Madison "Maddiesuun" Mann doesn't want to be interviewed at this moment. Instead, she thinks she should be playing alongside her teammates for a chance at Dreamhack's $250,000 Fortnite prize pool.
She's still replaying what happened to her the previous day at the Dreamhack gaming convention in Anaheim, California, when Maddiesuun's entire row of competitors lost power in their computers. She was given no extra time to make up for her lost game and was awarded zero points during the match she lost power in, putting her at a massive disadvantage compared to the rest of the field that didn't have technical issues. When it was all over, she finished 10 points below the mark needed to advance to the semifinals.
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"I absolutely would have made it," she told ESPN. "It was heartbreaking, but when I look at it, it all happened for a good reason. I gave our new teammate Moqii my drop spot for the second round, and she ended up making it through to finals with it and even then doing well in finals with that drop spot. I also would not have been there to support her after every game to keep her motivated. It sucked because I hate losing and wanted to prove my hard work these last two months were paying off, but they paid off in a completely different way."
Dominic Kallas, head of U.S. operations for esports organization Gen.G, is glad to get her mind off gaming for at least a half hour. On the day of the semifinals for the $250,000 Fortnite event being held at Dreamhack, the 21-year-old professional gamer from Massachusetts can only watch over her teammates' shoulders to see if they can qualify for the Sunday final.
Though her varied interests came up in conversation -- being a role model for women in games and a mental health advocate to name a few -- everything always came back to the same thing: winning. She doesn't care if she plays against men or women, and she gets more aggravated over Epic Games allowing console players with controllers to play with PC users than anything to do with gender.
"My main goal is just winning," she said. "I'm just a competitive person and want to win. I enjoy being a figure for women and to help in the future as my side goal I would say, but focusing on myself, being a better player, a better person and role model, and win. I want to win. That's all."
Although Tim Sweeney, CEO of Epic Games estimated that 35% of the Fortnite player base is female, no women qualified for the Fortnite World Cup event held in New York City last summer. This is where Gen.G, an esports organization founded in 2017 with bases of operation in Los Angeles, Seoul and Shanghai, wanted to make a difference. They signed Maddiesuun along with friend and duos partner Tina "TINARAES" Perez to create the first professional all-women's team in Fortnite.
"Maddie and I's first interaction came from her killing me in another battle royale then coming into my stream after in early 2017," TINARAES said to ESPN. "After that game ended up dying out months later, I moved on to Fortnite where she actually had no interest in playing at the time until I could finally convince her to play with me! Soon enough we became some of the top competitors in Fortnite, then signed to Gen.G Esports in late 2018."
Gen.G didn't even realize that the two were close before signing them. They had each gotten onto the organization's radar as individual talents before getting simultaneous offers to join the team. When they both realized what was happening, it was a no-brainer to sign with an organization that has already built world championship contenders in global titles such as League of Legends and another battle royale franchise, PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds.
Although the date or location for the 2020 Fortnite World Cup hasn't been released, if there is one, Gen.G will be ready to take part and continue on their path of making the esports space more inclusive for all.
Gen.G's 21-year-old star, however, isn't just thinking about taking part in the World Cup. She's thinking about what steps she needs to take to win it.
Although she's a positive, talkative personality, streaming daily on Twitch and communicating with a legion of fans on social media, it wasn't always so easy for Maddiesuun. She wasn't one to talk to her teammates while playing soccer when she was younger. When she was on the field, she just did her job, and did it well, but had a difficult time making connections due to her social anxiety about opening up to people.
Two things during her life as an adolescent would help her become who she is today: video games and a soccer star.
When she was 9, her father and brother introduced her to the free-to-play first-person shooter Combat Arms. One day, after watching them play, she asked if she could try playing and came to realize she was a natural at it. Although she had trouble making friends in real life, her love of Combat Arms allowed her to find a voice online, where she made lifelong friends from around the world, whom she still talks to.
Even as her passion for video games grew, she still loved soccer. Behind her modest computer where she would spend hours playing Combat Arms hung her various soccer medals and a poster of the New England Revolution team lined up. Her daily routine would consist of playing a few games of Combat Arms after school and then heading back outside to kick a ball against a fence, even playing with her dog. Then she would go back inside for more video games. Then outside again for soccer. Together, they were the two halves that made her feel whole.
Eventually, she found someone who inspired her to take her passions to the next level -- United States women's national soccer team superstar Alex Morgan.
"I used to look up to Alex Morgan as a kid, I wanted to be her when I grew up," Maddiesuun said. "I started watching the women's U.S. team and Alex Morgan was basically the star of the team, so I started following her on social media. Then when they won the World Cup in 2015, she became one of my biggest inspirations to pursue soccer as a possible career."
At that World Cup, Morgan battled through a knee injury before the tournament to help lead the national team to its first world championship in 16 years and third overall title.
