“Wait, what did you say?” The conversation I was having with the man beside me in the StarCraft T-shirt had been swallowed up by 2,000 other spectators screaming and chanting “Scarlett! Scarlett!” This kind of fervor is usually associated with Madison Square Garden, not the Hammerstein Ballroom—a more elegant space two blocks north of the Garden.
A couple weeks later, the Hammerstein would host a performance of the Nutcracker Suite, but for now, the object of the crowd’s affection was Sasha “Scarlett” Hostyn. As the words “Victory!” flashed across the massive video screen behind her, the teenage Canadian tossed down her headphones and exited the glass isolation booth on center stage, taking a quick bow before sauntering over to a pair of broadcasters sitting nearby. There she leaned over with elbows propped, wobbling a bit. Her hands covered her mouth in an expression of disbelief. She had just pulled off a razor-thin upset over Ji Sung “Bomber” Choi, one of the top 10 StarCraft II players in the world, at a $50,000 tournament sponsored by Red Bull. To the trained eye, the thrilling match had a brutal ballet-like quality to it, even if Tchaikovsky might bristle at the comparison.
The fan next to me repeated what he had been trying to say earlier. “She’s the next foreign hope,” he said. Scarlett draped a Canadian flag over her green hoodie in celebration.
“Foreign hope.” In the competitive StarCraft scene, it’s a weirdly xenophobic mantle passed ingloriously to the best professional players born outside of South Korea. The sci-fi strategy game—imagine a frantic version of chess with dozens of aliens and men in spacesuits instead of a few static wooden pieces—was initially developed by Blizzard in southern California during the mid-’90s. Koreans embraced the game just as the country’s modern Internet infrastructure was falling into place, allowing for players to face off in the multiplayer mode with little to no connection lag.
Over the past decade and a half, StarCraft and its popular sequel (released in 2010) have reigned as something of a national sport in the small Asian nation. There are cable channels devoted to broadcasting tournaments, which are held in large arenas filled with thousands of shrieking fans. In this bombastic setting, professional players face off in one-on-one battles of fast reflexes—top pros can perform 300 actions per minute on keyboards—and on-the-fly tactics.
As North America’s top player, Scarlett took home about $35,000 in tournament prizes last year, less than a third of the winnings that a Korean champ like Lee “Jaedong” Jae Dong might take home. Players like Jaedong and Choi are considered minor national celebrities in Seoul. They have paid sponsorships, fan clubs, and sometimes even groupies—all spoils of top-level play. Korea’s Air Force created a professional StarCraft team a few years ago so players could keep their skills sharp during a two-year military service period the Korean government has made mandatory.
It makes sense on some level, then, that pro players outside of the small Asian nation are the ones considered “foreigners,” especially since South Korea produced all but one of the top 20 players last year, according to Blizzard’s global rankings. After Won “PartinG” Lee Sak, the StarCraft world champion in 2012, easily dispatched Scarlett in the first round of Red Bull Battle Grounds, he channeled a nerdy version of a pro wrestling villain during the post-game interview. He playfully dismissed Scarlett as “cute” and told the American crowd that he didn’t get nervous because “I never lose to foreigners.”
The North American StarCraft community started attaching the “foreign hope” label to Scarlett last year, after she nearly ousted Choi in the finals of a regional league championship and broke through the top 50 in the global rankings. But the phrase carries an added charge in Scarlett’s case, as she is a transgender woman thrust into a hypermasculine subculture comprised mostly of young guys. As fans clamor for a player to upset South Korean dominance, Scarlett’s sweet success is testing just how much this tight-knit community is willing to challenge the established order of their world.
Attitudes about homosexuals in America have shifted drastically over the past two decades, yet this wave of empathy and acceptance has been slower to reach transgender people. A survey conducted in 2009 by the Gay, Lesbian And Straight Education Network of 295 trans students between the ages of 13 and 20 found a high degree of victimization. Ninety percent of them had frequently heard derogatory remarks because of their gender expression, 53 percent had been pushed or shoved, and a quarter had been assaulted.
Transgender athletes face further marginalization since they participate in sports divided by gender. In terms of body structure, all human beings are essentially female for the first month of gestation in the womb, but after six weeks, embryos with a male gene develop testicles and the cells responsible for testosterone production. The athletic disparity between men and women widens during puberty when testosterone fuels higher bone density, more muscle mass, and greater height and weight in males.
Because of their different physiologies, male-to-female transgender athletes are often criticized for having unfair advantages when facing off against female opponents. Last March, when the mixed martial arts fighter Fallon Fox revealed in an interview that she’d been born a man, she faced overwhelming criticism and calls to ban her from fighting biological females. That furor included an infamous profanity-filled rant by Joe Rogan, a comedian and UFC commentator, arguing that Fox should be disqualified. The NCAA’s first openly transgender player, Kye Allums, sunk into suicidal depression after he came out in 2011 because the media scrutiny was so invasive and intense.
But if the existence of openly transgender athletes complicates the question of who belongs where, one might assume it’d be less of an issue in eSports, where physical advantages are minimized. All of the frantic intergalactic combat of StarCraft is performed through the proxy of a mouse and keyboard, meaning it has more in common with, say, Scrabble than MMA fighting.
