Mary sounds like she has the cushiest job in the world. Getting paid to play video games? Every teenagers dream, right? Well, kind of. But the mushrooming e-sports industry is a quickly evolving world of long hours and league-mandated obligations that athletes simply can’t push back on. Gamers who achieve fame and fortune work day and night to maintain their status.
“I play five to seven hours a day,” Mary tells me.
“Every day?” I ask incredulously
“Every day,” she nods.
In the gaming world she’s known to her peers as Mary Gamer. She’s the number one female Fortnite player in the region and the youngest MENA-based gamer to ever be signed by a professional gaming organisation, NASR ESports.
A Bahraini national, Mary grew up, like most kids, playing games with her cousins, never really thinking that it would culminate in a career. “At first I really thought it [playing] would just be a hobby just for me, but then when I saw other YouTubers playing tournaments I thought ‘I wanna become that’, you know? I've always set goals for myself, I have that mindset that anything is possible. Eventually I didn’t want to play all day without a goal anymore, so I started my YouTube channel, off a MacBook actually," she laughs. "I started streaming and was getting really good feedback from people that kept watching me, then NASR approached me. They told me that I had a great potential, and with the right guidance they would help and support me with training.”
Mary is now the only girl gamer - a term she is not at all offended by, I hasten to add - in the NASR team. “It doesn’t really matter to me being called a girl gamer, you know. There is a stereotype that if it’s a girl it means obviously she plays bad. But yeah, girls are more than girls, we have so much potential.”
As a young woman in a largely male industry, Mary has undoubtedly faced challenges, but she doesn’t want special treatment. She just wants to be on a level playing field with her male counterparts. “Since the day I started playing I’ve always been with boys, so if a girl comes onto the team I’d be excited, but it doesn’t really affect me that much. I’m used to it.”
It’s a dream of Mary’s to recruit more women into her tech field. “It’s a goal of mine to gather all the girl gamers into one team. I know there are so many other girls in this region who would compete, but it’s hard because their parents have this mindset that they want to see their daughter graduate from college and go to medical school. That’s what they want. But deep inside, really if I had the opportunity to get more girl gamers, I would actually do it. I don’t want to be the only one.”
As e-sports continues its march toward mainstream acceptance, video game publishers, teams and players so too have to keep up with the change. Retiring in your mid-twenties is the norm in e-sports now, and has been for some time. “No e-sports player has a five year plan because sometimes their careers are only five years. After 23 or 24-years-old, your reflexes start getting slower, so you won’t be able to keep up with the game.”
I’m also reminded that although Mary is currently the top Fortnite player, Fortnite might not be on anyone’s agenda in a couple of years’ time, meaning she will have to learn an entirely new game, and, therefore, an entirely new skill set. But Mary isn’t fazed by this. In fact, she seems almost excited at what else she can bring to the bigger picture. She speaks openly and honestly about how mental health plays a much larger role in gaming that I realised.
“Not enough people talk about it,” says Mary. “Mental health is so important when you’re playing. Some people use gaming as an escape from their lives and it can become addictive. If you’re not taking care of yourself and finding help, you’ll just keep playing and it’s going to affect you and your life more and more. If I stay up long hours not talking to real life people face-to-face, it’s going to be hard for me. It would give me social anxiety. So I also have to make sure I'm taking care of my mental health."