Watching the women's team succeed at the World Cup inspired Maddiesuun to play soccer in college. Her former captain even helped her get in touch with the coach at Salem State University. Maddiesuun was already on her high school's varsity team, playing with and against 17-year-olds when she was only in the eighth grade, so playing soccer in college was her clear goal.
However, it was a tug of war between her two loves of soccer and video games. By the time she was ready to graduate, she was already streaming on Twitch, and the battle royale craze was in full swing with PUBG and H1Z1 populating the front page.
Eventually, she decided that although she loved soccer, another four years of school just didn't feel like something she could handle. Instead, she decided to give streaming a shot, which would lead her to TwitchCon that year where a new game called "Fortnite: Save the World" was being talked about. A few months later, Maddiesuun found the video game she would come to love as much as soccer.
Her father, Alex Mann, watched from the sidelines. While some fathers would have been disappointed at their child walking away from a possible future as an athlete, he saw it as his daughter taking the lessons and leadership she learned from sports and carrying it over into her new life. To him, she's already a professional athlete by playing for Gen.G in Fortnite.
"Her focus and determination to be one of the best players is amazing," Mann said. "Imagine watching someone grow up and take the passion for gaming and make it into a profession of being an esports athlete. She went from being my daughter to a badass role model and a woman that any father should be proud of."
Her parents, who have supported her journey in video games since the beginning, have continued to cheer her on as she has embarked on a new life in Los Angeles where Gen.G's American offices are located.
"It was one of the best parenting experiences I've had, watching my child come out of her shell, live her dream and make me so very, very proud," her mother Karen Whalen said.
The online gaming world has given Maddiesuun the opportunity to engage in competition but avoid the overwhelming dread that comes with social anxiety. Although she hasn't yet met her Combat Arms friends in person, she hopes that her new career path as a pro Fortnite player will give her an opportunity to check off some names.
"Can I swear?" Maddiesun asked when she was asked what she would tell young women who get backlash for loving video games or wanting to be competitive.
"Yeah," I said.
"[They should] say f--- it," she said. "My teammate Moqii who we just signed is 13, and I literally see myself in her, because she's so anxious and so awkward and so funny at the same time, [while] being so good. It's like, just calm down. From my own personal experience, anxiety is a battle with yourself that you have to give yourself the middle finger and just do it."
The first time Maddiesuun streamed as a teenager, she didn't use a web camera. She didn't want people to know what she looked like or have strangers on the internet give opinions about her. It was an internal wrestling match of fearing what could possibly happen if she opened herself up to a wider online community.
After meeting her future Gen.G teammate TINARAES and meeting new people at the very same TwitchCon where Fortnite was being showcased before its debut, she began using a webcam. Her initial attempt was highlighted by her not moving -- or at least she thinks she didn't move -- throughout the entire broadcast, afraid of what would happen if she did something awkward or out of place. She cranked up the webcam's contrast feature as high as it would go in an attempt to make herself feel more comfortable.
Over time though, she began opening up to her growing community, becoming more sarcastic and easygoing as she played. She pushed herself out of her comfort zone, battling her anxiety, and came to realize that the people who were watching and came back every day to see her play Fortnite didn't care about how her hair looked or if she was a man or a woman. It was about her gameplay and humor, the same things that helped her build her first friendships on Combat Arms.
Along with her early gaming background, watching Alex Morgan and the U.S. women's team also helped her prepare to live a public life as a streamer amid the trolls that attack women who want to compete at the highest level.
"The women's soccer players experience a lot of the same toxic comments women gamers get," Maddiesuun said. "And I always saw [Alex Morgan] as a badass who loves what she does just how I love what I do."
The toxicity, which is rampant toward women on social media, hasn't gone away. What has changed is Maddiesuun's attitude toward it. She knows she can't change the opinion of internet trolls, so she doesn't let offhand comments get to her like they might have in the past when she was still struggling with her own self-confidence. And although she admits she can sometimes still "snap back" at the trolls, for the most part, the "mute" button on Twitter has become one of her closest friends.
In the future, she wants to travel to schools and talk to kids, girls and boys, about competitive gaming and fostering a healthy community. To her, it's all about getting people on the same page, so that there's no reason to bully or demean someone for liking a specific video game or for aspiring to play a game or sport at the highest level.
Right now, though, she's still working on herself. Being a role model to younger women is great, but navigating her rewarding (but stressful) life as a professional Fortnite player is something she needs to grow into fully before she feels confident enough to encourage others. It's a confidence that has grown since she started playing video games.
"Video games mean ... the world," she said. "I think it's personal, because I've been growing up with them for so long. It would be weird not seeing myself playing video games. I don't want it to [feel] like a job. I don't want to say, 'Oh that's [just] my job.' I want to say that's my passion. I want to say that's my goal, I want to be the best."