Overwatch League’s first female coach talks Korea, Contenders, and sexism
It isn’t every day that you see someone announce on Twitter that she is taking time off law school to focus on… Overwatch. But that’s exactly what Molly “AVALLA” Kim did in late August, when she tweeted, “I will be taking a break off from law school and coaching Overwatch full time for a while”. Then again this energetic, well-spoken woman is not your average Overwatch coach. AVALLA, whose nickname is an abbreviation of Ice Vanilla Latte, was the only active female coach in Contenders Korea during Season 2, coaching while attending law school, and she was just hired as the League’s first female coach on the Washington, DC team.
I spoke to AVALLA in September 2018, in the midst of a relentless stream of leaks, scoops and bombshell announcements about the second season of the Overwatch League. AVALLA disclosed to me that she was in talks with OWL teams to join as a member of coaching staff, and so this interview was thus conducted with the understanding that there was a good chance she would be joining OWL.
This interview was originally conducted in Korean, but has been translated to English. The transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
First of all, please introduce yourself for fans of pro Overwatch who do not watch Contenders Korea.
AVALLA: Hi, nice to meet you, I’m AVALLA. I started coaching in the Tier 3 scene with a team called Frecia Gaming, and then went on to work for OpTic Academy (now GG Esports Academy) in Contenders NA, and after that as a coach for Meta Bellum in Contenders Korea. I’m one of the few female coaches in Contenders.
You said you started out in the Tier 3 scene. Can you tell us more about how you started in pro Overwatch, and how you came to be a coach for Meta Bellum?
AVALLA: I was originally just a regular college student preparing for law school. After I took the entrance exam for law school (LEET) in August , as I was preparing for the interview, I started visiting Inven’s Overwatch page, since I had had a lot of fun playing Overwatch up till then.
On Inven, I saw a recruitment notice seeking a manager for an aspiring pro team, and I signed up. As manager, I would record VODs, give individual feedback to players after scrims, and in doing all that I think I basically served as a coach as well as a manager. I also dreamed briefly of being a pro myself, I went between 4400-4500 SR and I also hit a two digit rank on T500. I even trialed and was accepted into a team, but I gave up quickly because of the difficulties of joining a team house with other [male] players. So I turned my attention to coaching.
Q. You posted on Twitter that you’re taking a break from law school. Was there a particular reason you decided that you wanted to get into Overwatch esports, despite the potential instability and relative newness of the scene?
AVALLA: There’s that saying, right? “If you love what you do then you will never have to work a single day in your life.” I think it’s really exactly that. Honestly for a semester in law school, I studied both Overwatch and law, and I liked them both equally. But then during summer break, I committed fully to Overwatch, and it was so fun. Watching scrims, giving feedback, going to the arena – I was really happy. When the season ended, about 3 weeks before the semester was about to start, I opened my civil law book to get a head start, and I thought: I don’t want to study. Studying is not fun. That was a very weird feeling for me, as someone who has pretty much only studied for 25 years. And that’s when I realized, wow, I really need to continue with Overwatch. I have to go to Overwatch League. I applied for a leave of absence.
After spending one season in open divison, NA Contenders, and KR Contenders, I am finally here at @overwatchleague . As far as I know, I think I am the first female coach to make it here. Will work hard. I gave up law school to coach here
— AVALLA 아바라 (@avalla_ow) September 20, 2018
Q. It seems as though you have a lot of vested interest in not only Contenders but also Contenders Trials and Open Division. What do you think is the skill level difference between Tiers 2, 3, and 4? For instance, are there players in Tier 3 that you think you’d like to bring to Overwatch League?
AVALLA: If we think of OWL as Tier 1, Contenders as Tier 2, and Open Division as Tier 3, then of course there’s a difference in level, no avoiding it. What I felt working in a Tier 3 team was that original Contenders teams aren’t willing to scrim with you. They find that scrims are one-sided, and it’s not very good practice. Tier 3 teams, if they get the opportunity to scrim with a Contenders team, get really excited for that scrim and they practice for 2 hours ahead of time, warming up their hands and practicing their aim, and then after that scrim they watch the VODs and work hard on feedback. There’s so much to learn from scrimming with higher tier teams. So I actually want to take this opportunity to thank teams that did scrim with us, like Element Mystic, BlossoM, and Kongdoo Panthera.
There are, of course, individually and mechanically gifted players in the Tier 3 scene. I’ve trialed players from the Tier 3 scene, and some of them have really stood out, that even higher tier pro players would comment, “oh wow, that player can really aim.” That might be why I continue to maintain a strong interest in the Tier 3 scene, because I want to discover these hidden gem players.
Q. Are there players or teams from Contenders regions outside of Korea that you are keeping an eye on? What’s a Contenders match or team that you’ve watched with interest?
AVALLA: Yes, since I worked in Contenders NA for quite a while, I’m interested in that region. I’ve been paying attention to Smurf, who was also at OpTic Academy. He’s a main tank, with an instinctively intelligent play style and great potential. And he’s also young. I think he’ll become a top tier Winston within this season. I’m also watching Corey. He’s an American DPS player, his aim is OWL level and he can really carry a game.
