Smite, sexism and the soul of esports

Respected coach regularly faces abuse.

While she was coaching a professional Latin American Smite esports team, Lydia Picknell kept seeing one Spanish word that was forever popping up on spectator comment panels during live streams. She was always coming across the word 'puta' attached to her name. She had an idea what it meant, but she had to Google it to find out for sure.

Picknell doesn't speak Spanish. Her expertise is rather in the game Smite, in which teams of deities attempt to destroy one another's bases. When the Google translation for 'puta' came back, she wasn't that surprised. She's seen the English version plenty of times, as well as a hundred variants. It's a nasty misogynistic slur.

Her team, all men, saw the word too, every time they played. They hoped their coach wouldn't notice. They figured that confronting the mostly anonymous men who were abusing Picknell would probably escalate the hate. They wanted to focus on winning their game.

Picknell coaches Renegades from Hell, a professional team on the South American circuit. She also coaches Australian team Integral Nation. She's assistant manager to Paradigm, one of Europe's most successful teams. In the Smite community she is well known as a solid, though not spectacular player, and as a highly competent coach and manager.

One player said he didn't want her coaching advice, because she's a woman.

Every coaching position she's held has come with abuse. There's the European rival who thinks it's funny to goad her with extravagant compliments about her appearance. There's the South American player who promises to kiss her when they meet at a live event. There's the Israeli player who said he didn't want her advice because she's a woman. And there's the countless spectators who spew insults at her through social media and streaming feeds.

But there are also those who recognize her abilities, including her players, other top coaches, senior people at Smite publisher Hi-Rez Studios and commentators who recognize the stamp of her tactics and her influence on improving teams.

Esports is a hostile, competitive environment where emotions run high and insults are part of the landscape. But for women, the hostility is extreme. Hi-Rez estimates that around 20 percent of its players are women. The number of women competing at the top level is zero.

Smite isn't the only esports game that is blighted by misogyny, abuse and ignorance. It's not the only esports game to be grossly under-represented by top-level women players. Hi-Rez says it's stamping down on abuse and is seeking ways to increase the number of women who play Smite at every level.

Lydia Picknell

Smite and right

In Smite, players team up and take on the role of a god or goddess. The deities have various combat abilities and special moves. Smite is played in third-person and is set in a small arena, made up of pathways and bases. Each team seeks to destroy the other's base. Launched in 2014, it's a MOBA / shooting hybrid that demands fast reactions, tactical nouse and teamwork.

According to Hi-Rez, Smite has 12 million registered users and "several million" active players. It has grown by 40 percent in the last six months. Smite's World Championship Final will take place in January, with a PC prize pool of $1 million.

"A lot of coaching is knowing how to handle players."

Picknell has been playing the game since it was in beta back in 2012. She played at a reasonably high level, subbing for one of the top teams in the early days. But she soon found that coaching was her natural skill.

"I love figuring out strategies and working out how to beat somebody or helping teams with management," she says. "I'm more involved with that rather than being a player myself. My reaction time has gone downhill now that I’m 27. There are so few women in the game that a lot of people do recognize me when I play. People come to my streams where I give tips."

Seeking a coaching mentor, she connected with established coach Krett (aka James Horgan), who currently coaches Team Eager. "The biggest thing that made me realize that she could be good at this is that she really, really cared," he says. "A lot of coaching is knowing how to handle players and talking to your players to create the right culture for your team, which is very difficult."

Krett picked up a contract with Smite's Latin American distributor Level Up to supply coaches to top teams, in order to improve the league. He assigned Lydia to Renegades from Hell. Almost immediately, their performances and their results improved.


Renegades from Hell

"She was amazing," says team captain Paul Aigneren. "She spent a lot of time with us, working on areas where we needed to improve. We spoke with her every day and when there were problems, she talked to us individually."

She sends the team detailed minute-by-minute performance analysis in Google Docs as well as reports on the latest rival strategies from around the world, and notes on Hi-Rez's regular game updates and character additions.

"She went from being our coach to being our friend."

"After she came along we saw a lot of improvement in our performance," adds Aigneren. "We started winning games. She would go around to each player and make sure we were all available to train together. That's the most helpful thing. Everything that she could do to help us, she did. She went from being our coach to being our friend."

Aigneren says the team has become accustomed to insults related to having Lydia as a coach. They tend to intensify when the team does badly.

"There are times when messages come up in Spanish that say bad things and we just ignore them. We don't tell her what they are saying. What's the point? It doesn't help her to know that someone is calling her names. People on the Internet try to be harmful and to put others down.

"There's a lot of disrespect toward women."

"There's a lot of shit out there, a lot of disrespect toward women. Or they try to flirt aggressively. It's annoying. She gets harassed and there's a lot of bad stuff. When you are talking to kids or angry people ... we can't stop that. They just get angrier."

