A Rare Woman

Story, graphics, and photos by Samantha Birrell.

After a few hours of forcing herself to focus on homework, BYU student Katie Howard is ready to compete.

She grabs her gear but doesn’t head for the door. In fact, she doesn’t even leave her chair, but if she did it would be to nuzzle her two kitties, Lilly and Stinkers, who often play near her while she competes. 

Howard doesn’t need to hop in the car, deal with traffic, stake out a spot on the field or hope everyone shows up to play at the previously arranged time and place. Her commute is done from the comfort of her own home.

Howard is a gamer. A female video gamer. She’s a rarity in this sport.

“I’m used to being the only female when playing on a team,” Howard said.

Howard has been on esports teams before and would be happy to try out for one again in the future, but she currently enjoys the simplicity of gaming on her own. 

Gaming independently like this is reminiscent of how she began playing initially. Howard has two older brothers that taught her everything they knew. She grew fond of the gaming community when her brothers brought her along to game with their friends.

Playing with the online community offers flexibility. Howard games when she wants and with who she wants, no matter their skill level. 

Katie Howard with her gaming setup after a victory (Samantha Birrell).

These are pleasures gamers give up to play on an official team.

Howard enjoys playing a variety of competitive team games and solo creation games. Currently, she’s focused on the newly released Valorant, a competitive game. One big draw towards Valorant is its surprising popularity with female gamers.

“When I jump in (to Valorant) there’s usually at least one other girl on my team or a few on the opposing team,” Howard said.

Another benefit of gaming independently is the chance to play with fellow female gamers. Esport teams are predominantly male even though the sport is welcome to co-ed involvement.

As Howard noticed, it is rare to come across a fellow female gamer in the wild. It is even more rare to meet one on an official team, but that is starting to change.

Down the street from BYU, UVU has an Esports club and a few official teams. Though they’ve been holding tryouts for the past three years, this year is the first year they’ve accepted a female onto the team. 

Rayma Sanft is the sole female gamer on UVU’s Valorant team. 

Rayma Sanft (left) competes in the UVU (top right) vs BYU (bottom right) Valorant game as the only female gamer on stage (Samantha Birrell).

During an opening team social, UVU went head-to-head with BYU’s esports club and Sanft was the only female on stage competing. Two teams, 10 players, one female.

“There’s no reason video games should be a male-dominated area,” UVU Esports Vice President of Communication Ethan Reese said.

Sanft has been gaming for a decade. She tried out for the UVU team last year and didn’t make it, but she kept her passion for gaming and tried again this year. 30 hopefuls (including Sanft and one other female) tried out for five openings, and Sanft got the spot. 

Sanft isn’t just the “token” female gamer— she is a talented gamer who earned her place. 

The coaching staff that judged the tryouts said Sanft stood out.

“We had never seen anyone have such clear coms and ability to predict and succinctly articulate the other teams play. Rayma keeps the team calm, focused, and informed,” Esport President Camden Snow said.

When UVU faced BYU in the Esport Opening Social, the night began with the Valorant game. Both teams experienced pregame jitters as the start time was delayed while the Twitch livestream was being set up.

Sanft, playing on keyboard and mouse, stretched her fingers giving them a little warmup workout during the wait. Her male teammates anxiously twitched their heels and made filler conversation.

Finally, it was game time and UVU took the lead.

By the end of the first half, UVU was up 7-5.

During the halftime break, BYU hunkered down behind their monitors for a team huddle. The platform they were on was too small to gather together in a circle, so they had to lean in and communicate in whispers.

UVU team used the break to congratulate each other but cautioned each other not to get too confident and to just keep doing what they were doing.

The next round started, BYU snuck up on UVU and the cougars outmaneuvered the wolverines. UVU did its best to hold on to the lead, but BYU was playing smart.

The game went into overtime after BYU tied UVU.

BYU gained one point in overtime. Another point would seal the victory and UVU was anxious leading into the second overtime.

UVU fought hard to regain the tie and take the lead. 

BYU, recognizing Sanft as one of UVU’s best players, targeted and surrounded her character. Overwhelmed by the play, BYU took Sanft down quickly, forcing her to the sidelines as BYU continued to outsmart UVU’s stale plays.

BYU won in the second overtime.

“My hands were shaking so bad at the end of that. They were all over me and I couldn’t get control of my nerves,” Sanft said to a friend on the floor. 

“It’s nerve-wracking, I’ve never played on a stage with an audience before,” Sanft said. “Normally I play by myself in my room.” 

Sanft was self-conscious as all eyes were on her when BYU targeted her character. Though she knew the audience was watching in support, she felt the pressure to not let them down, breaking her focus from the game. 

“Next time I need to bring a handwarmer, a water bottle, and practice getting comfortable in front of people,” Sanft said, making more of a mental note to herself than a comment to the post-game interview.

“We want to see more women up here,” said Chase Schetselaar, UVU’s Esport Vice President of Activities. “Rayma’s here and she’s killing it, (she’s) amazing! Iconic! We love her, she’s up there, she’s representing, she’s proud, she’s doing it all.”  