Yet when Hostyn won the Iron Lady, a StarCraft tournament for women only in 2011 and 2012, her victory elicited outcries similar to those that Fox faced. The backlash prompted Scarlett to defend herself on a fan blog, saying she’d been invited by a tournament admin who was familiar with her situation.
“It is true I am [male-to-female] transgender, and I kinda expected this reaction. I have never tried to bring attention to myself for anything other than my play, so I don't feel like this should be a big deal,” Scarlett wrote. “Most of the girls I know knew about this already and don’t judge or care. In terms of actual play, there is (as far as I know) no advantage to being born male or female. But even if there was, being transgender means you are born with the brain of the opposite gender; so I would not have that advantage or disadvantage. All I ask is for people to be respectful and refer to me as ‘she.’”
Still, even when she plays against men in the pro circuit, Scarlett gets grief, and the anonymity of the Internet makes it easier for her detractors to find a forum. This is especially true in the eSports world, where even the pro players obscure their true identity with curiously spelled nicknames, and Reddit acts as the scene’s gossipy cyber town square. On sites like Twitch that air StarCraft video streams, the default setting puts viewers automatically into a chat room with other strangers.
New York City’s StarCraft fans may have voiced full-throated approval for Scarlett at Red Bull Battle Grounds, but watching the tournament online was a different and discomfiting experience. Roughly half of the chat transcript focuses on the action of the game, and in the other portion, spectators obsess over Scarlett’s sexuality, body parts, and looks. “scarlett travelled to thailand to have his pee pee removed,” claims one viewer with the handle Paoloone. “her dick is big?” asks Sb_vintage. Some of the interlocutors voice acceptance: “I accept her choice,” writes Wowcookiez. “I think it’s great as well as the way she plays. You know what, to hell with it. I’ll let the fanboys find out when they hug her/him.”
The controversy has overshadowed Scarlett’s riveting ascent into the upper echelon of StarCraft players, prompting a rebuke from the popular eSport commentator John “TotalBiscuit” Bain. When I asked TotalBiscuit about the negative attention Scarlett regularly receives, he sighed. “Scarlett has definitely become a target of transphobia and trans-hate. Ignorance fuels hate, and you add in the anonymity of the Internet and the general cowardice of the kind of people that do that, and it can result in a highly poisonous environment,” Bain said. “Being a pro player is hard enough. You’re constantly scrutinized. Being a successful, transgendered foreign pro player, I can’t imagine the amount of eyes on that and even the slightest error on your part gets used as an attack vendor. It saddens me.”
“Wait, you’re recording this? How long is it going to take?”
Despite her easy smile, Scarlett is a reluctant interview subject. During media day at Red Bull Battle Grounds, she ducked out of an interview with The New Yorker, and there were times during my short chat with her that I thought she might bolt. Scarlett’s awkward, coltish manner doesn’t come off as petulant so much as extreme shyness. It’s true of many competitive video game players—countless hours spent sitting by yourself, practicing at a computer, doesn’t exactly prepare you for public speaking.
Scarlett says that her own shyness used to be worse. “I’m a lot more comfortable now than I was like a year and a half ago. I was like really, really shy then,” she told me. “So it’s been good for me, and I’ve been more confident in myself—that sort of thing.”
If the frequent negative attention she receives is a factor in her wariness of the media, she doesn’t say so. She admitted that she does read a lot of what is written about her—a common practice among pro StarCraft players—even if a lot of it is “awful.”
“Yeah, I read it just to see what people are saying, but I don’t care what they say. You just get used to it after a while after reading the same stuff every day,” Scarlett said. “You just think that they’re idiots.”
Scarlett didn’t choose her gender, and in a strange way, she didn’t exactly choose StarCraft. She never had aspirations to play games professionally. As a young high school student, it was a hobby that she dabbled in. But after entering a few online tournaments for fun in early 2011, she found herself winning a lot of matches without much effort. The professional career fell into place from there.
Her parents talk about pro StarCraft more than she does, and it’s not a subject she discusses much with her close friends, either. 2013 was a breakout year for Scarlett’s eSports pursuits: She was the runner-up at NorthCon in December after losing in the finals to Jaedong. She also climbed to No. 21 in the sport’s global rankings. Despite her success, she has considered quitting or at least scaling back to part-time competition. She’s bored, and her wrists often hurt from repetitive stress injuries—a familiar ailment for programmers.
“I’ve been getting tired of the game recently, honestly,” she said. “Playing all the time is exhausting.”
What would the player nicknamed “Queen Of Blades” do instead of constantly clicking her Zerg forces into battle? Like most other people her age, she’s not sure. “I never knew what exactly I’ve wanted to do,” Hostyn said. “I got into this right out of high school, and I’m only 19. So, I can do whatever after this.”
Scarlett is arguably the most prominent transgender gamer in the world, but she doesn’t show much interest in being an outspoken advocate. Nor does she seem to care about fulfilling StarCraft’s fans’ fantasy of the “foreign hope.” She’d rather dance to the ballet of her own choosing.
(Fan art of “Scarlett, Queen Of Blades”: zetim on Reddit.)
Correction, February 7: An earlier version of this article misattributed an opinion piece to the eSports commentator Sean “Day” Plott. The piece was actually written by a community member at the DayTV website.