When Chiquita Evans was drafted into the NBA 2K League last night by Warriors Gaming Squad, the crowd in the room erupted in cheers and Twitch chat exploded with support.
Evans' draft as the first woman in the NBA 2K League is a monumental moment for an industry still struggling with tragically low numbers of visible women. It's also a good first step forward for the League, which didn't have a single woman last year in its inaugural final draft pool of 102 players.
For Evans herself, it's a humbling achievement, but also the natural result of years of hard work and practice. Speaking to GamesIndustry.biz last week ahead of the draft, Evans said she felt confident in her abilities, personality, and knowledge of the game.
That knowledge comes from a nearly life-long love of basketball. Evans started playing in middle school, and made her school's team initially with her skills as a strong shooter. But she was benched for the team's entire first season due to weaknesses in other areas, a disappointment that Evans turned into an explosive beginning to her eventual career.
"That's what really brought the competitive spirit out of me, the moment when I was benched," she said.
Evans spent the entirety of the following summer working on her skills, and returned the next year to join her team on the court. She went on to play high school, college, and semi-pro, earning a basketball scholarship to Kentucky State University. Though Evans held aspirations of playing in the WNBA, an MCL tear halted her rise.
"I play 2K the same way I play [basketball] in real life"
At the time Evans was no stranger to the NBA 2K games, having played since NBA 2K9. After her injury, her interest in competitive NBA 2K ramped up until on the recommendation of a friend, she joined a league for NBA 2K16.
Through her competitive rise, Evans found a home for the skills she had initially honed playing real-life basketball.
"I love basketball in general," Evans said. "[NBA 2K's Pro-Am mode] for me emulates the kind of basketball I'm used to. That's what drew me into it, because it's my way of staying involved with basketball.
"There are certain ways you can handle situations with your teammates virtually that you would do as if they were standing next to you. I definitely believe my experience playing basketball in real life has translated to play 2K. It's basically my identity. I play 2K the same way I play in real life."
Evans' skill caught the attention of the NBA 2K League at a time when the League was already examining its issues with diversity -- issues that Evans had experienced firsthand. In the League's first season Combine, Evans initially participated in hopes of making it to the draft. But when she communicated with other players over voice chat, they would often express surprise that she was a woman and shun her for the remainder of the game, making it impossible for her to prove her skills. Frustrated, Evans dropped out of the Combine.
"For the first time ever, I gave up on something," Evans said of the event in a Draft Hopefuls profile video.
"For the first time ever, I gave up on something"
As managing director Brendan Donohue told GamesIndustry.biz late last year, the lack of women in the final draft pool of its inaugural season was a disappointment and a surprise to those in charge.
"We created a task force made up of 2K and NBA and esports industry experts to try and address this, and also we've identified some of the top female 2K players and we've done focus groups with them and our teams to identify if there were any potential barriers in making it into the League," Donohue said. "It's a priority for us to have female players in the future.
"If our player pool diversifies, we think that improves its quality. We had an influencer event back in July where we had some of our 2K League players, four of the best female 2K players in the world play. We've already started to make it feel normal in the 2K League, so we hope to lead the way there."
That influencer event was the NBA 2K Showcase, and Evans was one of the four women who participated. For her, it was a transformational moment.
"It was a very humbling experience," she said. "It definitely pushed me to want to go harder. I love being up there, and it made me realize this is something I can do competitively and do well. It was a really big turning point for me, where I said, 'This is something I want to do and I will do what needs to be done to get there.'
"After that moment, a lot of women told me I inspired them. So I told myself it wouldn't be right if I didn't continue to push on."
And push on she did. Evans was one of 75 drafted last night from a pool of nearly 200 potential draftees, only two of whom were women (the other woman, who goes by the handle Icygirl, was not chosen). And getting there wasn't easy. In addition to the challenge every player faces of simply playing well enough individually and on a team to get into the League, the sexism and negativity Evans had faced before didn't magically disappear just because she decided not to give up.
"People felt I didn't deserve to be where I was even though they didn't know anything about me"
"People felt I didn't deserve to be where I was even though they didn't know anything about me," she said. "There were some guys who people felt didn't deserve to be there because they weren't the best of the best, but I felt like I got attacked more than anybody, and I felt like it was because I am a woman.
"A lot of people feel as though we don't understand the game like guys do, or we aren't capable of playing at a high level, and that's not the case. A lot of people even brought up athleticism and playing basketball in real life, when I probably have more basketball experience than the majority of them."
Evans told me that not only did she want to push through the negativity to achieve her own dreams, but also to break down a barrier for other women who want to compete in NBA 2K League or any other esport. She said there were already a lot of skilled women playing the game, but that they aren't visible because they often hide behind non-feminine usernames and avoid speaking over voice chat.
I asked Evans if she felt there was anything NBA 2K League or esports leagues in general could do on their part to improve diversity, but Evans said she felt there wasn't much that could be done at that level. The problem, she said, didn't lie in the organizations, but in the communities, and women simply have to push through. But she also said she believes that over time, women can and will take a well-deserved place at the top level of esports.
"A lot of women are out here that can play at a very high competitive level, but they're afraid of how things could turn out because of their gender," she said. "I tell people all the time that barriers are made to be broken. I'm one of the first to do that, but that's just the beginning."