Ciji is a Robot Jockey with Something to Prove

A day in the life of a working-class game hero.

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Once upon a time, Ciji Thornton was a rock star. Kind of. During the height of the Guitar Hero boom, Thornton made a name for herself as one of the hardest rockers of the plastic guitar. "I was up on stage with thousands of people watching me," Thornton muses about her performance at the 2009 Gamescom Instant Jam in Germany. "How many people spend thousands of hours, days, years learning to play real guitar? And I come out with my plastic guitar and play on stage in front of thousands of people in another country." Though Thornton has been competing in one form or another since 1998, she didn't go pro until 2006 at the Midnight Gaming Championship in Texas. Her first sponsor was a gaming apparel company, she recalls, who offered to customize her personal Guitar Hero instrument in exchange for her wearing their clothing. But the rock star treatment didn't last. As Guitar Hero and Rock Band products began to saturate the market, every other game with a new plastic peripheral, the public's interest began to fade — and with it, the money.

Human Angle: Ciji Thornton

The boxer

Thornton still owns every Guitar Hero and Rock Band game, and all of the knockoffs and imitations. Even the bad ones.

These days, Thornton — better known by her gamer tag, Starslay3r — plays Guitar Hero just for fun, but she still plays games competitively. She's trying to learn how to play League of Legends, arguably the biggest eSport in the world. It's an uphill battle; her background is in twitch-based console games, not games played with a mouse and keyboard. But League is where the sponsors are, League is where the money leads and League is where the competition is.

Thornton and her partner Zubair between rounds on Robot Combat League.

"Not competing sucks," says Thornton, looking out the window of her apartment; she can't quite see the Pacific Ocean from here. "It makes me feel empty."

She finds competition not only in the tournament scene, but on reality shows. She's starred on The Tester and WCG: Ultimate Gamer, and this week is meeting up for a party to watch the first episode of her latest reality appearance: Syfy's Robot Combat League. RCL pits teams of two players against each other in a brawl between their respective eight-foot-tall robots. One player moves the robot with a flight stick, while the other straps in to an exoskeleton and boxes, the robot following suit. The pro gamer is her team's primary pilot — the fistfighter.

She's also a lot of other things. Even over this single weekend, Thornton has a schedule bursting at the seams. She's meeting with Archon, the clothing company for which she does social media. She has an interview with Maxim about her participation in Robot Combat League. She's working with a mechanic to install new headlights on her souped-up 1995 Honda Civic, and going to a car show later in the day to show her baby off.

Thornton wears many different hats, in part because she always has something to prove.

In the clearing

Thornton changed her look to prove someone wrong.

In the Guitar Hero days, her hair was bright red or pink, and she wore skirts, fishnet stockings and boots — Activision even tapped her as a lookalike for the game's punk-rock guitarist Judy Nails in a competition where players tried to beat her.

"Someone said, 'the only reason anyone cares about you is the way you look,'" Thornton says. "I wanted to prove them wrong, to find out that it wasn't true — because I'd have been really upset if that was all anyone cared about."

Thornton prepares for her Maxim interview.

Now, the only color she dyes her hair is brown, and she dresses in jeans and T-shirts — but there are things about her appearance that she can't change. She can't get rid of the three studs piercing her cheek right below her right eye, and she can only cover up the arms full of tattoos.

Those tattoos were what initially helped her connect with her Robot Combat League partner. "I had a feeling she was going to be my partner," says Fazlul Zubair, who prefers to be called "Fuzz." He looked her up and found out she was a pro gamer, and they spoke over Facebook messages before meeting on the set in person. The first thing he noticed was the tattoos on her arms, he says — and then he noticed that one of them was of Mario fighting Bowser.

The two make an odd team. Zubair looks more like the typical nerd than Thornton does — an appellation he embraces — with a double chin and thinning hair at the crown of his head. She comes from Michigan; he was born in Sri Lanka. He's a systems engineer at a defense contractor, and when asked what he actually does, says, "That's classified," with an awkward smile. Robot Combat League just dubs him a rocket scientist.

Oddities aside, they were able to connect over their mutual love for gaming. Thornton was a pro gamer, after all, and Zubair skipped watching the Super Bowl in favor of catching up on StarCraft II streams. He says their common parlance was a boon in battle, with the word "Tiger" becoming code for a pre-programmed three-punch combination attack. It was named, of course, after the signature move of Sagat in Street Fighter. Today, he's wearing a faded World of Warcraft T-shirt and has invited friends, family and his teammate to come watch his robot fighting debut.

One thing that stuck with Zubair about Thornton was what he saw as her perfectionist nature. "She'll spend hours training and perfecting something," he says. "I saw that during the games — if she didn't do something perfectly, she'd be super hypercritical of herself and want to do it again and again, until she got it right."