Yet at the end of the day, it is still just Sanft, the only one representing an entire gender.

At the Esport opening social, there were many females sitting in the audience to watch the competition. Some women were gamers, others were not. Most agreed that the sport needs more women on the Esport teams but that can’t happen unless more women start to play. 

Beth Stephens and Emma Sims, two female gamers in the crowd, suspect that women don’t get into video games because they assume there is still rampant sexism from video game companies and other male players.

“There were a lot of character designs (in past games) where it’s.. a woman, but it has disproportionate bodily anatomy,“ Stephens said. 

In the last decade, however, there has been a push from advocates to video game companies to design strong female characters. 

“I think because of recent movements video game designers have really been taking a step in actually portraying women as people and not just objects to be sexualized or fetishized,” Stephens said.

“It’s becoming less common to see an oversexualized, gender norm, female character; and more common to see female characters that fit your aesthetic and are just as capable (as male characters)” Sims added.

Sanft and Howard agree that video games have started to create characters that look realistic without hindering their abilities. 

“In most games coming out these days, a woman can find a character to play that looks like them,” Howard said.

 As for sexist comments and treatment many have come to expect from male gamers, the reality is quite surprising.

“I actually find it’s more difficult with other women,” Howard said. “Other female gamers tend to perpetuate negative stereotypes, especially when guys are playing, and the women want to assert dominance.”

Katie Howard plays a round of Valorant with the gaming community (Samantha Birrell).

Sanft concurred with the idea that men have really changed. “My teammates are really great, and there’s no tension because of my gender at all.”

While her team is supportive and excited to have her on the team, Sanft suggests that male gamers need to do more than show enthusiasm.

Sanft encourages male gamers to be actively supportive, saying, “You have longevity on your side. People listen to you. If you announce that girls can game just as good as you, (other gamers) will start to accept it too and we’ll start to see a wave of female gamers.”

Sanft also encourages female gamers to keep playing the games they enjoy.

“The first time I tried out for UVU’s team I didn’t make it, but I kept playing, I kept loving the game, and I got better. Then I tried out again and now I’m here, and you can get here too,” Sanft said encouragingly.

The one area where Howard says men can improve is to not treat them differently than they would with other male gamers. 

“You recognize when you’re being treated differently. (Guys) over-compliment you on the way you’re playing,” Howard says of guys who are still working on their perception of female gamer’s ability.

Overall Howard feels it is a great time to start playing video games as a woman because the community just keeps growing stronger. 

“There’s a lot of support and community for girl gamers,” Howard said. “Women definitely love their friendships and community. If (women) know that they’ll come in having that support system, those people to be with, I think more women would be encouraged to play.”

Howard typically befriends other women in Esports on BYU’s Esports Discord server

For women just getting started Howard recommends an Esport App called “the*gameHERs” which is “a safe and supportive space for women and femme-identifying gamers to meet, chat, and play,” according to the gaming website.

Recognizing that other women do not have someone to teach them, Howard suggests learning from YouTube tutorials and watching “streamers” on Twitch.

A video game streamer is a player who records their gameplay and often communicates their actions during the video. Most Twitch streams are posted live, while most YouTube videos are pre-recorded.

Howard dabbles with streaming to Twitch under the name Serakati. 

“I’ve always loved entertaining people,” Howard said, “so streaming just felt more natural.”

Howard expressed some unique benefits that naturally come from gaming.

“Video games are less physically demanding and don’t result in injury while learning a new skill,” Howard said comically.

Other skills that Howard argues are more forgivingly taught in video games are creativity without fear of screwing up, problem-solving, teamwork, processing negativity/loss, and promoting faster mental and emotional recovery and resiliency.

With all these additional benefits from gaming, the one nearest to Howard’s heart is still the community.

Howard appreciates how video games allow people to spend time with friends that are too busy to go out or live far away. Nights spent gaming keep the bonds of friendship strong.

It was in one of her gaming groups that Howard met her husband, who had lived in Minnesota at the time. 

“The best experience is being able to develop a sense of community and friendship and either have that friendship or get married to one of them,” Howard says giggling with joy at how being a female gamer made it possible for her to find her husband.

Katie Howard and her husband Justin Christoffer met while playing video games (Samantha Birrell).

Who knew that falling in love with video games at 5 years old would lead her to the love of her life? 

Howard and her husband continue to play video games together as a way to bond, and it makes for a fantastic date night activity.

Stinkers and Lilly, Howard’s two kitties, enjoy when their owners have video game date nights because it means the whole family gets to be together.

Howard moves back in her chair as Stinkers crawls between the computer and Howard’s feet. Stinkers rubbed his side across Howard’s leg in a loving cat hug. 

From the cat tree, strategically placed in the room for the purpose of family game time, Lilly meows as if asking, “What about me?”

Howard stands up from her chair to give some love nuzzles to Lilly too.

Then Howard returns to her chair as Valorant appears on the screen.

It’s time to compete.

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