Girls Got Game: Interview with Marie "Inverno" Gunina
Marie Gunina has a tip on how to ignore haters: “Just be amazing, and they won't be able to hurt you."
Marie Gunina can influence both camps: fans and haters. There are very few esports fans in CIS who are indifferent to her. Masha certainly doesn't lack for words, and subscribers to her social media accounts receive food for discussion daily: no matter if it is a personal photo or her opinion on any controversial issue.
We talked with one of the brightest girls in the CIS esports about how she plunged into this sphere and found Masha's opinion about female Dota and scandals on Twitter.
What was your main hobby during childhood?
I used to read a lot. Sometimes so much that my parents would take away my books and turn off the lights — and I would continue to read with a flashlight under the covers. I always say that my passion for video games grew out of my passion for books. In literature, same as in games, you are immersed in a special world, and it fascinated me.
I did well at school, but I started skipping classes by the time I got to high school. It was in part due to gaming. Before the 10th grade [CIS system of education includes 11 grades — ed.], I was a real nerd, but I never had to cram. Everything came easily to me. And I always liked the learning process itself. I would even happily still be studying. At the moment, I live in Sochi, and I'm not sure if there is any respectable university nearby. I had thought about getting a second higher education degree, but it has not been possible so far. So I found an outlet for my educational ambitions in the gym. This is one boring story of a bookworm.
Do you still read? What exactly is it now?
Yes, but not as much as I would like. I try to develop correct reading habits. I admit that I'm very addicted to my phone, so I made it a rule to read instead of scrolling mindlessly. I used to disdain reading books on the phone. After all, it would be best if you read "real" books, but I realized that it is better to read this way than not at all.
Right now I am reading a book called "Invisible Women" — it is about when we say "a person", we mean "man", and this leads to inevitable consequences. From relatively harmless historical inaccuracies to the fact that a woman gets much more terrible injuries in road accidents because the dummies used for safety tests mimic the male body. There are many not so obvious examples, and it is interesting to read.
How did you get into esports?
For me, every workplace is a whole epoch lasting several years, so my story is easy to navigate. In the beginning, I was just an enthusiast, a lover of esports. First, it was StarCraft, then the first Dota. It turned out there were Dota tournaments. There is even a team in my native Voronezh [Russia — ed.] that won some Asus. I started taking part in local tournaments at underground clubs.
I started meeting people who also went to semi-professional LANs, started playing more seriously, and learned about female teams' existence. I asked to participate in one of them, and they took me. We played screams, participated in non-pro tournaments, and even traveled to take part in something or other. I don't remember if there were any female-only tournaments back then. I guess they didn’t exist as yet because there were literally two teams.
When Dota 2 came out, it got better. There were some separate female tournaments, a small but fully functional stage. There were enough players to gather the required number of teams for regular screams and tournaments. At some point, I was invited to a team that was later signed by NAVI. While I was a player, I wrote blog posts for the team website.
The chief editor at the time was Mark Averbukh. He liked my style, and when the team ceased to exist, he invited me to stay as an author. I agreed because I liked being in the loop. At that time, I was not looking for a job in esports on purpose, but I was always being invited somewhere, and I willingly agreed.
So it happened with Team Empire, for example, where I helped to manage social media. Even though I've never worked for them full time, they have a special place in my heart. I still have the warmest feelings towards the organization and the guys. I came to StarLadder the same way: they offered me a place in SMM on Hearthstone. Why not? I like writing texts, I know English. At some point, I realized that I have a primary job, and also two or three side jobs related to esports, and this is all great, of course, but also too much. And I chose esports.
What was the job?
I worked in VK support. I decided to leave thinking that I would be working in SMM and having the time of my life! And then, suddenly, I get a word from StarLadder, and they are offering a full-fledged position with a relocation to Kyiv. I agreed, and that was my first full-time job in esports. It was a real new era for me, there is no other way to put it.
I was sort of like a Junior Project Manager, if such a thing even exists. I worked under Vlad Udovenko, who was in charge of all the Blizzard products, and I was supposed to "take over" Hearthstone eventually. That is when I began gaining experience that is very useful in my current job: I had to work with talents a lot, and they are in many ways similar to professional players. In general, in terms of gaining experience, StarLadder and any tournament operator are wonderful. You can learn everything — it depends on your talent and personal resources.
Later, Dota 2 tournaments began, where Bafik [Alexey "Bafik" Bafadarov, Russian esports caster — ed.] and I sweated organizing broadcasts. At CS:GO tournaments, I worked as an English-speaking talent manager, which was also an enriching experience. Sometimes I even had to step into the shoes of a producer. Do you remember Bafik's songs that the community liked so much? They were, one might say, my project. The scale and structure of StarLadder allowed me to prove myself, master a lot of useful skills, and get a huge number of contacts.