"She practices well past the point at which it's fun. I hear her say, 'I don't want to do this, but I have to.' That's her job."

It's that determination and drive, he says, that makes her an effective pro gamer — but sometimes she found herself going up against diminishing returns. "I was able to say, 'I think we've got this, let's not over-practice, let's move onto something else' ... I think we found a good balance."

A pro gamer needs to practice; without practice she falls behind. But that balance is a tricky thing to find, says Ciji's boyfriend Jeffrey Liu. Tall and lanky, Liu is involved on the other side of gaming. He works as a designer for Stone Blade Entertainment, whose digital collectible card game SolForge was funded on Kickstarter last fall. "She loses the fun," Liu says slowly. "If she's practicing a game or a Guitar Hero song, she practices well past the point at which it's fun. I hear her say, 'I don't want to do this, but I have to.'" He shrugs. "That's her job. She plays games for her living; she needs to keep up. I don't."

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A fighter by her trade

Liu and Thornton met on an online dating site. "She seemed fun, she was cute and she liked video games," Liu says. Sending her a message "was a no-brainer." What made his message stand out was the tone. "I made fun of her. Plenty of gamers would have loved to date her, and she was using a dating site? I berated her ability to find a boyfriend."

He laughs. "She loved it."

Thornton and Liu at work, playing League of Legends, in the apartment they share.

The two have been living together in southern California for several months now. He invited her to move in to save time; a half-hour drive both ways four or five times a week adds up. It's a small multi-story apartment with a glimpse of the nearby Pacific Ocean from the rooftop, but the neighboring buildings block the view from inside. Their bedroom serves double-duty as their gaming den; two powerful PCs sit side by side, hooked up to to a pair of HDTV monitors. This is where Liu coaches her through matches of League of Legends.

There's an old Xbox 360 squeezed into the desk's innards, for use when the old Guitar Hero bug hits. The room is papered with game posters, many signed. A FigurePrint of Liu's old WoW character, a Draenei shaman, sits on a bookcase next to Lightning from Final Fantasy XIII. Above them hangs a framed photo of Jonathan "Fatal1ty" Wendel, the first successful pro gamer and the inspiration for Thornton to swap a letter for a number in her handle. There's a crystal trophy tucked away in the back corner. "I said I wanted to get into Street Fighter and place in the top eight in a tournament within a year," Thornton recalls, picking the trophy up with both hands.

Since she was coming into the fighting game scene from Guitar Hero, people laughed at her. She won the trophy she's holding a little over a year later.

The bedroom is cluttered with paraphernalia, but it's impeccably neat — a little boon of her perfectionist nature. "She likes things being clean, and she cleans a lot," says Liu. "She's always dusting, always wiping things off." But unlike Guitar Hero, you can never be perfectly clean. "[The music genre is] very structured to saying, you've gotten it all right — you beat this 100 percent," he says. Thornton spends "a lot of time on things that aren't really quantifiably done or not done; she just continually works on it."

"I felt proud to represent female gamers ... we're not here to be cheerleaders. We're here because we can kick ass, too."

Thornton agrees. "Some people are impressed if I can do eight out of 10 moves in a combo, but not me ... I'm not happy unless I can do all 10 out of 10, 10 times in a row." Though she does see it as the reason she's been able to progress as far as she has in professional gaming, she actually views it more as a personal flaw than anything else. "It makes it tough."

Though she's been a pro since 2006 and competing on some level or another since 1998, Thornton says she's been around stereotypically "guy" things, like games and souped-up cars, for most of her life. She recalls a friend who had a "sleeper" Trans-Am — a car whose outward appearance belied its customized power. "People would always try to race at stoplights," she says with a smile. "He'd kill them."

In many ways, Thornton is like that sleeper Trans-Am. When she went to the WCG Pan-Am in Mexico, people initially assumed she was Team USA's cheerleader. "I felt proud to represent female gamers for that day," she says, "and show them — we're not here to be cheerleaders. We're here because we can kick ass, too."

Carries the reminders

Thornton has something to prove to the men who doubt her for being a woman. "I don't like being the best 'female,'" she says. "In certain groups and communities, it feels like you have to prove yourself to them to be accepted, and it kind of sucks."

Pakozdi on the reality show Cross Assault.

Being a female pro gamer brings with it a host of other troubles, but Thornton says she's been lucky to avoid anything too bad. The worst she's had, she says, are some internet stalkers sending her pictures of their crotches. One fan even wanted to get her face tattooed on his back (Thornton had to talk him out of it). But she hasn't experienced the sort of harassment that erupted into controversy with last year's fighting-game-themed reality show Cross Assault, in which players would learn the then-new Street Fighter X Tekken.

