During the two decades that Holly Carroll, aka LadyWabeesh, has been playing games, she has gotten used to being the only female on the server. It wasn’t something she thought a lot about as she was destroying Ancients in Dota 2, taking down the Nexus in League of Legends, and raiding bases in Clash of Clans.

Then, in January 2015, Carroll, who is now 25, started playing Vainglory, a multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) designed for smartphones and tablets. Suddenly, she began encountering other girls like herself. They weren’t trying to be invisible, as female players often do when they played traditional MOBAs to avoid becoming a target for abuse. They played openly and proudly. “I have never met so many awesome girls who came together to game,” Carroll recalled.

In May 2015, Carroll was invited to join the Halcyon Hammers, a professional guild with a competitive team. The Hammers, as they sometimes call themselves, reached out to Carroll based on her skill playing support. The role, one of three that can be chosen by the three players that make up each Vainglory team, can be key to winning a game. It requires detailed mastery of gameplay and intensive resource management skills. In just a few short months, Carroll had grown exceptionally good at it.

“Her skill tier was the Pinnacle of Awesome,” said Michael “HHTikune” Robinson, CEO of Halcyon Hammers, which is both high praise and also a reference to the second-highest rank a player can achieve in the game based on the number of matches won and lost.

Carroll competed with the Hammers until the tournament schedule became too hard to juggle with her day job as an accountant. In July, she began coaching the Ardent Alliance, another top-ranked guild. One day, as she was chatting with Bree “Brizzle McFizzle” Mimms, a member of Ardent, and Mari ‘Sphix’ Yanez one of the female founders of GankStars, currently a Vainglory International Premier League (VIPL) champion, Yanez suggested holding a female-only tournament. From that moment, the three friends couldn’t get the idea out of their heads.

It wasn’t that the women felt uncomfortable playing with their male peers. On the contrary, Guilds like Halcyon Hammers, GankStars, and Ardent went out of their way to welcome female players. Alex ‘PwntByUkrainian‘ Novosad, the manager of GankStars, likes to boast that his guild has the highest girl-to-guy ratio. But despite the supportive environment only a handful of women had stepped forward to compete.

“We wanted to do an event that would encourage more women to get their game faces on,” Carroll said. An all-female tournament seemed a great way to get women more deeply involved with Vainglory, but Carroll knew that it was also potentially controversial.

During the last two years, gender-specific tournaments have become a hot-button issue for some members of the gamer community. In July 2014, the International eSports Federation convened an emergency session to respond to a public outcry after the organization sanctioned a male-only Hearthstone tournament. Based in South Korea, the federation is made up of 42 nations from five continents. On July 3, the federation issued an apology: “The events which were initially set aside as the male division will now be open to all genders, and the events which were initially set as the female division will remain as they were.”

The organization explained its goal was to encourage more female participation, but this only mollified some of its critics. Others accused the IeSF of being woefully out of touch. “NO gender discrimination means NO gender discrimination means NO ONE EXCLUDED!!!” Mary Urquhart wrote in a comment on the organization’s Facebook page in response to the announcement.

Carroll and her friends weren’t sure what to expect when they approached Super Evil Megacorp, the developer and publisher of Vainglory, and Mobcrush, a Twitch-like platform focused on mobile games, to sponsor the tournament. Speaking carefully, they emphasized how the tournament could help both companies expand their audience. “We said we wanted to encourage a larger part of their demographic to come out and showcase their skills,” Carroll recalled.

The companies responded without hesitation. “We were happy to support it,” said Heini Vesander, marketing and communications director at Super Evil Megacorp. In an interview with News From Planet Twitch, Vesander emphasized the developer wasn’t seeking to make a statement about gender, per se. Vainglory was designed for all players, everywhere. “We are inviting everyone to play,” Vesander said. “Diversity for us doesn’t mean only gender; it also includes age and nationality. We hope to be a globally played title where everyone feels welcome.”

