversation excited by the “possibility of playing a role in such a dynamic industry.” As the organization’s CMO, Yu drives Astralis’ strategies for growth and international expansion. She leads both Digital and Creative teams, who engage the brand’s global fanbase, activate partnerships, develops products, and other duties that create valuable experiences. Like Funk, one of Yu’s biggest lessons was realizing that not all gamers are esports fans are alike. Astralis, for example, field teams in Counter-Strike: Counter Offensive (CS:GO), FIFA, and League of Legends. “Before joining the industry, I would often hear (and use myself) the phrases ‘esports fans’ and ‘gamers’ as target audience groups,” Yu explains. “Each team, fanbase, and story is distinct with unique personalities, languages, and subcultures.” In-person events have Yu most excited for the coming year. Astralis recently announced the opening of its first flagship store in Copenhagen. Yu also hopes to meet with fans at future LAN events once it becomes safe to do so. Rachel Feinberg is the CEO and co-founder of esports apparel brand, Ateyo. She and co-founder Breanne Harrison-Pollock were living in NYC when they discovered the local gaming scene in Flushing, Queens. After spending every weekend riding the 7 train to gaming cafes around the area, the friends decided to move to Los Angeles to be closer to LCS and Overwatch League. “Being a small business, we both wear many hats,” Rachel explains. “Breanne and I work together on the high-level plan for our products and I am personally responsible for community, campaigns, and collaborations.” The biggest lesson she’s learned so far, Rachel says, is to be nice to people and provide value. “That goes for everyone from strangers at events to brands we are working with,” she notes. For 2021, Rachel is excited to unveil new products at Ateyo and yet-to-be-announced collaborations. She says is grateful to everyone who has supported them thus far and is excited to see the business continue to grow. Anna Baumann, the EVP of Esports at ReKTGlobal recalls her early passion for games, starting with an undead warlock named Katla in World of Warcraft in 2002. Once introduced by her brother, Baumann fell in love with League of Legends in 2014 and published articles throughout university about esports governance. These publications gained the attention of leading teams and players seeking legal representation and her practice was born soon after. In 2018, Baumann lead ReKTGlobal’s efforts in the LEC as Managing Director and General Counsel and as of 2020, became the EVP of Esports. Baumann oversees all of ReKTGlobal’s properties including Rogue and the London Royal Ravens. That includes driving growth and developing initiatives based on scientific insight, maintaining a “unique talent factory approach” to the LEC. In her role, Baumann has learned that the team comes first. “As the leader, you cannot know everything so that you need to have the right staff who supports you in your vision and can supply you with all specialist advice necessary to make the esports department successful,” Baumann explains. “At the same time, every valuable contribution should be acknowledged, and success shared and celebrated together.” Digital esports in the face of COVID-19 gives Baumann hope for the future. She can’t wait for Rogue to pursue the European crown and “take on any team at Worlds,” as online competition continues to bring fans together across the world. Naz Aletaha, Head of Global Esports Partnerships and Business Development at Riot Games, had already been working in the gaming industry for several years and at Riot for about two when she discovered esports. “The 2013 LoL World Finals at Staples Center … was my ‘aha’ moment—seeing professional League of Legends played in front of a packed house in the same arena where I had seen some of the best in sports play,” says Aletaha. “I knew I had to be a part of it.” Within a few weeks, Aletaha transferred to the “then small and scrappy Riot Esports team” to build its business development and has been there ever since. Aletaha is responsible for driving business around Riot’s global esports business, which includes revenue streams and integrating sponsors in a way that helps them achieve their marketing goals. Looking back, Aletaha has learned that esports doesn’t have to perfectly fit the mold of a traditional sport. “Embracing what makes esports unique unlocks the potential to redefine what modern sports can look like and can enable us to hyper-serve our fans and partners in new and bold ways,” she says. Riot is entering its second decade of League of Legend esports, and Aletaha is excited to continue pushing boundaries. This includes the inaugural season of Riot’s second major global sport, VALORANT. “We have the most incredible fan base in the world, and, like in every season before it, in 2021 I’m looking forward to delivering esports experiences that are worthy of their passion and dedication,” she adds. Michelle Cheng, VP of Sales and Marketing for Beyond the Summit, was always a gamer but didn’t know that it was a career option until her PC industry experience led to work with an esports marketing agency. After cultivating and evangelizing key endemic brands in Asia and the US, Cheng was thrilled to work with her favorite esports broadcast studio, Beyond the Summit. Cheng says that her responsibilities have been consistent — bring the esports and corporate worlds together. Most recently, she has been focusing on expanding BTS’s foreign language partnerships. “I have been very fortunate to have witnessed the growth and transformation of the gaming ecosystem the past decade,” says Cheng. “I’ve learned that as forerunners and industry-shapers in this new, complex, and consistently evolving industry, it is of the utmost importance for us with influential power to upkeep the integrity of business conducts, tournaments, and do what we can to ensure a healthy and inclusive environment for everyone as much as possible.” As a woman leader in a predominantly male industry, Cheng says that she’s learned to be “comfortable with being uncomfortable” in that she doesn’t need to be so mindful of being the only woman in a meeting. “While there’s still so much room to improve, esports is a relatively more welcoming environment than gender statistics suggest,” adds Cheng. “In order to make it a better place,  It is vital for us women leaders to step up and speak out, enabling more young women to take the bold step of building their professional careers in the esports industry!” In the meantime, Cheng is most excited about expanding and building new sets at the BTS studio and can’t wait to unveil them to the world once it is safe to do so.

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