Thornton had tried out for the reality show with the hopes of learning the fighter before anyone else, to give her an edge over the competition, but hadn't been selected. "All I saw was, the camera on [competitor Miranda Pakozdi]'s boobs, the camera on her butt, the camera on her thighs — they were talking about her boobs, butt, asking inappropriate questions."

So Thornton took to Twitter, expressing disappointment at seeing sexual harassment when she was tuning in to watch players learn a new game. Immediately, people began accusing her of sour grapes because she hadn't been selected, and because she wanted the attention for herself. Even Pakozdi and her harasser called Thornton out on the livestream, saying it was no big deal. Days later, Pakozdi left the show citing complaints of sexual harassment.

"As a player, she shouldn't be disrespected like that," says Thornton. "And if she was a guy on that team, they wouldn't be doing that to him."

"They say reality TV is unscripted, but the only thing that's really unscripted is how we react."

Thornton's appearances on reality shows create another hurdle to overcome: Many people only know her from things like Ultimate Gamer or The Tester, and they assume things, she says. Part of it comes with the accusations of being an attention whore, which Thornton steadfastly denies — if she had the chance to fight giant robots with $100,000 on the line in a basement where nobody would ever see, she'd take it in a heartbeat, she says. The competition (and the money) are far more important than the fame. "I don't want fame. I want to push myself as far as I can and be the best that I can be," says Thornton.

But more than that is how the shows make her appear. One of the reasons she had tried to get on Cross Assault was the idea that a 24/7 live stream would give people the chance to see her working hard and practicing without the risk of comments being cut up and used to inject drama. "They say reality TV is unscripted, but the only thing that's really unscripted is how we react."

Inside Look: Robot Combat League

Till she cried out

The only thing viewers ever see on a typical reality show is what goes on in front of the cameras. It can be profoundly isolating, says Thornton, to be without social media or even a phone, and that's before one considers the cramped space. On Ultimate Gamer, she recalls, there were only really two spaces — one for gaming and one for sleeping — so it was impossible to deal with stress by seeking solitude or talking to a friend in the outside world. "If you despise someone because they said something that offended you or they won't leave you alone, and you try to walk away from them, the producers will probably send them after you, and you'll break eventually." The only other option you have is to leave and forfeit; surrender. Thornton came close to packing her bags on Ultimate Gamer.

To try and win, she becomes a caricature of herself. On Robot Combat League, she wore a skirt on set one day, and was told that she should wear a skirt every day after — the producers had found an image for her that they liked. "Me on Robot Combat League is my character, not me. Me on Ultimate Gamer is my character, not me." But since reality TV has a reputation as being genuine, people don't see it that way — they just see the drama. "Nobody's going to look at the guy from Breaking Bad and go, 'It's that guy who makes meth in the back of a Winnebago!' or whatever, they're going to say, 'I love your character on the show; you're such a great actor!'" Thornton frowns. "I don't get told, 'You were a great actress on Ultimate Gamer,' I hear, 'Oh, it's that bitch from Ultimate Gamer.' It sucks."

Thornton, during an emotional confession, clutches a photo cube filled with pictures of her daughter during the Ultimate Gamer reality show.

There are people who she's won over. They see her on the show, Thornton says, and think, "'Oh, she seems really bitchy,' but then they look me up." And maybe they chat, maybe they play some games together and "they get to see the real me." Thornton feels fortunate, even grateful that she's been able to prove herself to some of them.

The ones she's won over and her other fans keep her going when things get stressful. "Sometimes it feels like my fans know when I'm down. I'll get an email saying, 'Oh my gosh, you're my hero and inspiration; because of you I entered my first competition and placed 3rd! I didn't win, but I know if you kept going, I can too!'" She tries to give them advice and encouragement. "Out of the thousands of people who follow me, if I could change the life of only one of them and help them accomplish a goal? That's great. My job is done."

But those highs sometimes only counterbalance the lows. Her most infamous moment came from being edited, she says. On Ultimate Gamer, she began to cry on camera when talking about how hard it was to be kept from her daughter. People use it as evidence that she's overly emotional or a drama queen, but the clip had been filmed right when she knew she was going to be eliminated. "It sucks to see that chopped up and used out of context, and I would appreciate it if [people] didn't make that into a joke."

