BSU Overwatch captain Maggie Borland shines under bright lights

Boise State Broncos bucking esports trends (3:58)

The Boise State Overwatch esports has not one, but two women on its team, including captain Maggie Borland. Katie Barnes talks to us about the pair. (3:58)

LAS VEGAS -- Maggie Borland stood on the sand in the Neon Museum's North Gallery in early March with her arms folded across her chest and waited for her cue from the cameraman. Her Overwatch teammates from Boise State University joked with one another behind her as they practiced their poses.

With the camera rolling, the six team members -- led by Borland -- walked forward in a V formation. After a few steps, Borland crouched and gave her best game face to the camera while her teammates posed behind her.

The Boise State team was in Las Vegas to compete in the inaugural Mountain West eSports Showdown, a face-off between BSU and UNLV in three games: League of Legends, Overwatch and Rocket League. This video would be part of the promotion for the broadcast.

Program director Chris Haskell waved the group back to join the other two teams. He needed one person from each of the three teams to volunteer for interviews.

"Well, Maggie should obviously do the Overwatch interview because she's the captain," teammate Tyler Maynard said.

"Maggie is already doing an interview," Haskell responded.

Borland, 21, looked to Maynard as if to say, "Duh." Of course she had an interview. Borland is interviewed a lot, partly because she's team captain and partly because, well, she's a woman.

In esports, even at the collegiate level, Borland's presence is noteworthy. She is one of the only female team captains in collegiate esports, and Boise State actually has two women on its Overwatch team. Mackenzie Wagoner, 19, plays as the team's main tank (more on that later). Having women on its Overwatch team -- a varsity squad with plans to provide scholarships next year, no less -- has brought the Boise State esports program plenty of media attention.

And here's why: Of all the esports players who in the North Gallery that day -- and all the players who would compete that weekend -- Borland and Wagoner were the only women.

Borland has played games since she was a kid growing up in Provo, Utah. She doesn't remember the first one she played, but she does recall playing "Spyro" on her PlayStation 2 and getting into first-person shooters soon after that. She said FPS games intrigue her because of opportunity to play among others in a team setting. Before playing Overwatch, she sank 2,000 hours into Counter-Strike; but at first, she kept her mic turned off.

Now, she can laugh about that. She and her teammates know, as Borland said, "the online community is toxic" in some FPS games; they often jokingly implore each other to not act like the internet trolls who populate those titles. Borland even used to clip the nasty things people would say to look at them later.

"People play differently when they know there's a girl on the team," Borland said. "Either they try and slide in her DMs or they try to flame her. So much emphasis is put on gender."

But for Borland, gender means little. She just loves FPS games, and she loves being part of a team. Overwatch meets those criteria perfectly.

Here's a breakdown for the uninitiated. Each of the six players on each Overwatch team has a position and a job: support, tank or a damage-dealer known as a damage-per-second (DPS) character. The support players do what their title suggests: They heal other players and boost their performance. Tanks have higher amounts of health and can absorb more damage; they clear the way for the DPS players, who focus on taking down the other team's priority targets.

Wagoner plays main tank and is the team's shotcaller, aka the point guard of the team. She tells her teammates which opponents to target, lets teammates know where to position themselves and gives other information to the rest of the Broncos. Borland plays support and gives the team feedback during games and between maps.

Overwatch is similar to other FPS esports in its team-centric play, but it's different in some important ways, too. The game's wide-ranging appeal, multicultural hero pool and inclusivity have earned commercial and professional praise. FPS games tend to be militaristic, but Overwatch is more cartoonish. The characters vary in gender, age and expression -- some of them are robots -- and the violence isn't bloody. Sure, everyone is shooting at each other, but it's different.

"It's a lot more inviting," Wagoner said. "It's a wider audience than what is typical of FPS games."

Despite its expansive community, women are hard to find at the top levels of Overwatch play. In theory, women and men are on more equal footing in esports than conventional sports. Esports is not basketball or football; how fast and precise someone is with a mouse is not determined by gender. Still, women competing in the highest levels of esports, whether professional or collegiate, is rare. In the Overwatch League, only one woman -- Kim "Geguri" Se-yeon -- has signed to a team.

