Chiquita Evans bounded on stage and began to tear up after hearing her name called at the second annual draft for NBA 2K League, the video game version of the professional basketball league.
The sleepy crowd of over 400 watching the proceedings at Barclays Center, the New York arena where the event took place last month, immediately jumped to its feet and cheered. After waiting over three hours and the selection of 55 players, the fans recognized that they had just seen history: The drafting of the first female player ever by one of the league’s teams.
Evans’ selection by Warriors Gaming, the 2K league’s affiliate of the Golden State Warriors, was a major victory for female gamers, who are barely represented in professional e-sports leagues. Many female players are highly skilled, but they have been almost entirely passed over in favor of men.
In e-sports, unlike in many competitive pursuits, men and women can, in theory, compete side-by-side. There are no male or female categories. But in reality, e-sports leagues have avoided adding women to their rosters despite the rise of the #MeToo movement, which has shined a harsh spotlight on gender inequities across a number of industries. Many top female players are eager to change gaming’s male-dominated culture, even though some, like Evans, are still realizing the extent of the problem.
“I knew that women in gaming was an issue, but I didn’t know it was this big,” Evans said less than an hour after her name was called. “I didn’t know there would be multiple media reaching out to me to get my perspective on e-sports when it comes to women in gaming.”
The draft for the 2K League works similarly to its traditional NBA counterpart. The picks are made in real-time, so no one knows which players will play where, or if they’ll get picked up at all. The arena is packed with current players, potential players, and many family and friends who hope that the names of their loved ones will be called.
In the crowd of potential players, Evans was easy to spot. Not only is she tall at 5’11″—Warriors Gaming’s head of e-sports Hunter Leigh notes that she’s actually taller than some of her new male teammates—she was also one of only two women in the draft pool that day.
As we spoke at Barclays Center away from the stage, Evans scrolled through messages on her phone. Dozens of well wishes and congratulations have poured in. A stream of people came up to Evans to shake her hand or offer congratulations. She hasn’t even gotten a chance to speak with her mother, who was unable to attend the draft with her.
“You really don’t realize how much support you’ve got until it happens,” says Evans, wearing a red, floral blazer in homage to the Chicago Bulls, her hometown team.
Evans feels the support now after seeing the crowd erupt at the draft. But her first taste of the draft process—the 2K League’s first tryout in early 2018 that required playing a certain number of games and meeting a certain win count—went very differently. Evans says she faced discrimination because of her gender. Some male players would stop passing her the ball on screen once they realized she was a woman. The treatment she received made her rethink her dream of joining the league entirely.
“I participated, but I quit like eight games in. It was bad,” Evans said. “That was the first time that I quit something that I really wanted in my life. That’s how discouraged I was.”
It takes a lot for Evans, 30, to feel defeated. After she rode the bench her entire first season playing middle school basketball, Evans tells me she spent the entire off-season ensuring it would never happen again.
It wasn’t just women cheering Evans on draft day either. Many in the e-sports community, and the 2K community specifically, feel that female players who are good enough to be in the league should get an equal opportunity to compete. Artreyo Boyd, a star player in the 2K League who goes by the screen name “Dimez”, says he told Evans he wants her in the league, but that she needed to earn it.
“I feel like everybody should have to earn it, just like we did,” Boyd says. “I feel like if they’re good enough, if their skill set is up there, if everything is matching up, it’s perfect.”
In the combine for the second season, Evans proved to everyone that she did deserve to be there by passing the requirements to gain draft eligibility.
The 2K League also addressed its own failings in last year’s tryouts. For the past year, the lack of a female player has weighed heavy on the league’s leadership.
“We were disappointed,” 2K League managing director Brendan Donohue says. “We didn’t know until the very end of the Season One tryouts that we only had one woman [Wendi Fleming, or “ALittleLady87″] in the final 250 players. That in itself was disappointing, and then, unfortunately, she didn’t make the final 102 who entered into the draft pool in Season One.”
The result set the league on a mission to fix the tryout system. Donohue says they hired a third party to evaluate the process and tried to solve any problems they found.
The league also spoke with female players, which is how it learned of unsportsmanlike behavior during the tryouts. For example, after female players spoke into their headset microphones while playing, teammate realized they were women and sometimes stopped passing them the ball. Some even verbally harassed the women.
This year, the 2K League required all competitors in the tryouts to sign a pledge that they would foster a competitive but safe and welcoming environment. Most got on board, but some didn’t and were kicked out by the league.
To combat players refusing to pass the ball to women, Donohue says they looked more closely at what individual players did when they had control. This involved looking at specific statistics like how long players hold the ball or usage rate. If any players were found to violate the pledge, the league took what they considered to be “appropriate action” including kicking some players out.
Additionally, the league started an initiative to get more female players involved. It set up focus groups with female players and put on a showcase event that included female NBA 2K players.
“At the draft specifically, it was an amazing moment,” Donohue said. “To be a part of it, just to announce her name and for that entire place to kind of explode cheering. That was a an awesome feeling to experience.”
Now, two months after the draft, Evans has settled into her new team house in Emeryville, Calif., which she says has gone smoothly. With the second season now underway, Evans isn’t thinking about those who doubted her — she’s thinking about winning.
“I’m going to continue to be the best teammate and the best person that I can be regardless. It means everything to me, and I won’t let anyone ruin my moment.”
But there’s still plenty of work to be done. Evans hasn’t faced disparaging comments from players, but league fans still post comments on social media that are sexist, racist, or that question whether she’s good enough to compete in the league. Evans says she brushes them off, that the only thing she has to say to them now is “joke’s on you.” But she has a community behind her willing to come to her defense.
Clarissa Iverson, who played NBA 2K with Evans prior to her drafting, says she and others they play with are quick to point out on social media that Evans has played competitively for a number of years now. And she expects social barriers limiting opportunities for women to play competitive e-sports will start to fall.
The league too looks forward, hoping Evans will be the first—but not the last—woman to join.
“I think it’s so inspiring,” Donohue says. “I’m hoping that she’s inspiring other young women who are top 2K players that is possible.”
Correction: The original version of this article misspelled the name of Artreyo Boyd. It also misattributed a quote by Bob Donohue to another person.