She tears up when speaking now, too. Her direct family isn't supportive of her at all, she says. She takes a break from speaking for a moment to compose herself, and Liu hands her some tissues to dab at her eyes. Growing up, she says, she always faced criticism from her mother about her looks and other things. "It's wanting to prove her wrong," says Thornton softly. "To show her I can be someone, you know? So I — I'm not necessarily trying to become rich and famous and stuff like that. I don't want that. I just wanted to show her that I made the right choice in doing what I did."

That sort of support is one of the things she sorely misses. She's gone to Guitar Hero tournaments and seen another top player — a younger one — with his parents in tow. "I had a conversation with them one day," she says, "I sat down and said how great it was to see them at every competition of his. They have signs and everything, they're taking pictures and videos and they're so happy to be there. I asked what made them so supportive."

They told her that they had another son who was in band, and that they supported him the same way. "'If he wants to be a real musician, and his brother wants to be a plastic musician, so be it. We're going to be here and support him no matter what.' And I'm like, fuck that's so nice to have." She looks down for a moment, smiling wistfully. "I wish my parents were like that."

"I want to prove her wrong."

If Thornton's daughter or any future kids wanted to be professional gamers, she says, she'd support them in a heartbeat. "If my daughter said one day, 'Teach me all about Guitar Hero!' I'd tell her to not expect to go pro in an old-school game like this, but — " there's a long pause, and she looks happy at the idea. "Definitely. Definitely, I'll teach you everything I know about Guitar Hero."

Kids seem to strike something in her heart. She wants to do more charity fundraising events with her clothing company, Archon; she likes the Child's Play model of helping sick kids take their minds off their condition with video games. She looks at the customized plastic guitar hanging neatly in a protective stand; it says "Starslay3r" along the neck. "If I could auction off this guitar and all that money would go to [Starlight Children's Foundation] to fund one of those gaming units, so be it. I don't need it."

Still remains

Maybe 20 people meet at Zubair's house to watch the first episode of Robot Combat League. Friends and family alike, some of them bring toddlers and infants, just now learning how one can get into trouble just with crawling. Thornton smiles at the kids. Another robot combatant shows up to the party. Called "Dr. Robot" on the show, his robot Steel Cyclone would fight — and lose — in this first episode.

Thornton and Zubair let the crowd in on some behind-the-scenes information. "They changed our robot after they met us," explains Thornton. With a pro gamer and a defense contractor rocket scientist on the team, the producers redesigned Drone Strike to be more fitting. "[Robot designer Mark Setrakian] said he wanted to make it more FPS-y, with camouflage."

Thornton is trying to grow an identity beyond the brand she's created in her Starslay3r persona.

The screen shows bullet points for each robot with strengths and weaknesses alike. "Apparently we had a strong center of gravity," says Zubair. Thornton laughs. "I learned something new about our robot!"

More than anything, Thornton has something to prove to herself.

She recalls that at some point after the "beat Judy Nails" competition, people simply started to refer to her as the character. "It was all 'Judy, Judy, Judy,' so I threw out my cosplay outfit and said, 'No! It's Starslay3r.'" She chose the handle, she says, because her favorite Transformers character was Starscream. After a while, she says, "It was all 'Starslay3r, Starslay3r, Starslay3r.' But ... my name is Ciji. Can't we use that?" Starslay3r is her brand and she doesn't want it to go away, but she wants to be known by her name now.

Thornton used to imagine herself owning her own business at 30, but she'll be 30 at the end of the year. She wants to still be involved with gaming, but she knows she doesn't want to be a pro gamer forever. She could run a peripherals company, or manage other up-and-coming pro gamers. She does social media for a fitness company six hours a day for a more stable income than gaming gives her, and she promotes Archon clothing — she's been offered an ownership stake in it. She helps a local car mechanic with social media as well, in exchange for discounts on parts and free labor in souping up her old Civic.

"I have to bust my ass," she says, and no one thing she does is enough to pay her bills — she doesn't make nearly as much as people thinks she does. Until then, she spreads herself out with a grand opening here, social media work there, creating a website over there. "I do all of these things in the hopes that one day, one of them will take off and that will be the path that I follow."

Her fingers hurt after a long session of Guitar Hero now; they never used to do that. She knows she's only going to get slower with age. "I'll never be too old to play games," she says. "I'd love to be a coach, or a player manager and encourage more people to be pro gamers. I want to make sure they're managed properly, not taken advantage of.

"Just because I'm not going to be a part of it someday doesn't mean I don't want my kids to be a part of it, or my friends' kids to be part of it. I want to see it continue." Babykayak

Image Credits: Ciji Thornton, John Funk, SyFy, WorldCyberGames, Capcom, IGN
Layout/Design: Warren Schultheis
Video: Pat McGowan, Tom Connors, Jimmy Shelton
Editing: Russ Pitts, Charlie Hall
Music: Robot Science