The collegiate level isn't much better. Boise State might have two women on its Overwatch team, but the rest of the program is made up of men. The Overwatch team hasn't competed against another team with a female player all season.

College esports, though, has started to change the conversation. Two women played on the University of Arizona's Overwatch team during an exhibition match against Arizona State at the Fiesta Bowl Overwatch Collegiate Championship in February in Tempe, Arizona. Stephens College, an all-women's private school in Columbia, Missouri, boasts a varsity esports program. SUNY Canton, another varsity team, has a woman as one of its founding members and its Overwatch captain.

As collegiate esports expands, there will be more opportunities for players like Borland and Wagoner, who are some of the best on their campuses, to represent their schools. But significant change, both at the collegiate and pro level, is a long way off.

Borland has no intention to be a professional Overwatch player. She's not sure she's good enough, and it just isn't an ambition for her; she'd rather travel the world. Wagoner, meanwhile, plans to be involved in the production of games. The two might inspire some change along the way, but bridging the gender gap in pro gaming is certainly not at the front of their minds, even though it seems to be for everyone else.

Borland and Wagoner get that this is a hot-button issue in esports. They just don't love talking that much about their gender. They're gamers who are good enough to make a varsity team. They want everyone to talk about that.

"It doesn't matter; we're all good players," Borland said. "There's nobody at the university as good as I am at what I do. I hope it speaks for what it is and not the story that everyone wants it to be."

Borland sat on a bench, again facing a camera. She was alone. Dozens of bulbs were trained on Borland. Even while off, they looked intimidating.

The usual question came up again: What's it like being a woman playing video games? She gave her usual response.

"I'm here to prove myself through my gameplay," Borland said. "We're all players here to play the same game."

From the start, Borland has been the leader of this team.

When Boise State announced its varsity esports program in August, prospective players were invited to a meeting and sorted based on skill rating, or SR. Maynard, Quatrone, Borland and teammate Trevor Lutz were among the original six players selected.

It was Borland who brought the new members together for some casual gameplay that evening. Taking initiative has earned her respect from her fellow players.

She also had the highest SR on the team. That helped.

"She's getting better and better," Haskell said. "With all high-level players, they have to be helped to lead. The way they grow into those skills is really important. She wants her team to be successful, and she's willing to try anything."

Maynard plays support alongside Borland, and the two of them poke each other the way siblings often do.

He rolls his eyes at the attention Borland gets because of her gender but is fiercely loyal to his captain. He's not salty, just competitive. Borland is more than the girl on his team everyone keeps writing about; she's his captain and his friend.

"I can't imagine having confidence in anyone else to lead this whole thing besides Maggie," Maynard said. "She's the one that keeps me in check. She gets me, and I get her."

While Borland is an established player and leader, Wagoner is more of a newcomer. She wasn't supposed to be the team's main tank at the start of the season. Mostly, she wanted to observe and learn how to play the position better from someone who was more skilled. The original player, however, left the team to try to make a run at playing professionally, leaving Wagoner to inherit his starting spot.

It has been quite the learning process.

"Mackenzie was put in a rough spot this semester," Borland said. "She had a huge weight on her shoulders to try and learn one of the most important spots on the team. When she goes down, we lose a fight. It's a lot to learn because you don't learn it solo, only when you play in this setting."

Said Wagoner: "Playing on a team like this is really different, but it's been good so far. I've finally started doing my job."

Both of them are more than just decent Overwatch players, though.

Wagoner is from Middleton, Idaho, and is the oldest of five children. Her family initially didn't support her desire to play games -- though they've since come around -- so she saved money to buy herself an Xbox 360. Overwatch is her first FPS game, and she only recently made the transition to PC. She plays on what she says is a "janky laptop with a $20 keyboard" but is considering investing in a desktop.

Borland is a runner who hates being stuck in one place for too long. Every time she changes her jersey, she switches her gamer tag, too. Right now, it's Eleven.

"New jersey, new name," she said. It used to be Aphrodite.