Harassment comes from players as well as spectators. One player from a successful South American team kept sending Picknell messages on social media, ranging from cheesy pick-up lines like "Do you have a band-aid, because I think I'm falling for you," to creepy proposals like, "I can be your daddy." He asked for a "payment" of a kiss. She blocked him. He left an aggressive comment on her blog. She complained to Level Up, which responded by saying that it had warned the entire team to leave her alone, and that she should let the company know if it happened again.

(Picknell has shown Polygon screenshots of the abuse and copies of correspondence with Level Up and Hi-Rez, but has asked that we do not identify the individuals concerned or the teams they play for. She believes it's important to expose abuse in general terms but that identifying harassers may be detrimental to her players and the performances of her own teams.)


Toxicity response

A few months ago, Hi-Rez president Stew Chisam started a Reddit thread asking for ideas that might bring more women players into the upper echelons of Smite's competitive pyramid. "I want my daughter to feel like she has the same opportunities in gaming as my son," he wrote. "What are the best ways to make pro gaming less of a sausage fest?"

"We know from looking at our fan base that there are plenty of very motivated, excited, and capable women that are really interested in games like Smite," he tells Polygon. "They can make a great mark in the esports scene."

"They run into a more hostile environment than they should."

And yet, few women attempt to scale the ladders required to break into the top leagues. "Some of them either don’t feel that they have the opportunity, because they don’t have other role models out there, or they attempt to do it and they run into a more hostile environment than they should in terms of trying to be successful," says Chisam.

One of Smite's best women players is Mogee, real name Brittany Gentle. She is currently contracted to Hi-Rez as a tournament in-game camera operator. For many years, Mogee hid her gender from other players.

"The only reason people knew I was a woman was when I got on [YouTube channel] Smite Pro and I had a webcam," she recalls. "Things changed after that. I got treated differently. People would either be super nice to me or super mean. There’s no middle ground.

"When people find out you’re a woman, they automatically judge you. 'It’s a girl; she’s probably not going to play as well as a guy.' I don’t think women get a fair chance to just play and let it be organic."

"They try to hurt women and cut them down."

Much of the harassment is coming from men who seek to curry favor, or hold outmoded concepts of gender roles. "Nobody ever tries to white-knight for a guy on Twitch," says Mogee. "Nobody tries to flirt with a guy on Twitch."

But there's also outright abuse. "I got over-flattering compliments, which I’m not into. When I didn’t react to it, they got super pissed that I wasn’t responding to them trying to flirt with me. They try to hurt women and cut them down. I don’t get it. I’ve been trying to understand it ever since I’ve been on Twitch and it just doesn’t make any sense to me."


Wins and losses

In a recent stream of a Smite contest from Pax Australia, the commentators noted that Integral Nation was using tactics that seemed straight out of the Paradigm playbook. A few weeks previously, Paradigm came second in the European Smite Pro League and booked its place in the Super Regional in Atlanta this month. The commentators mentioned the connection between Integral Nation using Paradigm's assistant manager Picknell as a coach, recognizing a system of play moving from one team to another.

Not every team uses a manager or a coach, but they are fast becoming important elements of a successful competitive organization. Coaches and managers tend to take a small share of prize money and sponsorship income. Their duties range from keeping tabs on competitors to booking hotels rooms to raising funds.

"It's disgusting that a person who is willing to help the scene is targeted."

Picknell's assistant managerial duties for Paradigm are less on the strategic side and more on the business and organizational end. With the team manager currently at the sharp end of earning a degree, she's taking on more responsibilities, including getting the team to Atlanta.

"Lydia is one of the most hard working people in Smite," says Chris Shaw, who plays Support for the Xbox team. "She puts everything into every team she has ever been on, even if she puts herself in stressful situations due to it.

"It's disgusting to me that a person who is willing to help and improve the Smite scene is targeted in such a way," he says. "We offered her the position based on how well she knows how to do her job. She brought us one of the best sponsor deals we would ever get [when they worked together at Justus]."

When she's working with other teams, she's getting into the nitty gritty of coaching. "I come up with draft picks, early game ideas, laning phases," she explains. "I'm figuring out when to rotate, where to ward, who to pick, what fits what style, what the other team’s going to pick, how they’re going to ward, where they’re going to fight, what to do in team fights. It’s a lot of work.

"With Renegades of Hell I’ve put in 40 hours a week just watching games. It’s insane. With Paradigm I don’t do as much work watching games as I do watching my players, doing all the public relations, working on their streams, their travel arrangements. I still put in about 40 hours with them. It can be exhausting."

"She’s very outspoken about what’s going on."

Job Hilbers is coach for Oceanic team Avant Garde , following a successful stint with Titan. He believes coaching is only going to become more important, as players seek to spend more time focused on playing at their best.

"To be a good coach you need to be able to rationally and logically look at the game," he says. "But you also have to be a people person. You have to be able to know how people feel and how to smooth them out when it gets tough."

He met Picknell through mutual friends in the Smite competitive circuit. "When I first got to know her, she started talking to me about coaching. She's a nice person to spitball with every once in awhile, because she looks at coaching and at the game the same way I do. We're interested in the team aspect, the personal aspect as well as the details of the game.

