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Holly Jennings on Pro-Gaming, eSports, and Arena

 

Cover detail from Arena by Holly Jennings

With a foot in reality. That’s how I prefer my science fiction. From Contact to Blade Runner to Gattaca, I love pointing at the screen and wondering, “What if that happens one day?” When I started writing my debut novel Arena, it was no different.

The inspiration, however, was years in the making.

It began with eSports

When I finished university in 2008, several of my friends traveled overseas for post-graduation vacations, business opportunities, or to teach English. Whether returning from China, Japan, or South Korea, they all came back with the same incredible news.

“You can’t believe what gaming is like over there,” they had exclaimed. “You know how we have a golf channel? They have a gaming channel. Twenty-four hours a day you watch the best of the best play games. Gamers are rock stars. No, bigger than rock stars. They’re gods.”

At the time we were all addicted to World of Warcraft, Fallout 3, and Guitar Hero, so the idea of being paid to play a video game, let alone get famous for it, was mind-blowing. But as far as I was concerned, that was overseas and would never, ever happen in North America.

Fast forward to 2013.

It was a rainy weekend and I was on a quest for story ideas, which meant I was clicking my way through Youtube videos about artificial intelligence, extra dimensions, and space weather (isn’t that how everyone spends their Saturday afternoons?). That’s when I stumbled across a documentary about pro gaming in North America.

I was thunderstruck – for about three seconds. Then, I squealed. Pro gaming was here, and thanks to technologically-driven millennials nearly every second of its existence had been recorded and uploaded to the Internet.

Looking back, the next few days of my life were fuzzy at best. I spent hours soaking in every digital moment, amazed at the depth of the world I’d uncovered. High stakes. Million dollar prizes. Sold out stadiums. Gamers viewed as athletes.

Just like traditional sports, competitive gaming had a heavy dose of corruption as well: teens hooked on energy drinks and Ritalin, managers pushing them to the physical and psychological brink, and sponsors abandoning players over a single loss. How much was true or false, I really only knew one thing…

There was a story here.

Then came Virtual Reality

Over the years, one of my favorite things about gaming has been watching its evolution. From pixel graphics to motion capture technology, from basic puzzle games to world-building that rivaled Middle Earth, the video game industry was evolving quickly – and then a Kickstarter campaign changed everything.

In 2012, Oculus proposed a crowdfunding campaign to develop a virtual reality headset and fans donated millions to see the technology brought to life. Palmer Luckey became a millionaire with the Rift, and then a billionaire when Facebook purchased it. Suddenly, dozens of companies were jumping on the virtual bandwagon. What was once mere science fiction was quickly becoming a reality.

Once the idea of combining eSports with VR tech converged in my mind, the concept exploded. Thousands of words came pouring out like fourth draft material. Never before, and so far never since, had writing felt so much like fire. But while I had a world, I still didn’t have a main character to occupy it.

The last key ingredient was still on its way.

The Final Dose of Inspiration: Women as Gamers and Fighters

In 2013, Video Game High School featured Jenny Matrix as captain of the Junior Varsity FPS team, and the UFC fans debated whether Ronda Rousey could fight a man. Still, gender disparity in the world of eSports could have rivalled workplace statistics pre-WWII.

Of course, to me that meant I’d uncovered the perfect environment to introduce an unapologetic female protagonist.

Over the following weeks, every spare minute I had (and some I usually used for sleep) went into developing a diverse and emotionally complex female gamer who was fierce with her fists and even more so with her tongue. Then, I threw her into the virtual arena and pitted her against men double her size. Win or lose, she’d end every match wiping blood from the smile on her face. A fighter to her very core, she was someone who could make Kitana eat her heart out (and when we’re talking about Mortal Kombat, that could mean literally).

However, she wasn’t without her faults, doubts, contradictions, or soft spots. At times, she felt torn between her American-Chinese heritage. She’d break down. She’d cry. She’d punch things when no one was looking, and sometimes when they were. But she used both her flaws and strengths to dominate in the virtual arena, breaking stereotypes and shattering records.

Now, it’s 2016. Arena is on the shelves alongside the first at-home VR headsets, competitive gaming tournaments are being televised in prime time, and League of Legends has had its first female gamer make it to the pros. While we’re still years away from the Holodeck, for me the sweetest payoff from writing this novel is the excitement I get to see in a reader’s eyes.

“This is so realistic,” they tell me. “What if this happens one day?”

Honestly — I really hope it does.

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