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Valorant,” Riot Games’ 5v5 competitive shooter, is still mapping out its nascent esports scene following its debut in early June. But players, talent and even major corporations are already making a push for women to get involved in the esport on the ground floor.

This past Sunday, Nerd Street Gamers and Comcast’s Spectacor Gaming held a qualifier for an all-female “Valorant” tournament, dubbed the FTW Summer Showdown and set to take place on Sept. 12. Sponsors included G Fuel and T1. And with a prize pool of $10,000, it marked the most high-profile outing for women in the “Valorant” esports yet.

But on Thursday, they upped the ante: Nerd Street Gamers and Spectacor announced that Riot Games had officially joined as a partner for the tournament, raised the prize pool to $50,000, and extended it from a one-day, eight-team event to a three-day, 12-team tournament taking place this Friday-Sunday, making it an official “Valorant” Ignition Series event — the first-ever female-only one.

The event is part of Spectacor Gaming’s FTW: For the Women initiative, which is focused on giving more women opportunities and connections within all levels of gaming. Co-founded by Spectacor Gaming’s executive operations manager Meredith Weber and communications manager Kelsey Rowley, the initiative was formed a little more than a year ago after Weber approached Spectacor Gaming president Tucker Roberts about starting a women in gaming initiative, “not really sure where it was going to go from there,” she says.

“But he was so gung-ho about it, gave us a budget right away, gave us some really good ideas right away, and then from that first conversation, it turned into a village of us,” she adds. “Kelsey got looped in right away and we kind of just built it up from there.”

Their first two events took place, respectively, in summer 2019 and this past February, both of them in collaboration with Nerd Street Gamers, in which Spectacor is an investor. Both events focused more on the behind-the-scenes side of women in gaming, connecting everyone from marketers to accountants to esports makeup artists. When it came time for their third event, a public-facing, gamer-forward tournament seemed a natural fit.

“We regrouped and said, ‘How do we expand this? Who else do we need to reach out to?'” says Paige Funk, senior marketing director at Nerd Street Gamers. “And the most obvious one was the actual gamers. They’re the ones on a daily basis who have to deal with hate language in chat or through voice communications and we really wanted to provide a community for gamers that were already within the industry, so ones that are amateur players, ones that are professional players.”

“But then also,” she adds, “reaching out to the next generation of competitors who might shy away from competing in general after one negative experience. Some of these girls could be 11, 12, 13 years old, really great at any given game, and then have one negative experience in a tournament because of people saying vulgar, nasty things to them. We want to make sure the message is, ‘You have a place in this industry and you have a community that’s gonna have your back and shut down all the hate.'”

And in terms of picking a game for their first tournament, “Valorant” had some unique appeal. For starters, the community code Riot’s written out for “Valorant,” as detailed on its website, matched the “core values” of what they were trying to build, Weber says.

But also, with “Valorant” being as new as it is, it represented the chance to get into the scene early, and help shape what that community turns out to be.

“We have a really unique opportunity to lay the groundwork of what the future of competitive ‘Valorant’ will look like and that’s because the game is so new,” Rowley says. “Riot’s still deciding what the future of the esport will look like, so we wanted to get in early and create this opportunity for some of the teams that are out there and beating the men.”

The qualifier, hosted by “Valorant” women’s Discord community GALorants, streamed on Nerd Street Gamers’ Twitch channel this past weekend. Prepared for any trolls or toxicity, they had about 10 to 15 moderators in the chat, although “99% of everything we saw was so positive,” says Funk, noting that the competitors themselves still “s— talk” like any professional athlete might do.

The feedback from that initial event, Funk, Weber and Rowley say, was overwhelmingly positive and encouraging, and bodes well for events like this in the future. But all three women agree that the women want to play with the men; it’s just a matter of giving equal opportunity to all gamers, as well as making sure those spaces are free of hate speech and harassment.

“‘Valorant’ is, as all video games are, an even playing field between men and women because it’s a video game, not a biological, physical activity,” Weber says. “Because I think that ‘Valorant’ is so new and there already is such a prominent female talent base in ‘Valorant,’ I think it’s going to be popular for a very long time. I think ‘Valorant’ really does have the potential of being the first video game equalizer between men and women, and that this is definitely the door opening for women to become more prominent in the entire esports scene as a whole.”

“Yes, it’s great that we have this all-woman tournament because it does create this safe space, but at the end of the day, they’re also competitors at heart and they want to compete with the best of the best,” says Rowley. “It’s gonna be really interesting to see how Riot heads up their esports landscape in the future, but I think the resounding call from women is that they want to compete alongside the men. It doesn’t need to be an NBA and a WNBA situation.”

The FTW Summer Showdown will be streamed on Nerd Street Gamers’ Twitch channel starting at 2 p.m. PT on Friday.