AVALLA, left, with Overwatch player Sansam, seated, and coach mkL Credit: Ian Cunningham for Washington Justice

Kyoung Ey Molly Kim didn’t spend much time playing video games growing up in New Zealand. She rarely had access to a computer and preferred hobbies like reading and playing netball.

“I was never really a gamer-girl type,” she says. “I was really into studying and being a good girl.”

But when she started applying to law schools, Kim turned to video games to relieve stress. She quickly picked up Overwatch, a popular video game that she began playing with a boyfriend on date nights.

Now, Kim, who has also lived in South Korea, is best known all over the world by her gamer name, AVALLA—an abbreviation of “Iced Vanilla Latte.” She’s the first female coach in the professional Overwatch League and an assistant coach for the D.C. area’s newest professional esports team, the Washington Justice. (The team is owned by local venture capitalist and City Paper owner Mark Ein.)

The Justice is nearing the end of its inaugural season and will play its home matches in D.C. starting next year.

Overwatch has been a key driver for the popularity of competitive professional gaming, known as esports. In 2018, nearly a million spectators tuned in to view the Overwatch finals from around the world. But as the new world of competitive gaming continues to grow, it has received criticism similar to that of more traditional industries—a lack of diversity and a toxic environment for women.

Competitive online gaming attracts a primarily male, millennial audience. The industry has come under fire for a lack of diversity and a sometimes abusive environment for female players, which includes comments ranging from observations about their appearance to death threats made by online fans.

Dr. Michael Young, an associate professor at the University of Connecticut who focuses on games and learning, says part of this has to do with the historically male-oriented storylines common in video games.

“The games themselves have misogyny built in to the narrative,” Young says. “The narrative has not been strong women saving weak men.”

Add to that the largely unmoderated environment of online communication and the result is often a hostile place for the underrepresented.

But experts like Young point to games like Overwatch as an industry response to the idea that gaming should be violent, aggressive, and overtly masculine. Baked into the design of the game is a requirement of collaboration. Six players compete on a team at a time, each playing one of three positions: tank, damage, or support. Tanks are slow-moving characters that absorb damage; damage heroes deal most of the offense, but are liable to die without the support of healers, who are responsible for keeping the team’s characters alive. Simply put, one person cannot win this game by themselves.

“Coordination and supporting your teammates is the key thing in Overwatch,” says Justice player Ethan “Stratus” Yankel. “You can be one of the best players in the world, but if your team doesn’t coordinate and communicate well, you will fail.”

AVALLA and Maya Kushner, chief operating officer of The Game Gym Credit: Ian Cunningham for Washington Justice

In addition to rewarding team cooperation, the 28 characters players can choose from represent the game’s diversity. Of those characters, 13 are women, six are from Asian countries, four are from Africa, one is from Mexico, and one is from Brazil. One character has autism.

At a 2017 event in New York, Overwatch game director Jeff Kaplan said, “The only people that we want to exclude from our game is people who exclude other people.”

Still, challenges remain for women in the industry.

The Washington Justice’s assistant general manager Kate Mitchellstepped down from her position earlier this year, citing “toxicity and casual cruelty from strangers” on social media that left her facing anxiety and frequent panic attacks. Mitchell did not respond to an interview request. The Justice is expected to name its new general manager this week.

AVALLA says she had similar experiences while in the Contenders—a lead-up league to the pros. In 2018, she pursued legal action regarding personal online attacks that targeted her appearance. Because coaches are often more visible in the Contenders than they are in the professional Overwatch League, she says she also felt the need to get her hair and makeup done before matches.

But since joining the pros in 2018, AVALLA says she has just focused on doing her job.

“I think a lot of people, especially like the players and the other coaches, just see me as another average coach,” she says. “So many people know me and I get so much recognition, and I think that that’s kind of like a reward for me making it this far when the industry makes it so hard for you to get this far.”

This is a full-time job for the 24-year-old AVALLA, who left school in Korea to coach in the professional Overwatch League in 2018. On the Justice, she coaches the support players—ArK, Gido, Hyeonu, Fahzix, and Sleepy—on strategies and behaviors that will help them perform their main function: to increase their teammates’ chances of survival.

AVALLA spends at least four hours a day watching live practice “scrims” and another four or five hours watching previously recorded matches. She develops individual hour-long coaching sessions for each player based on the character they play and the abilities they have.

“She’ll make PowerPoints for us,” Stratus says. “AVALLA goes with a really factual way of presenting information—you can’t really dispute it. When that kind of information is presented to you, there isn’t really room to disrespect the coach.”

She’s also bilingual, so she can help make connections between the team’s Korean and American players, many of whom have never played together before.

“It was like building up a new environment,” AVALLA says of this new team. “We had to draw new understandings of common concepts that we were sharing and build up a new communication structure.”

Despite these efforts, the Justice’s first season has been a losing one, and the team won’t qualify for this year’s grand finals in Philadelphia in September. The Overwatch League recently announced plans to geo-locate for the 2020 season, meaning the Justice will be able to play home games in D.C. The Justice opted to host the maximum number of games in its home city, which will be played at either The Anthem at the District Wharf or the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Congress Heights.

The relocation is a big deal for fan groups like Washington Vice & Virtue, which has hosted watch parties all season while their team has been headquartered in Los Angeles.

“It was important for us to create these watch parties back here on the East Coast because we wanted to show that we’re dedicated fans,” says Vice & Virtue leader Tina Roebuck of Alexandria. “We want to take pictures of these events to show the Justice, ‘Hey, you actually have people here that are cheering you on, win or lose.’”

As esports continues to grow, there is hope that it will continue to become more inclusive as well. But that change, Young says, starts with the people who write the narrative.

“Historically, programming was a male thing,” Young says, “and so they programmed stories that they liked. The more women are represented in the industry, it will continue to trend to be more inclusive.”