It was the Overwatch semifinals at the Eastern College Athletics Conference (ECAC), and professsional gamer Emily Oeser had to decide which of her teammates would play. The SUNY Canton junior and eSports team captain knew that if her team lost one more round, they would lose the game. With so much pressure building up to that moment, Oeser had to make some tough calls about her team's strategy, but she maintained her confidence in her players — and it all ended up being worth it, because her team won the match.
Oeser is the team captain of the varsity and all-female eSports teams at SUNY Canton, and spends 30 or more hours per week practicing and competing in games like Overwatch. Three to four times a year, she travels around the country to compete in tournaments like HUE Fest at Harrisburg University for a prize pool that can climb to $50,000. But like any sport, it's not just about the prizes. "It’s a place for kids who don’t really fit in traditional athletics to still come together and have a sense of camaraderie, work together as a team," Oeser says.
Being a gamer for a job, for a living, it wasn’t heard of when I was a kid.
Professional gaming wasn't always on Oeser's radar. While she grew up gaming for fun, she didn't get her start gaming professionally until college. When Oeser was a freshman at SUNY Canton, the faculty and staff at her school toyed with the idea of launching an eSports team on campus. Oeser encouraged them to go through with it, and the school became the first college in New York to join the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE). Being a student at SUNY Canton was the first time that Oeser was able to compete in such tournaments herself as part of a real collegiate eSports team.
"Being a gamer for a job, for a living, it wasn’t heard of when I was a kid," Oeser explains. "So I didn’t really start gaming until I was in college. Once I got to college and I realized there was ... a lot to do out there that I don’t get the chance or opportunity to in my hometown, I started to get involved a lot on campus."
Every weekday at about 4 p.m., Oeser heads over to SUNY Canton's eSports arena, where she and her teammates engage in intensive training. "It's a pretty big space that is completely dedicated to everything eSports," Oeser tells Elite Daily. "For about six hours, it is just complete dedication and just training."
Training has many different manifestations based on what the team has coming up. Oeser and her teammates may review past games, for example, or compete in scrams. They also participate in ranked gaming and go over images documenting certain plays, and even do opposition research on other teams. "It really depends on the day of the week and what we have scheduled," Oeser says.
It’s not like a bunch of kids banded together playing in someone’s basement or something.
Gaming isn't Oeser's only job — on a daily basis, she balances it with her full-time studies as a game design major at SUNY Canton, where she is a junior. She also works as a waitress over the summer to maintain a steady income. But that doesn't mean she's just playing around. "It’s not like a bunch of kids banded together playing in someone’s basement or something," she explains. "We’re competing in real tournaments for real money."
Oeser may be playing a game, but like any sport, it's not always relaxing. She brings up the the ECAC 2019 Overwatch semifinals as an example of the competitive, athletic nature of the sport. In a moment that she describes as "gut-wrenching," Oeser says she had to pull herself out of the game because the other team knew her too well, and they were shutting her down at every opportunity they got.
"It came down to me deciding who to play [in the match] and we were in a bit of a rut," Oeser recalls. "We had our backs up against the wall, if we lost one more round, we lost it all."
In the end, Oeser's team ended up winning the match after devising a new plan of attack. "It was very, very close," Oeser explains, "but we ended up pulling off something very, very crucial that came just from one simple thing — a different perspective."
As Oeser talks about the ECAC Overwatch semifinals, it becomes clear just how far she has come in the world of gaming. When she first started college, she was enrolled as a music major, but the school's decision to launch an eSports team changed everything for her. The school simultaneously introduced a new major called game design, Oeser says, and she immediately made the switch.
"If I can understand the inner workings behind a game, what goes into making a game, maybe that can help me," Oeser says. "So I dropped the violin and I picked up the keyboard."
Once word got out that I was a female, some people would make it extremely hard for me.
As a young woman in a male-dominated industry, Oeser has faced many challenges. But during the second semester of her sophomore year, Oeser came across an initiative called the 1,000 Dreams Fund, which aims to supply scholarship funding to 1,000 girls across the country to allow them to pursue their goals.
"I applied and it was one of the coolest things I’ve ever found that there is an organization about female empowerment, discovering this talent in a variety of things," Oeser explains. "You could be a content creator, you could be a gamer like me, you could be a video game developer, maker, and they’re there to support you."
Oeser also won a grant from BroadcastHER Academy, powered by HARMAN, which the 1,000 Dreams Fund specifically created to support female broadcasters on Twitch. Oeser used the grant money to purchase gaming equipment like microphones and mousepads. Being able to access well-maintained equipment "could be the difference between victory and defeat" for a gamer, Oeser says.
Having a resource like the 1,000 Dreams Fund to support her has been especially valuable in an industry like gaming, Oeser adds, where she and other women are a minority. When she was first getting started as a gamer, Oeser routinely faced sexist comments and pushback from other gamers online. For a long time, she was even afraid to speak to teammates over voice chat, as the sound of her voice would reveal her identity.
When I was a freshman and going through this, it used to be a little heartbreaking.
"Once word got out that I was a female, some people would make it extremely hard for me," Oeser recalls. "Sometimes, people would call me names or derogatory terms."
Even when Oeser became SUNY Canton's eSports varsity captain as a freshman, she still faced some resistance from her own teammates. "I had to earn their trust," she says. "When I was a freshman and going through this, it used to be a little heartbreaking. 'Why doesn’t my team like me? Why doesn’t my team listen to me? I'm doing my best.' ... It used to get me down quite a bit."
But over time, Oeser earned her players' trust, and has become a respected team captain and player. "Once everything started coming together, once we started noticing that we work really well as a team ... and we're winning games, we're winning tournaments ... that’s when it didn’t matter," Oeser explains. "It doesn’t matter that I’m a girl anymore to them. They don’t care. They trust my calls, they trust what I say, and if they have any really big concerns they’re able to talk to me one-on-one."
This type of persistence and relationship building is critical for anyone looking to break into professional gaming, Oeser says, especially given how much unexplored territory there is in the industry.
You better be ready to practice your butt off every single day.
"You're going to have to do a lot of reaching out on your own; don't sit back and expect someone to hand you a job application," Oeser says. She recommends laying out exactly what you want to do as a gamer or developer before getting started.
As much as Oeser enjoys video game development, her dream is to either become a high-level professional eSport athlete or pursue the path of a team coach or manager. She knows that the world of gaming offers many little-known opportunities — but if this is the job you want, you have to go out there and find the best avenue for you to pursue it.
"If you want to be a player and you don’t want to be anything else but a player, then you better be ready to practice your butt off every single day to be the best player that you can be," Oeser says. "You have to put a lot of time and effort into this."