All eyes are on Chiquita Evans, but she isn’t blinking. Evans, who plays in the NBA’s professional video game league, is calm as she flashes her gigawatt smile to the crowd alongside her teammates for her historic debut. Tonight, she’s starting as a center for her team, the Warriors Gaming Squad, against Portland’s Blazer 5 Gaming. She moves her thumbs manically over her controller’s dual joysticks, the esports equivalent of a warm-up.
Evans is a rookie, but already a celebrity in the esports world. She made video game history in March when, grinning with her arm up in a Rosie the Riveter pose, she became the first woman to join the professional gaming NBA 2K League. The league, now in its second year, has 21 gaming squads that are associated with their corresponding NBA teams. Evans’s fourth-round pick by the Golden State Warriors earned the biggest cheer of the night.
Evans was one of just two women competing in a pool of 200 players for a spot, and the only one drafted. Her barrier-breaking draft generated a lot of attention for the league. Now she gets to show the world why she belongs here, on the virtual basketball court.
Tonight, in her debut, Evans hits her stride early and helps her four teammates on the court by winning the tip-off. Minutes in, one of her teammates finds her open in the corner, setting her up for an early three-pointer. A couple of plays later, she hits another.
“333ita!!” one fan exclaims on Twitch, a service that allows viewers to interact on a live chat alongside a live-stream of video game footage. (Twitch is owned by Amazon.com. Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos is the owner of The Washington Post.)
“She never expected to receive as much attention as she has,” Warriors Gaming Squad team manager Rustin Lee explains ahead of Evans’s first match. “But her approach the entire time has been to remain true to herself and to be a positive example with the platform she’s been given.”
Evans is part of a small but growing group of professional female gamers. Brianna Novin, who was not drafted, was the sole other woman in the inaugural NBA 2K League draft. And while other women have become well-known playing professionally in games such as StarCraft II — Sasha “Scarlett” Hostyn, Stephanie “missharvey” Harvey and Kim “Geguri” Se-yeon to name a few — they’re still a small fraction of the professional circuit.
Yet women make up an estimated 45 percent of American gamers, according to the Entertainment Software Association. Interpret, a market research group, estimates women constitute about 30 percent of the esports audience. Still, many leagues and officials, including NBA commissioner Adam Silver, have acknowledged that gender inequality in gaming is a problem.
Evans has joined the league with an understanding of how women have had to fight for their place in all kinds of sports. A former semi-pro basketball player, Evans grew up cheering for WNBA stars such as Sheryl Swoopes and Diana Taurasi.
“Show ’em what you’re made of @Quita,” read a tweet from the WNBA’s official account encouraging Evans ahead of her debut.
“That made my day,” Evans says.
Still, pioneer can be a tough role to play. The gaming world can be unfriendly, particularly for women, as is widely acknowledged by fans and players across the esports community. In games, the full catalog of bad online behavior meets the adrenaline-fueled, competitive nature of sports, leaving players as targets for bullying, abuse and constant criticism. Evans says that during her first combine — games in which the NBA 2K League puts the draft candidates through their paces — some male players refused to pass her the ball just because she was a woman.
But Evans tries not to think about being a standard-bearer too much.
“It was never my intention to be the first anything,” Evans says, though she’s settling into the idea of being a role model.
Video games came into Evans’s life before basketball. She cut her gaming teeth on a Sega Genesis, a 1990s gaming console, playing “Sonic the Hedgehog” games with her father. At 30, she is the squad’s oldest player — the only one of her teammates born in the ’80s. (The youngest, Charles Bostwick, also known online as “CB13,” is 19.)
Basketball came into her life later, after she made her middle school team and then rode the bench for a year. That spurred her to practice, a lot, she says. Evans went on to play on a scholarship at Kentucky State University and then on to a semi-pro team before getting injured. She has the easy grace of an athlete. But now when it’s time to go to work, Evans compacts her 5-foot-11 frame into her chair, sitting as far forward as she can.
Her basketball career proved an ideal background for becoming successful in the esports world, she says:
However, there are certain moves that won’t translate because the game’s movement isn’t as fluid as real life, and players have to deal with video game-specific issues, such as animation affecting their timing.
After the draft, Evans relocated to the Bay Area from Louisville, Ky. Players make between $33,000 and $37,000 per season, plus benefits and housing; the whole team lives in the same apartment building, two to a unit. The Warriors offered Evans her own space, but she turned it down in favor of getting a roommate like everyone else — in her case, teammate Jin Choe.
At home, the Warriors Gaming Squad practices daily, often for hours at a stretch, at the Oakland Esports Arena — a cavernous 16,000-square-foot space filled with long tables of computer monitors. A room in the back acts as the team’s command center in between their regular games in New York. On a team of true sports fans, Evans is “usually the one breaking news about stats and box scores before anyone else on the team has heard anything,” Lee, the team manager, says.
Evans prefers playing small forward, both in real life and on the digital court, but keeps up with all positions. Flexibility seems to be key to her success. “We are always seeking out players with versatility, and Chiquita’s ability to play every position on the floor shows how adaptable she is,” Lee says.
Being flexible can be a strategy. Novin, the other woman in the 2K draft, also goes out of her way to be accommodating, by practicing in several positions to slide into any squad. “I’m a facilitator,” she explains.
The similarities between the two women perhaps make sense: Professional gaming is still a man’s world in many ways. For example, 2K League gamers design their own athlete characters to play, and Evans plays as a man. She has no choice, as NBA 2K has yet to add the option to make female players.
2K declined to comment on its future plans for the game.
In its first game, the Warriors Gaming Squad struggles to put points on the board. Evans’s debut ends in a 53-66 loss, and she gets singled out in the live-chat as being the weak point.
“That girl is trash. I could beat her in 2k,” one spectator writes.
But others rush to her defense. “If you in this chat...YOU CANT SPEAK ON NOBODY IN THE LEAGUE!!” one fan replies. “[Y’all] dudes in here hating on a female is sad as hell. Thats [sic] all imma say on this,” writes another.
The night ends with one loss and one win for the Warriors. Post-game, Evans is mad they weren’t able to grab two wins, but she’s full of praise for her teammates. They passed her the ball at the right moments, she says. They didn’t freeze her out. She focuses on those positives, rather than the negative feedback she hears online. “You can’t let that stuff get to you,” she says.
According to Evans, she hears often from women and girls — and men, too — who say she’s inspired them. But she says what she really wants is for a young girl, maybe 7 or 8, to simply keep playing video games because of her example.
“That will be the one to let me know that I’m doing my job.”
For now, Evans is taking it one game at a time. Her main focus is becoming the best player she can and supporting her friends and teammates. The team plays 16 games over a 12-week span, with the goal of reaching the playoffs and making a finals run. And then? Hopefully another season — and maybe another female player in the league.
Novin, for one, says she’ll be back in the draft next year. And Evans says she would welcome the chance to be just another player in the league, instead of the league’s designated female role model.
“I’m happy to be able to do that, to inspire,” Evans says. “But I’m always just being who I am, and it’s gotten me a long way.”