If you were an Olympic athlete, how would you spend your spare time? When you finish your training sessions and get back home, how would you pass the hours of recovery and time needed to perform at the highest level?
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Well, Alice Dearing does quite a lot, to be fair. She’s working on her Master’s degree in Social Media and Political Communications, co-founding the Black Swimming Association to work on increasing diversity in aquatics, or even appearing in Jorja Smith music videos.
For her actual downtime though, Alice is obsessed with video games and esports. In fact, when the Olympics came around, she gained a lot of attention for geeking out over being in Tokyo and swimming past Rainbow Bridge as part of the 10km marathon swim event she competed in. The iconic Tokyo location features heavily in Persona 5, and the photo op with the Phantom Thieves’ hideaway didn’t pass her by (Alice claims that Makoto is the best romance option).
Alice’s mum has clearly had a massive impact on her daughter’s life. Tireless support and an unfathomable willingness to get up at ridiculous hours to drive to training sessions has led and inspired Alice to the athletic success she’s already had. The 2022 Commonwealth Games, hosted in her hometown of Birmingham, will be the first time she gets to see her daughter compete in an international tournament, so it’ll mean a whole lot.
That’s not the only influence she’s had on Alice’s life, though. I asked how she ended up getting into video games enough to nerd out at the sight of a Tokyo bridge.
“My mum was always on PlayAsia [a site which sells Japanese games and merch] in the mid-2000s, buying PSPs a year before they came out in Britain and stuff like that. Proper ahead of the curve. You look back and I didn’t realise how cool that was that she used to get all this stuff.”
“We used to have Japanese consoles instead of British ones, so we couldn’t play British games. It was just a properly geeky household.”
It’s one thing playing games growing up (Alice claims the Gamecube is the “elite console” when it comes to nostalgia and will die on the hill of Wind Waker being one of the greatest Zelda games). It’s a whole different thing dedicating your time to following esports. There’s so much out there for many newbies it’s hard to know where to even begin. In fact, it’s been a long road for Alice too.
“When I was 13, my brother told me about League of Legends, and I don’t know why but I started playing it.” After a while, he sent her down the rabbit hole: “Oh, you know people play this as an esport? People get paid a lot of money to play this game competitively.”
And we’re off. After finding it a great source of entertainment through a lot of her teens, Alice was swallowed up by the world of competitive sport. The COVID-19 pandemic and accompanying lockdown period brought her back, though.
A lot of us rediscovered old habits, but Alice rediscovered the joys of extremely intense matches of League. She now follows it religiously, especially the LEC (the European Championship of the game).
As with all sports, League isn’t for everyone, just as other esports weren’t for Alice. “I struggle with Fortnite because it’s just so fast-paced,” Alice recounts. “I’m really fortunate to have played against some of Guild’s members [at Fortnite], and I knew I was going to get beat, but like, how do they do it? My brain wouldn’t be able to press the buttons that quickly!”
She described the experience of getting schooled by the best players in Europe as “humbling”. Although, to be fair, put them in a lake to swim 10km and I’m sure the balance would be shifted.
In comparison to traditional sports like football, athletics, or Alice’s swimming, many people think poorly of esports. To some, sitting at a computer doesn’t look as impressive as, say, swimming 10,000 metres or scoring a ridiculous bicycle kick.
Being an elite athlete, Alice knows what it takes to succeed at the highest level and holds esports professionals in this same bracket. “Honestly, I don’t think many people realise just how much mental capacity you need just to play one game of League well, let alone doing twelve, fourteen, twenty matches a day.”
“I think people’s concept of esports is like, a gamer guy, a computer, and a can of monster, but that isn’t going to give you the best performance.” Instead, teams hire physios, nutritionists, and all kinds of coaching to perfect their execution, much like traditional sports. It goes both ways though.
“I think traditional sports can learn so much from the esports marketing side, because everything’s so new. To capture an audience and to capture fans, you’ve got to be creative with your campaigning and your social media, instead of just relying on a core base of people who are supporting you from when they’re born until when they die,” Alice tells me.
“I just think we in traditional sports need to stop turning our nose up at esports. I really think it’s getting there. From conversations I have with people who know nothing about esports and learn about it from hearing me preach – people are a lot more on board with it than they realize. At first it just sounds so ludicrous because it’s not physical effort, but there’s still so much that goes into it that deserves its own merit.”
Alice is even looking at going into esports as a career with her experience in sports and degree making that a real possibility.
“Sjokz is my idol,” Alice explains to me. “If I had 50% of the things she’s done I’d be so happy.” Eefje ‘Sjokz’ Depoortere is the winner of Best Esports Host at The Game Awards for the past three years for her work hosting the League of Legends World Championship, and Alice says she’d love to host esports events and interview players in the future. From what she’s said so far, the perspective of an Olympic athlete would be a great foundation for that task.
Traditional sports and esports have a whole lot more in common than most people think, then, and it’ll take trailblazers like Alice to bridge that gap over the next few years. Esports is fairly new, and there are still a lot of issues to face head-on such as the utter lack of women esports competitors. She’s stayed in gaming in spite of the constant abuse faced by women in online games and that’s something (amongst others) with a lasting impact on the prevalence of women in the competitive scene. Alice tells me this has been something she’s had to watch out for from the very beginning. “The first thing my brother told me when online gaming was to never reveal you’re a woman because he knew how people acted.” It’s an issue that isn’t going to go away unless everyone, especially men in leading positions in gaming and esports, takes real steps to moderate the behaviour within these communities.
“I just find I’m waiting for the day that there’s a woman in the LEC but honestly, I have no idea. Maybe the argument is if you’re that good as a woman, you’re probably earning more money for Twitch streaming.”
It’s such a strange expectation and divide, but one that esports can hopefully learn from Alice’s place of traditional sports where, for the most part, competitive participation is encouraged regardless of gender at a grassroots level.
Alice is on her way to being a part of the change she wants to see in esports too, we’ll be seeing a lot more from her in the future. The dream is a personalised Morgana skin in League of Legends or a link-up with her favourite team Fnatic, but who knows? For Alice Dearing, the world of gaming is her oyster.
James Law is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to NME.