A Contenders team I watched with interest was NRG. We scrimmed each other when I was at OpTic, and when we made the semi-finals, they also continued scrimming with us on a previous patch, which I was grateful for. Their strategies were pretty unusual, like using Ana-Zenyatta on attack, for example. And their players really matured a lot in Season 2 compared to Season 1. So I’ve been watching them with interest because of that.
Q. Can you pick a current OWL coach that you rate highly? Who’s a coach that you find it difficult to go up against?
While having meetings with OWL teams during this off-season, I got asked, “So what is your goal now, if you make it to OWL?” I answered, “To be like Wizardhyeong!” In terms of analyzing players and formulating strategies, I think he’s unmatched.
A coach I find tricky to go up against is NineK, who’s currently coaching for San Francisco Shock and used to coach NRG in Contenders (when I was at OpTic). It felt like we had similar thought processes, and he was always one step ahead watching me. Like he was looking 3 moves ahead? Thankfully our players did well and we beat NRG, but I remember that match being very tough.
Q. A while ago, you posted on Twitter that you took legal action with regards to personal attacks targeting you online. Can you explain to us the circumstances, and how those attacks affected you?
A. Well, as I mentioned before, I search for myself online quite a bit. So of course I read all the comments on the videos I’m in. One of the things that was hardest to deal with were the Twitch comments, when I was shown on stream doing an interview, or if I was shown coaching players. I think that was the hardest time for me as an Overwatch coach. I often thought, I’m here to coach, why are people watching this busy commenting on my looks? I lived for a long time outside of Korea, and I graduated college in the US, so getting comments on my looks in and of itself is a very alien experience. So I felt weird watching people who did that. Initially I tweeted that people shouldn’t comment on my looks, but then as the days went by, these comments got worse, especially as the number of Twitch viewers increased. I realized that legal action was the only way for me to protect myself. I mean, what am I doing studying law if I’m not going to use it, right? I gathered a number of comments in the Twitch chat that I thought were unacceptable, and I sued for defamation at the police station. All the comments were accepted as defamatory, and the suit went through. A lot of cases have been turned over to the police. Most people I met who wanted to settle with me, or apologize, said the same things: “I didn’t even watch the stream for more than 20 minutes,” “I just got caught up in the stream chat,” “I don’t even know who you are,” “I don’t even play Overwatch,” etc. Just goes to show, one thoughtless comment can really hurt. Of course, I did not settle with anyone.
Q. This is an important career step for you, but the arrival of another female GM in OWL, the arrival of a female coach in OWL – I think these are important steps for many women aspiring toward careers in esports as well. Considering your experience as a coach in Contenders Korea, is there anything you want to say to those women?
A. I expect it will be a very hard path. The person who first recommended me to OpTic Academy mistakenly thought I was a man, and when he heard later that a female coach arrived, he thought that the person he had recommended had not been hired. Even though I think my style of speech is pretty “feminine”, there are so few women in this scene that I’m still mistaken for a man. When I was trialing as a coach, and contacting GMs in Contenders Korea, it was a similar reaction. A lot of people thought I was a manager, or a translator, and they’d be surprised when they heard I was the coach. But even so, if you believe in your vision and skill, I think there will be an org and a team that will support you. In this scene, there will always be someone who likes you for no apparent reason, and hates you for no apparent reason. I just want to tell people – don’t torture yourself over those people that hate you. Draw strength and faith from the org and players who trust your abilities, the fans who cheer you on, and take it one step at a time.
Q. Were there any barriers you’ve faced in esports because you’re a woman?
A. I didn’t feel this as much outside of Korea, but in Korea it definitely felt like there were barriers specifically because I was female. As I mentioned before, I once trialed and was accepted to a team, but the org sponsor was against accepting me because they didn’t want men and women living together in the team house, so the team rescinded their offer. Similarly, I once trialed to be a coach and I was accepted, but the players said that they were uncomfortable living with a woman, and my appointment was cancelled. And you could also say that it was a barrier that I couldn’t live with the [Meta Bellum] players in the team house as their coach. I couldn’t grow close to the players because of this, and I still think that’s a shame.
When I was at OpTic, I got an offer that asked me to come to the US, and they would provide me with my own apartment. At the time, it was not possible for me to take time off law school, so I declined the offer, but the team didn’t care that they had to provide separate premises for me as a woman. And I noticed the same thing when I was meeting with other non-Korean OWL teams – they didn’t mind having a woman working for the team. So my desire to go to OWL grew even bigger in the off-season.
This is a slightly different topic, but women are also subject to a ridiculous standard when it comes to their looks. You may not have known this, but I was so stressed out about [the comments on] my looks during Contenders Korea that I would go to a makeup artist to get my hair and makeup done before attending a match. I was already busy preparing for the match, but I would also get so anxious about people saying something again about my looks, or hearing comments from people at the arena. Other coaches never worried about that kind of thing. People didn’t care about them. I guess I can’t ignore the fact that as a female coach, I garnered more attention. I hope that the atmosphere changes when the next female coach arrives in Contenders Korea, so that she doesn’t have to go through what I did.