“I want to say to all the girls out there that have a dream for esports competition: If you want to do it and believe in yourself, you should just forget your gender and go for it,” Li, 23, said through a translator after the match. “As long as you want to play well you can, no matter what gender you have."
Hearthstone is a popular online card game developed by Activision Blizzard where players battle by using spells and minions until the health bar of the other character is depleted. The event won by Li carried a prize purse of $200,000.
Hearthstone has been at the forefront of esports news in recent weeks. Activision Blizzard came under fire in October when the Hearthstone pro player Ng Wai Chung, who plays under the name blitzchung, was banned for six months when he supported the free Hong Kong movement during a live-streamed interview. Dozens of protesters came to BlizzCon to show their discontent with Activision Blizzard’s decision, which Blizzard President J. Allen Brack addressed in his opening remarks.
Beyond the tensions around Hong Kong and China, toxicity and harassment often turn off many women from continuing professional play or even starting a career in an esport like Hearthstone. And Li has faced her own version of discrimination.
Li said that two years ago while waiting in the backup sign-up line for a tournament, a man told her that women shouldn’t be there, that it’s “not for you.” Now, standing in front of thousands of screaming fans, things are different.
“I think as long as people become more kind to women in esports and show more respect, more tolerance, I think there will be more women coming into esports to compete and have the same achievement as men do,” Li said. “And now today, I’m here with all the support from the fans,” she said as cheers erupted throughout Hall B of the Anaheim Convention Center in California, the home of the tournament.
Born in a small town in China’s Xinjiang region, Li got a taste for Hearthstone in college while studying at Southwest University of Political Science and Law. At the news conference after her win, Li said she didn’t enjoy studying law and gave herself a year to see whether playing Hearthstone professionally could work. Clearly, it has.
Before winning Saturday at BlizzCon, she became the first woman in China to win Season 1 of that country’s Golden series. It took three top-six finishes in “Masters Group” tournaments and a strong playoff performance to get there. The work paid off though. Season 2 winner, Gao “Leaoh” Yang, and Li got two tickets to Anaheim to play in the Grandmasters Global Finals.
“The factor that makes it happen for me here is the fact that I think I wasn’t good enough compared to all the other players who are here,” Li said. “That’s what motivated me to work harder than them and be very careful with every step I take, every strategy I make."
Li practices about five hours a day and watches professional tournaments to study strategies the rest of the time with her boyfriend, Syf, a pro-Hearthstone player for Team Invictus Gaming, a Chinese-based esports organization.
Li says she plans to build on her victory in Anaheim.
“I will keep participating in all kind of tournaments around the world and hopefully I can explore the possibility of other careers like casting,” Li said. “That’s currently the plan.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include a definition of the game Hearthstone.