Among game developers, Super Evil Megacorp may be the best positioned to introduce MOBAs—and eSports in general—to a wider demographic. MOBAs like the League of Legends have traditionally attracted predominantly male players 25 years old and younger. Formed in 2012 by veterans from companies like Electronic Arts, Riot Games and Blizzard Entertainment, Super Evil Megacorp is betting that redesigning MOBAs for touch-screen devices will draw in more players who are older and female, as well as young men who were put off by the level of commitment traditional MOBAs required.

“I kind of feel like MOBAs were invented on the wrong platform,” Kristian Segerstrale, chief operating officer of Super Evil Megacorp told Alex Ray Corriea, a writer for Polygon, in June 2014. What Segerstrale and the other co-founders saw in smartphones and tablets were devices that were inherently social. Instead of playing alone in a room with a headset, blocking out the world, a gamer would be able to play a MOBA designed for a smartphone or tablet anywhere and with anyone.

“In a way, we are reinventing the LAN party,” Bob Daly, CEO of Super Evil Megacorp, explained.

When the company launched Vainglory in November 2014, the Guardian named it the best iPhone and iPad game of the year. Reviewer Stuart Dredge called it “marvelously enjoyable.” Mike Fahey from Kotaku confessed that “my favorite MOBA so far is a mobile game,” referring to Vainglory.

Almost immediately, Vainglory began to draw in gamers who had typically turned away from more traditional MOBAs. A full-time student, Bryan “SFX” Peralta didn’t have the time required to master League of Legends or Dota 2. But when a friend in Las Vegas persuaded him to try Vainglory in December, he was immediately drawn in. “I was like, man, this is really easy to learn,” he said. Peralta became obsessed with improving his skill tier. In search of reliable, skilled teammates, he applied to join the Halcyon Hammers and was accepted.

 

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Marielen, founding member of LadyHammers

 

Marielen Galsim was a long-time Nintendo gamer with no interest in MOBAs. Then one day, after the 20-year-old theater student finished class on the campus of California State University, Northridge, she found her cousin sitting in the student lounge engrossed in Vainglory. “Ever since then it is all I want to do,” she said. At first she played solo, matching with random players and posting screen shots of her matches on Twitter. Soon she was getting noticed by more advanced players.

In April, Galsim competed with the Wicked Guild for the best team in North America in the Vainglory League. Her team made it to the quarterfinals before Galsim dropped out. “I didn’t think my skills were as good as my other teammates,” she confessed.

But the shortcomings Galsim perceived in her gameplay weren’t evident to other gamers who particularly admired how she handled a hero named Petal. At the end of June, Peralta suggested she might enjoy participating in a Twitch broadcast organized by his wife, Mary Hyacinth “Wanderlily” Peralta. Like her husband SFX, Wanderlily had grown addicted to the game, sometimes playing it into the wee hours of the night. For her debut as a streamer on Twitch, she decided to put together a six-way ladies’ night.

 

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Wanderlily, founding member of the LadyHammers

 

The Twitch broadcast attracted top female players like Mina “PinayBaby” Pureza, 26, and Kristen “Kr1stenbear” Wong, 21. In addition to their enthusiasm for Vainglory, the women discovered common interests outside gaming. Two were mothers of infants (Wong and Peralta), two were college students (Wong and Galsim), and all came from Filipino families. In July, Galsim, Pureza and Wong met in person for the first time at a LAN party in San Diego and their friendship deepened.

The vision that Super Evil Megacorp had of a MOBA that could be played in person together with friends was turning into reality. According to an in-game survey, more than half of Vainglory’s 1.5 million monthly active users were getting together in real life to play.

The Femme Fatale tournament was announced in a Vainglory forum during the last week of September. Pureza saw the news and asked her friends what they thought. “At first, we were going to participate as friends having fun,” Galsim recalled. “Then we got serious about winning.”

Rommel “Hardek” Soriano, leader and team captain of the top-ranking Vainglory team Nemesis Hydra began coaching the women whenever he saw them online. He wasn’t particularly tactful in his criticism. “My brother is a troll,” Wong says, only half joking. But the LadyHammers knew how badly he wanted them to win, and they paid attention.

