In the world of esports and gaming, it can be hard to stand out from the crowd. In a sea of endless (predominantly male) creators looking for their moment to shine and ready to harp on to any opportunity for viral fame, staying true to your own vision and goals can be burdensome. Erin Ashley Simon, a 29-year-old broadcaster and commentator, managed to soar past the competition, all while keeping true to herself.
Host of the Life Is Not A Game podcast, and co-owner of esports organization XSET, she’s appeared in multiple national commercials and launched her own gaming apparel line with Puma. Her dedication to the grind has been over a decade in the making.
“The more that I’ve become comfortable with being myself, the more that it resonates with other people, the more relatable I’ve been,” Simon told NME. “And the more that people feel and view me, whether it’s through my broadcasting work or social media, they view me as someone that they can be themselves around. It’s someone that is a positive beacon in their life.”
Simon was born outside of Philadelphia but moved to New Jersey with her mother after her parents divorced when she was very young. She recalls her mother, whose parents emigrated from Puerto Rico, teaching her to “appreciate and love your family” as well as to keep a connection to her “Afro-Latino roots.” Her older brother was the one that had gotten her into gaming, but her family nurtured that drive.
“I had parents that understood gaming, and respected it,” Simon said. “The rule in our household was, as long as you get As and get an athletic or academic scholarship, you can play however many hours you want. She wanted me to be a Renaissance woman. That’s why I’m a very multifaceted person, because my mom allowed me to pursue different passions and interests and never shut any of that down.”
She took her mother’s guidance to heart, becoming a top-tier athlete and blogger while she was still in high school. Attending the Pennington School, a preparatory boarding school located in Pennington, New Jersey, she says she was a highly-skilled soccer player, and her team at one point was “number one in the country.” At 16, she created the blog “Box of Mess” that catalogued and covered high school sports, noting potential prospects for college and professional recruiters.
“The one rule that my mom set for us was, there’s three ways that you’re going to go to college; an academic scholarship, an athletic scholarship, or you’re going to get a job or two jobs and you’re going to cover,” Simon said.
For college, she attended Rutgers University for one year on a scholarship before transferring to the University of Kentucky. Games like Halo 2 and Halo 3 were a minor distraction she could afford herself while her teammates and friends were away, knowing that her focus on sports needed to be her priority.
But that passion for competitive athletics took an unfortunate turn when Simon suffered an injury, leading to hip surgery that derailed any chance she had of making it to the major leagues. Still, her drive kept her going, briefly working at an architecture firm after graduation to keep her stable while she looked for the next opportunity.
In 2016, she landed a role on the social team at Revolt TV, the television network owned by musician Sean “Diddy” Combs, although the company she was working with laid her off within a year. She recalls 2018 as a “low point” for her, being given the news of her unemployment the day before she underwent hip and leg surgery.
“I think that was an epiphany moment where I realized, companies don’t care about me. Why should I put all my energy into them, when I could be putting the energy into myself,” Simon said. “So, let me focus on putting energy into myself and doing something that I’m passionate about.”
At that point, Simon tried her hand in broadcasting in the world of gaming, hosting a show about NBA 2K on Twitch and for RedBull on their Conquest fighting game series. Through connections in the space, she landed a role co-hosting an esports talk show on Cheddar Esports until it ended in 2020. From there, she was signed by talent agency Creative Artists Agency and hosted another gaming talk show for a year on the now-defunct VENN gaming network.
“I really just focused on being the best at what I’m great at, that’s when all of these amazing opportunities came through,” Simon said. “If I’m stressed and burnt out, I’m not going to be good on camera. And if I’m not good on camera, I’m not going to get more gigs.”
But broadcasting is only part of Simon’s mission: to help elevate the conversation around gaming and discuss the endemic issues that halt progress. She uses her Twitter platform of over 20,000 followers to discuss the need to disengage with “toxic” fan bases, or acknowledge that breaking into the gaming or esports space can have a high barrier to entry (requiring powerful PCs and high-speed internet).
“We need to do a better job with acknowledging the fact that racism and sexism is a thing. And it is in esports and gaming, despite what anyone says, it is,” Simon said. “I’ve dealt with it, plenty of others have too. And I think that we just have to be more realistic about the issues at hand. And instead of taking things personally or getting upset, I think we can have a more progressive conversation in esports, as industry people, on how we can fix these things.”
Though it is a struggle, Simon knows that these issues can’t be ignored and that the only way space can change is by speaking up about it.
“The more that we do, the better this industry will get, and we can create the appropriate systems and address the problems. And I think that, over time, we can take those necessary steps. But it all starts with us in the industry, fixing the issues.”