Burnaby woman's new doc looks at benefits, shortcomings in esports community

On the one hand, players find solace in the community built by esports, but Melissa Dex Guzman notes more needs to be done to include women

As she prepared to release her documentary on the current esports scene in Metro Vancouver, Burnaby filmmaker Melissa Dex Guzman says the thing she was most anxious about is the potential blowback for its statements on the lack of women in the community.

Smash Forward was released online Monday at noon, with a release party that same evening, and was created through the Telus Storyhive grants.

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The documentary focuses on a few players in the local fighting game community, including Brendan ‘Pryde’ Pryde, Martin ‘Zerango’ Byerley, Jen ‘Llumiya’ Zall and Courtney ‘CourtFTW’ Gilbert. It also includes Super Smash Bros. professionals Eric ‘ESAM’ Lew, Vish ‘Vish’ Rajkumar and Julian ‘Jtails’ Martinez.

Esports is a growing community of competitive amateur and professional video gaming, with prizes at some of the world’s largest tournaments reaching into the millions of dollars.

Guzman began the documentary initially intending to focus on Pryde and his struggles with bipolar disorder, but the project ultimately grew to look at a variety of aspects of the local community.

“I thought it was really interesting how he used the Smash community to alleviate some of the behavioral and emotional symptoms that he faces. Basically, this entire group of friends and people, they're his support system,” Guzman said.

Having a physical community around which gamers can rally has helped even in terms of everyday mental wellness. Byerley, who lives in New Westminster, says he’s felt the impact of the community on himself, as well.

“It’s helped me with my confidence because, just like everyone else, you go through life, and you don’t have a whole ton of positive reinforcement,” Byerley said. “To be part of the community and be accepted, you realize that you just are who you are, and you will be accepted as such.”

Byerley is also described in the documentary as a driving force in the community – Pryde says Byerley tries to “make people feel welcome,” and another gamer mentions Byerley consoling him after a “heartbreaking” tournament loss.

Esports has risen in popularity in recent years – sports media giant ESPN even has a section dedicated to esports – and Guzman says the community is “on the cusp” of blowing up locally.

 

Just in the year since Guzman pitched the documentary, Canada’s first esports stadium was announced, and Vancouver Canucks owners, the Aquilini family, have acquired an Overwatch franchise team. Several local universities have begun to develop their own esports communities and teams, and The International, a major Dota 2 tournament, was held in Vancouver last year.

But even as the burgeoning esports scene offers a sense of inclusion in a community for players like Byerley and Pryde, Guzman says there’s still work to be done on diversity.

The gaming community has had a reputation for toxicity toward women ever since Gamergate boiled over in 2014 with a public harassment campaign against women in the videogame industry.

“I think there’s still challenges,” Guzman said.

She made a conscious effort in Smash Forward to have prominent men in the community – such as Martinez and Lew – address the issue of sexism in the community.

“I feel like maybe if these top players can acknowledge it, then their following will listen. You can make an entire documentary about what women go through in games,” Guzman said, adding her own experience with sexism in the game development industry.

“When I was first breaking in, they cut me off in my interview and said, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, I get it; you’re a cool community chick.’ ”

Gilbert – Byerley’s girlfriend, who also lives in New West and who pushed Byerley to get involved in the local esports scene – takes an optimistic approach, citing areas in which the local community has improved the experience of women.

She notes the Smash Sisters community, which focuses on creating women-only tournaments for women to meet other women in the community.

“It’s very rare to see [women] at huge tournaments, and in the last year or two, we’ve seen more girls turn out,” Gilbert said. “In the last little bit, we’ve seen a couple of them popping up here and there, and they do really well, too.”

The full 20-minute documentary can be viewed on the Telus Storyhive YouTube channel.

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