 

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PinayBaby, founding member of the LadyHammers

 

When the Halcyon Hammers heard that Peralta’s wife and friends were preparing for the Femme Fatale, they invited them to become part of the guild. “After Lady Wabeesh left we were on the lookout for female talent,” Robinson, the Halcyon Hammers CEO told News From Planet Twitch. “There were a lot of things that were neat about these players. Gender aside, they were very competitive. And, at least two of them lived in the same geographic area so they could physically meet up. I think that gave them a little bit of an edge.”

Peralta, Wong, Galsim and Pureza had already registered for the tournament under the informal aegis of another guild. But the Hammers were offering long-term support and the infrastructure of a professional organization. They agreed to meet in San Diego in person to weigh Robinson’s proposal. “We decided if we joined the Halcyon Hammers that we would benefit as a team,” Peralta said. “The Hammers have very skilled players and we could learn their strategies.” The LadyHammers team was born.

A week before the tournament, the LadyHammers made a final push. They met online every night at 9:30 p.m. after Pureza got off work as a patient care representative at local children’s hospital. Once everyone was logged on, they played matches until early the next morning.

 

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Kr1stenbear, founding member of the LadyHammers

 

On November 7, the day of the tournament, Pureza, Galsim and Wong met at a Starbucks in San Diego. Over hot chocolate and iced coffee, they talked about the upcoming competition, which heroes they should play and which they should ban. Then they went back to Pureza’s house and set up their gaming headquarters in her bedroom. Pureza let her family know that she was going to need the Internet. The LadyHammers settled into the most comfortable positions they could find. Galsim and Pureza took places on the bed, while Wong found she could focus best on the floor. Peralta, who had agreed to substitute if anything happened to any of the players during the match, remained in Las Vegas.

The scene was nothing like the giant stadiums where world championships are now held for games like the League of Legends and Dota 2. The 24 teams that had qualified to compete in the Femme Fatale Tournament in Europe, Southeast Asia and North America were on their own in terms of finding a place to play, but that didn’t diminish their enthusiasm.

At 1:15 p.m. PST the LadyHammers began their first qualifying match. They won it and the match that followed. With the entire region limited to just eight teams, the LadyHammers’ two wins placed them in the North American finals. The title would go to whoever won two of the three final matches. There was no time to waste. The women turned their attention to the live stream to watch as Team Vertigo defeated the GankStars. They wanted to learn as much as they could about their competition.

At 3:03 p.m. PST, the heroes for the first of the three final games were revealed, along with the single hero that would be banned for use by the opposing team. On the LadyHammers’ side, there was Ringo, a sniper, played by PinayBaby; Koshka, an assassin that can act as a carry or support, played by Kr1stenbear and Fortress, a protector that can also act as a carry or support, played by Marielen, with a ban on Skaarf. For Team Vertigo there was Joule, a warrior, played by Annamarey; Koshka played by Snugglesnatch and Fortress played by Velarae, with a ban on Ardan.

Taking a closer look at the LadyHammer’s initial builds—and, in particular, the double Weapon Blades PinayBaby and Kr1stenbear had chosen—Carroll raised her eyebrows. Typically, the two carries on a team don’t both build weapons. It makes counter building easier for the other team. Did the LadyHammers have something up their sleeves?

 

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BrizzleMcfizzle and Lady Wabeesh

 

“This is probably the strangest matchup we’ve seen today,” Carroll said.

“I love strange,” Mimms countered.

“It would be in the finals that we would see something like this,” Carroll said.

As the game got underway, PinayBaby raced down the lane, while Kr1stenbear and Marielen headed for the jungle where they found Snugglesnatch and Velarae waiting for them, weapons ready.

“Kr1stenbear is in a lot of trouble here,” Carroll said. “They want her down.”

A slender, soft-spoken woman, Kr1stenbear or Kristen Wong, spends her days studying health-care technology and taking care of an infant. If you met her on the street, you would never imagine she spends her nights engaging in deadly online combat. But games have always been part of Wong’s life. Growing up in Cavite, a city on Manila Bay in the Philippines, Wong’s parents opened up a computer store to give Wong and her brother a place where they could play games to their hearts’ content. It was like being a hockey player and having your parents take over the local rink.