"People think they can walk all over Lydia but she stands up for herself. She’s very outspoken about what’s going on. I think that aggravates a lot of people. They don’t want some things to be public, and she does bring it into the public, which I think is not a bad thing to do."


Sarcastic abuse

There are times when, Picknell believes, more direct action is necessary. She says that people associated with a top European team were recently trolling her on streams. Hi-Rez has an anti-harassment system in place in which players can be fined or banned, but the system offers limited cover outside events that take place within official Smite tournaments.

"[Pro players] get a fine if they say something against another team online," says Picknell. "I wrote to Hi-Rez to say, 'hey, these guys have been doing this, just keep an eye on it.' Hi-Rez contacted the players to remind them of the rules.

"We should all be judged by our results and what we do."

After that, some members of the team changed tactics by bombarding Picknell with a series of compliments about her looks. "They figured out, 'hey, let's bug her by acting sarcastically super nice and saying, you look really good today or you have really nice hair," says Picknell.

She went back to Hi-Rez which this time contacted the team's management. The sarcasm stopped.

"To try to bug somebody like that, I don't understand it," she says. "I don’t want other girls to be put through that as well. We should all be judged by our results and what we do. I don’t think that anyone should be judged based on their sex, gender, or anything they can’t control. At the end of the day we’re all people. We’re all in this to be competitive, to be the best we can be."

At Hi-Rez, Chisam says the company is trying to get smarter about harassment. One of its failings during the situation with Picknell was that she was not informed that her concerns had been passed on to the offending team.

"Upon close inspection, I also think there were some additional steps the team could have taken as well to show a more zero-tolerance position," he says. "I'm working with our esports team to review procedures and rules in this area to make sure there is a more consistent and fair response to any such reports."

"We have definitely reached the time when it is appropriate for us to impose higher standards."

Many companies, including Riot and Valve, are trying to figure out ways to penalize players and spectators who enjoy hurling abuse at women, minorities, foreigners, new players and just about anyone who is different from them. Hi-Rez recently increased fines for "bad behavior" and has doubled the size of its community department.

"As esports matures, I do think Hi-Rez needs to take a more active role in ensuring our [senior] players provide a more exemplary role model," says Chisam. "Because our players are not under contract with Hi-Rez and are not under salary our scene has grown somewhat organically. Now that we are reaching a much larger size with an established pro league with very significant prizing, I think we have definitely reached the time when it is appropriate for us to more strictly impose higher standards on the Smite professional players under a more formal arrangement. We're still not perfect, but continual improvement is a priority for us."

Smite Goddesses

Video games themselves sometimes create a toxic environment for women and girls, with portrayals and art styles that are almost pornographic. Smite's roster of characters is not immune from this, with many wearing skimpy outfits and rendered in a sexually suggestive style.

"Some of the god models could be changed a little bit," says Avant Garde coach Hilbers. "Some people find it offensive that the women gods are almost all beautiful in one way or another. That's been the feedback from the community for quite some time. Hi-Rez has listened and they’ve more broadly diversified the way they display goddesses. But I think there’s still more room for improvement, or room for broadening the view of women."

Hi-Rez president Chisam argues that some of the designs are historically appropriate to the characters (such as Aphrodite), while plenty of female characters are not sexualized. But it's an area the company says it's working on.

"I feel pretty comfortable with the breadth of different goddesses that we have in the game. They’re covering a wide spectrum. But I’ve asked our team to be more mindful of this as we release new goddesses," he says. "Sometimes there are subtle touches that are more over-sexualized than they should be. We’ve been working with the team to remove that.

"Following the release of our last goddess Sol, we had an internal meeting regarding this topic and decided that there were some elements of her implementation that were distracting from what was, at its core, a very strong character design. We made some changes to correct for this."

Picknell says she's comfortable with the characters the way they are: "I have no problem with how Smite designs gods and goddesses in the game as they're actually pretty tame when compared to ancient statues. I don't really get riled up about the way developers portray figures in games unless it's really offensive. The bigger issue is that some of gamers are still young and haven't yet developed the social skills to understand that a woman can be just as good at games as a man."

New Coaching Direction

There's a growing belief in esports that coaches, both men and women, can lead the charge in showing players and spectators to be more respectful.

"There are a number of people who are really good at video games and are not as socially adept as the majority of people in the United States of America," says Krett. "That’s just a portion of the community. It just comes down to, as a coach, helping people learn how to talk to each other, how to talk to their Twitter followers or talk on stream. It’s a skill I think that a lot of coaches need share with high level teams."

"The problem with a lot of professional gamers is that they’re young and they don’t know how to talk to girls generally," says Picknell. "You don’t say these things. You can’t treat people like that."

She wants to get back to working with her teams, and hopes the abuse ceases to be a distraction.

"I just want people to realize you can’t treat girls like that, you know? The teams I’m with now treat me fairly and equally. I’m just a member of the team and that's how it should be." Babykayak