Game changer: Meet the woman at the center of esports’ biggest live eventsFebruary 15, 2023 | By Sophie Hares
Growing up an only child in Belgium, Eefje “Sjokz” Depoortere would spend hours glued to the single video game that came with the secondhand Sega console her parents bought to keep her occupied while they were at work.
After convincing her parents to upgrade to a PC, she quickly became hooked on Tomb Raider III — one of the few action franchises featuring a female hero. And before long, she found herself at home in the tight-knit gaming community where she spent her teens playing competitively.
At university, Depoortere turned her attention to more practical matters and studied sports journalism. But during her free time, she became fascinated with League of Legends, the multiplayer online battle game that has grown into one of the largest esports in the world, with live competitions on six continents drawing thousands — and millions more watching online.
Realizing that she could combine her journalism skills with her love of gaming, she began interviewing competitive gamers. And the lifelong sports fanatic also began vibing on the adrenaline-fueled LoL live events.
“The atmosphere during the esports game is just as exciting as watching a football match,” says Depoortere, 35, who now lives in Berlin. “The cheers are just as loud and the roof blows off when something crazy happens.”
Thousands attended the 2022 League of Legends World Championship final in San Francisco. “The atmosphere during the esports game is just as exciting as watching a football match," Sjokz says. "The cheers are just as loud and the roof blows off when something crazy happens." (Photo courtesy Riot Games)
Known today in the gaming world simply as Sjokz (pronounced “Shox”), she is the host of the LoL European Championships and also anchors events in packed stadiums from Los Angeles to Shanghai. She is also a global brand ambassador for Mastercard, a global sponsor of League of Legends esports events, empowering women and girls in a community where nearly half of women in the U.S. report being harassed while playing.
“Gaming is a massive cultural phenomenon, but women are often missing from the upper echelons of the sport,” says Raja Rajamannar, Mastercard’s chief marketing and communications officer. “Celebrating and supporting talented women in sports — whether esports, soccer, tennis or other athletics — shatters stereotypes and presents fresh possibilities that can reverberate beyond the arena.”
A billion-dollar industry, esports is booming. Stadium events are recovering from the pandemic, and millions of online viewers watch superstar players such Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok dominate the LoL battlefield.
With so much riding on each event, Depoortere prepares meticulously. She spends hours researching each team and its players while rehearsing for the massive shows, so she is prepared for potential delays, such as product or network connection issues.
“In the beginning, I was usually a complete ball of nerves. It was almost like a traveling circus or a rock show— it was a whirlwind,” says Depoortere, who taught herself English by watching American television.
Still a gamer at heart, she takes any opportunity during live events to grab a spare seat in the audience to watch her favorite players in action. And she appreciates that her role as a Mastercard ambassador is helping raise the visibility of top-level gaming players like her. While more than 40% percent of gamers worldwide are women, just a handful make it to the top-ranked professional teams.
“There’s myriad reasons why it’s not always easy for [women] to break through,” she says. “Representation is extremely important. If you’re never going to see anyone like you on the big stage, why would you ever dream you could be able to?”
Sjokz's role as a global brand ambassador for Mastercard is helping raise the profile of women in gaming. (Photo courtesy Riot Games)
But change is afoot. New women-only circuits and live events like Riot Games’ VCT Game Changers program are paving the way for female teams to compete on an international stage.
As competitive gaming rockets in popularity, the line between esports and traditional sports is also blurring. Events demand players to physically train to perform to the best of their abilities, often employing nutritionists and fitness trainers to keep players in peak condition.
That kind of intensity only enhances Depoortere’s devotion to gaming. “I’m a sports fan, I love competition, and esports give me exactly that same feeling,” she says. “Watching our players play at the highest level is the coolest thing ever, I’ll never grow tired of it.”