In the year since Vainglory was released, both Wong and her brother have become known as formidable players. On the Halcyon Fold, Vainglory’s playing field, Kr1stenbear is considered particularly dangerous when playing a predator hero known as Glaive.

“I am going to have nightmares about Kr1stenbear’s Glaive,” Mimms said after watching her in one of the tournament’s early matches.

Though Kr1stenbear chose a different hero for the initial match against Team Vertigo, her opponents still considered her a threat. For six seconds the hand-to-hand combat was so fierce it was impossible to see who was winning. Then Kr1stenbear and Marielen emerged from the fray. The other players were dead, sent back to their base to be reincarnated.

“I did not expect them to come out ahead in that exchange,” Mimms said.

Six minutes into the game, the LadyHammers took the gold mine. But even with the loot, however, they lagged behind with only 4,900 in gold compared to 5,200 for Team Vertigo.

Eight minutes later, the LadyHammers’ gold stash has grown to 15,200 with 13 kills versus 14,200 in gold and 11 kills for Team Vertigo.

“This is such a close game,” Mimms groaned.

Four minutes later LadyHammers had 18,200 gold pieces and 14 kills versus 18,000 in gold and 14 kills for Team Vertigo.

“Who do you think is going to win?” Mimms asked Carroll. “Who do you think has the advantage?”

“I could not pick,” Carroll said. “It could go either way.”

Twenty-three minutes into the game, Annamarey from Team Vertigo began dueling with the Kraken, a hulking monster with the ability to flatten turrets and clear the path to the enemy Vain. The team that captures the Kraken has a good chance of winning the match.

Marielen had one chance to jump in at the last minute and wield the final blow. She seized the opportunity but failed take control of the Kraken.

“Annamarey just soloed that thing,” Carroll exclaimed in awe. “She is a force to be reckoned with.”

The Kraken, now captured by Team Vertigo, lumbered up the lane, smashing the LadyHammers’ turrets. It faced the Vain, the crystal that is the objective of every Vainglory match. The Kraken destroyed the turret to the right of the Vain, and it destroyed the turret to the left. Then, just as the Kraken was swatting at the Vain, the LadyHammers brought it down, saving their crystal. Immediately, the women wheeled their heroes around and raced toward Team Vertigo’s Vain. Within 45 seconds, the LadyHammers had destroyed all but one of the turrets protecting the prize.

Playing it safe, they retreated, but only for a moment.

Twenty-eight minutes and 21 seconds after the first final match had begun, it was over.

“If the LadyHammers win this, there will be no third match,” Carroll said. The Femme Fatale Tournament had already finished in other regions, with SpiceGirls winning in Europe and Ambrosia winning in South East Asia.

But Mimms thought Team Vertigo would stage a comeback. “I really think it will take three matches,” Mimms said.

Back in San Diego, the LadyHammers decided to change the heroes they were playing after Team Vertigo banned Koshka, the hero Kr1stenbear had effectively maneuvered in the first match. This time, Kr1stenbear chose Celeste, a mage who can summon the stars to provide artillery and reconnaissance. PinayBaby selected Glaive, a rocket-axe wielding brute, and Marielen went with Catherine, a protector who is known as one of the most reliable and consistent Vainglory heroes. The LadyHammers banned Skaarf.

Team Vertigo moved Snugglesnatch to Fortress and Celeste to Annamarey and gave Taka, a switchblade-wielding assassin, to Velarae.

“You wouldn’t know what to expect if you were on Team Vertigo right now,” Carroll said.

Just minutes into the game it became clear the LadyHammers had lost their advantage. With the match clock at 17:00, Team Vertigo had amassed ten kills and 19,200 in gold. In contrast, the LadyHammers had zero kills and just 10,000 in gold. The contest was a rout. It ended at 22:00 without the LadyHammers bringing down a single hero controlled by Team Vertigo.

“I am going to say this has been a perfect game for Vertigo,” Mimms said.