She might be just 21, but Borland has already received an associate's degree from Utah Valley University. She got it upon graduating high school. She moved to Idaho after one year of study at Washington State University and worked three retail jobs for a year to establish residency before enrolling at Boise State. She studies film and wants to become a travel videographer and photographer. When she mentioned that to one of the people running video production for the Showdown, she got a business card and internship offer.

During Boise State's spring break, she traveled to Japan with Maynard and off-tank Daniel Quatrone, though the trip was still two weeks off when the team was in Vegas.

She was most excited, she said, to see the cherry blossoms in bloom.

The first day of exhibitions took place at the Strip View Pavilion in UNLV's Thomas & Mack Center. The setup was used to encourage basketball fans to stumble upon esports; the timing of the Showdown was purposefully synced with the Mountain West Conference's men's and women's basketball tournaments. BSU and UNLV faced off in exhibition matches over two days, then played for the conference trophy Saturday morning before the men's championship game.

In a world in which competitive gaming is becoming a varsity sport similar to that of basketball, the merger of those two athletic worlds is important. Esports is no less a "sport" than anything else; it's just a bit different. The Boise State players might not be strapping on pads to go out on their field, but they use hand warmers to keep to stay loose and quick on the mouse and keyboard. That's sporty.

Borland and BSU dropped all four maps of their Friday exhibition games to UNLV, but these games were more of a scouting mission. As Borland and her crew packed up for the day, they felt confident they had learned enough to make Saturday's Showdown final competitive. Heck, Borland felt like they could surprise UNLV and pull off an upset.

"I am completely confident," she said with a rueful smile. "We didn't show them everything we had."

The next day, inside the Cox Pavilion, the spectacle felt a bit bigger. The lights were, quite literally, brighter, and the arena was much larger. The Broncos sat on a stage underneath a screen that broadcasted the matches to the fans in the audience. Wagoner's grandparents, father and her brother were in the stands, and Borland's family watched the match on the Twitch stream. Nine o'clock in the morning seemed early for the esports crowd, but as the minutes ticked away, more folks shuffled inside.

Borland and the Overwatch team played first in a best-of-seven series. After spending the previous night dissecting game film, they felt good.

Before the match began, the short profile of Borland for which she interviewed for two days prior played. As expected, the focus was on her being a woman and the captain of BSU. The narrative matters because of how big the gender gap is, but in-game, it's irrelevant. The UNLV players don't think an opponent's gender is a big deal, either, regardless of how much attention it draws.

"I think it's great to see women playing competitively. It shows how inclusive esports is," UNLV junior and Overwatch team member Tyler Tsunezumi said. "When women are showing that they can play at this level, it piques the interest of everybody else."

Said Wagoner: "The thing with esports is that it really does level the playing field between men and women. The only reason you don't see more women is because of the culture around it."

But the culture here is different, in part because the way the game is played is different. The bonds built within these teams happened in-person as opposed to through avatars. UNLV and Boise State played against each other in the same room, with their communications isolated from each other. Even if their respective channels filled up with toxic statements about the other team, that damage was limited. And Boise State, as a varsity program, has an advisor in Haskell present to kill that environment should it develop.

On top of all that, well, Borland and Wagoner aren't going anywhere regardless of what others say or the results. Boise State lost the first map by a razor-thin margin and was swept by UNLV, but there's always another match.

"I love this game; I'm not going to let [negative comments] drive me away," Waggoner said. "I'm just like, 'Get over it. I don't know why this is such a problem for you.'"

After the loss, Wagoner, still wearing a warm smile, greeted her family. Borland settled in to watch the rest of BSU play on the main stage.

No one asked the captain if the loss hurt more because she's a woman or if the team's leadership suffered because she's not a man. The very thought is preposterous, and that's Borland's point. Her gender just doesn't matter. The only thing that does is her love of the game.

She didn't say it, but the loss was tough for Borland, who was so confident heading into the Showdown. To not get even one map off UNLV stung, especially knowing that if the ball bounced a little differently, the outcome might have been closer to what she wanted.

But hey, that's sports.