Changing The GameOct 22, 2023 02:04AM ● By Sara Locke
Photo by Bill Sitzmann.
Allie Burnett is exactly the type of promising and positive teenager you want preparing to lead the future. Kind and well-spoken, she can hold a pleasant and intelligent conversation with you about art or literature, or any number of subjects. But her avatar, Dax, is a merciless machine—determined to make every 5 vs. 5 battle feel desperately skewed in her team’s favor.
This is the competitive world of esports, and if you want to survive, you just might have to figure out how to play like a girl. Westside’s esports coach, Chase Tonkinson, may not have seen Burnett coming, but he’s certainly paying attention to where she’s going.
“Our district was looking for something to engage the kids during COVID,” he said. “Allie approached me her freshman year, and she was helping us organize before we even got the team off of the ground.”
Once the program was up and running, the race was on to land one of the coveted spots on the team.
“This year we have six Varsity teams, and each player tries out for the team in their own discipline,” Tonkinson explained. “It’s a democratic process; choosing what the game selection will be and what skills are required. There are opportunities for anyone willing to put in the work.”
This year’s games include Super Smash Bros, Valorant, Overwatch, and Hearthstone. Westside has won state and National Championships for their efforts, and Burnett has not only earned her place every year, she’s earned the role of Westside’s captain.
“Esports are still kind of underground, but growing fast. More colleges are adding teams and clubs, and more people are starting to understand and even enjoy spectating,” Burnett said. “Traditional sports were really designed to be consumed and supported. Video games are really thought of as only to entertain the player, and I think that’s why it hasn’t gained traction very quickly. But team spirit is just as important to esports players, so it’s exciting to see that aspect of it growing.”
This isn’t just a fun way for teens to blow off steam; esports are viciously competitive—at the high school and collegiate levels and in the professional arena. In fact, Allie recently signed onto New York Excelsior’s Academy esports team.
“People tend to have this idea in their head about what a pro-gamers looks like, but that’s the best part of gaming. It’s literally for everyone,” Burnett continued. “It’s not the NBA where you have to be born with perfect genetics and in exactly the right place where basketball is appreciated to even have a shot. This gives that same opportunity for camaraderie and cooperation and competition to people who weren’t born to be 6’6, or who weren’t even born to be able to walk. This is pure mental agility.”
Although the self-professed “tech-inept” e-athlete is a pro now, she’s also fairly new to the scene, having only picked up gaming during the pandemic. And while the social aspect of gaming can be an enormous draw, the toxicity of cyber-bullying is ubiquitous in a digital world.
“People online get a confidence they don’t always have in person, and that anonymity and the general dehumanization of people you see online means you’re going to see a lot of inappropriate behavior,” Burnett said.
While she has held the title of team captain for the entirety of the school’s nascent esports run and earned her place in the professional gaming arena, she still often finds herself the only female behind the sticks.
“As of right now, this is a really male-dominated space. It’s changing, but you’re still not seeing as many women taking gaming seriously yet,” she said. “And because of that, when guys see me winning, they’ll complain that I was boosted or that someone else got me to the rank I am. They refuse to believe that I’m good enough. But I run this show.”
While the negative voices are often the loudest—and most obnoxious—Burnett insists they aren’t the majority.
“Gaming culture itself isn’t toxic at all, but the platform tends to be. For Overwatch, or esports in general, to be taken more seriously, I think there need to be mechanisms against that. To be inclusive, there need to be measures put in place to discourage bullying. Nothing makes people more creative than when they aren’t able to be jerks to each other anymore,” Burnett said.
And now she’s setting her sights on the next level.
“I’m just off the professional team. It’s time to focus on college applications right now,” she said. “I’d love to be part of any esports clubs or teams I find when I get there. But I am going with a focus on academics. It sounds a little strange, but esports really sparked my interest in how people think and act. I get to see these two distinct sides to people, how they are, and how they portray themselves online. Psychology is a much larger factor in esports, and sports in general.”
Westside has recently concluded this season’s roster, and Burnett won’t be the only woman representing the school in this year’s competitions. And while she has enjoyed representing a minority and has done so in exemplary fashion, she’s ready for more people to learn just how inclusive the world of competitive gaming can be.