Reflecting back on the game a few weeks later, Marielen called it “a hard loss.” But neither she nor her teammates panicked. “What went through my head was, ‘this is it, either go big or go home,’” she said.

The LadyHammers had just moments to regroup before the last match. They banned Taka and reverted to heroes they felt more comfortable with. Kr1stenbear reclaimed Glaive; PinayBaby picked up Ringo and Marielen took Ardan, a protector who can rescue teammates on the verge of death.

“I felt as long as we had Ardan, we would do good in the fight,” Marielen said.

Team Vertigo kept Snugglesnatch on Fortress and gave Skaarf, a fire-breathing, damage-dealing dragon to Annamarey. Velarae got Rona, a warrior with a special resource known as bloodrage.

As the teams prepared for a final battle for the Halcyon Fold, Carroll took a moment to address some criticisms of the tournament. “I do see some comments in chat that this is sexist, and let’s make a male-only tournament,” she said. “Let’s face it, a lot of tournaments are male only.”

Though the reaction of the Vainglory community to the Femme Fatale tournament was overwhelmingly positive, with support extending from China to Australia, a handful of gamers feigned difficulty understanding that “females-only” meant that everyone on the team had to be female. Out of the 55 teams who applied for the Femme Fatale about half were disqualified because they included males. “They were trying to be funny,” Carroll said. The would-be gender benders were also partially motivated by the $2300 in prize money contributed by Mobcrush and GankStars. (Both Mobcrush and GankStars also underwrote the cost of putting on the tournament.)

Talk of gender during the tournament quickly turned light-hearted when Evan “Playoffbeard,” Denbaum,  head of community and editorial at Super Evil Megacorp started asking in chat for a beards-only tournament. “I could grow a very nice beard,” Carroll responded. “I would be a very good-looking man.”

The giddiness ended once the final match began. The viewer count, which had been climbing all day, would pass 17,000 by the time the tournament ended.

A brief skirmish in the lane between PinayBaby’s Ringo and Annamarey’s Skaarf was followed by a team fight in the jungle. Snugglesnatch’s Fortress and Velarae’s Rona were the first casualties. Velarae would die twice more, and Snugglesnatch would die once before the LadyHammers suffered their first loss.

“We see the LadyHammers are trying to take as much jungle as they can,” Carroll said. The humiliating loss that had occurred only an hour before suddenly seemed an anomaly, unlikely to be repeated.

When the Kraken spawned 15 minutes into the game, the LadyHammers were leading with 14 kills and 13,800 in gold versus four kills and 11,100 in gold for Team Vertigo. They quickly captured the Kraken and headed for the lane and Team Vertigo’s Vain. With two turrets destroyed and three remaining, Velarae’s Rona died a sixth time, and Annamarey’s Skaarf died a fourth time.

The LadyHammers rushed forward seeking to take advantage of the full 30 seconds before Rona and Skaarf would regenerate. They converged on the final two turrets.

“A Rona spin to win could really hurt right now,” Carroll said, referring to Rona’s ability to turn herself into a whirlwind of destruction. But a new Rona was still spawning. Only Fortress was available to attack the LadyHammers.

At 17:06, with all Team Vertigo’s turrets destroyed and the Kraken about to shatter their Vain, Velarae’s Rona and Annamarey’s Skaarf re-entered the battlefield. They fell on the Kraken, but time had run out. Team Vertigo’s Vain lay in splinters. The LadyHammers had become North America’s first all-female Vainglory champion team.

Pureza, Galim and Wong celebrated that evening at a Korean steakhouse. They felt relieved and also vindicated. “Before the tournament we were losing our motivation to play,” Wong said. “We felt we weren’t achieving anything. After the tournament, we felt so alive and refreshed.”

The LadyHammers had shown each other that they had what it takes. More than just a group of friends, they were now, most definitely, an eSports team ready to take on the world. They agreed to begin recruiting other members and started preparing for their first co-ed competition. This week, registration opened for the Vainglory World Series. The LadyHammers plan to be there, competing on the North American servers between January 2 — January 10.