I worked at StarLadder for 3–4 years, and left when I felt there were obstacles to my further advancement. I have a penchant for leaving with nowhere to go. What do normal people do if they want to switch jobs? First, they look for a new one, and only then quit the old one. Everything is much simpler with me: if I get bored at a job — I quit. For several months afterwards, I would chill and consider offers. Then I was offered a position at Winstrike, and I agreed. I was responsible for the entire media direction. Now, there are around 100 people at the company, but back then, there were 15 at most, so everyone had to multitask. It was interesting but tough. Especially when we went to The International, without even having time to form a media team, establish processes, test some things.
I had completely different expectations from the tournament. Back when I was playing for NAVI, our captain would say that she has a dream: to come to TI and hear Gabe say "Welcome to The International" live. I didn't have such a dream, but those words stuck with me, and I was looking forward to this moment as one would look forward to a holiday. But in the end, everything turned into a nightmare. Every day, I would wish I could just leave.
A little bit of everything. The day before the flight to Canada, I sprained my ankle. I didn't want to let anyone down or seem weak, so I just walked through the pain as soon as my foot began to fit into my shoes. As I have already mentioned, there was a lot of work, and I had to cover several directions by myself. As a bonus, the social media employee somehow ended up on vacation. Here is a piece of advice: never to try to do the work of five people all on your own. Nobody will appreciate it, and your performance will inevitably drop. Also, my wonderful cameraman didn't get a visa, and we had to find somebody to replace him already in Vancouver. He had no experience filming such events. He didn't know how to work with sound and screwed up, probably, every second video.
As a result, I would spend every exhausting day filming, then I would return to the house where we lived with the rest of the management, get yelled at because one of the SMM managers published a post with an error, and then go to my room where the "night watch" began: letters, documents, editing, and the rest of the work that required interaction with those who live in the Moscow time zone. The International, once a fairy tale and a dream, has turned into one of the worst memories in my life. I ate practically nothing. Right before the trip, I bought myself new clothes to flex in Canada, so to speak. By the middle of the tournament, they all became too large. I don't feel the need to complain or pour out my heart, but it seems important to me to point out that my path is not a Disney fairy tale: first, I got headhunted by StarLadder, then by Winstrike, then by Alliance! Somewhere in between the Disney plot twists, you have to eat shit from time to time, and you have to be prepared for it.
Let's talk about mentality and start with two different eras — 2010 and 2020. You probably have something to compare with.
The first thing to understand is that players are real rock stars now. We can take Alliance as an example in the era of their total domination and their victory at TI. They were stars by the standards of their time, but they would come to the Cybersport Arena through the main entrance like everyone else, sit in the hall with everyone, and watch the games. And now the players are celebrities, who have riders, demands, they have to be dropped off at the arena back door so they are not swept away by the crowd asking for an autograph and a selfie.
From the standpoint of attitudes towards players, it becomes clearer how they themselves have changed. For me, this does not mean that they are arrogant — their importance has grown in proportion to esports' growth. This is a natural process. But with great force comes great responsibility, and not all players realize what degree of responsibility their new status implies. They still allow themselves to do things that the stars of traditional show business or sports cannot afford — some harsh statements, trash talk which is way over the line, and so on.
Do you as a manager have to deal with this? Or is it not your responsibility?
Of course it is. But there is no need to explain anything to these folks in particular — everyone understands everything. Such things are not in their temperament. The one with the hottest temper is probably Nikobaby, and even so, he is not one to do any real nasty stuff. He is impudent but knows the limits. He won't let anyone hurt himself or the team, but he will also never cross the line. For me, Niko is a unique player, and his mentality is at the crossroads of Eastern and Western Europe. He is calculating and cold-blooded, like our Swedish players, and other times, he is driven by the passion inherent to the CIS guys. He has a passion for the game, drive, the right sort of sports anger, which he skillfully uses and energizes the whole team.
This would be the right place to move on to the topic of comparing Europeans and our guys [CIS players — ed.].
I would like to start with a disclaimer because, for some reason, many people do not always understand such reflections correctly. When we compare a player from Europe to a CIS player, we talk about an abstract average character. In each specific case, of course, it all comes down to a set of qualities of an individual player. There will always be exceptions, but we're considering a hypothesis, okay?
It seems to me that CIS players are more emotional. For them, the game is, first of all, a passion, a hobby, and somewhere near the end of that list — work. Someone might say this is bad because you need to approach the game with a cool head. But there are several advantages to this approach: they are unpredictable, they have highly developed game intuition, hence all these fantastic big plays. Sometimes, emotions are bad, sometimes they lead you to T4 at the 20th minute, and you lose the game. But sometimes you win. And that's the beauty of it.
Such a drive is difficult to maintain non-stop.
Yes. Here you jump on high ground and do rampage, and there you die. This is how it works, but this is one reason why CIS teams are so well-loved in the world. When we talk about top teams — NAVI, VP — they are insanely popular outside the region. Because they really entertain you with their playing style.
In Europe, players consider esports as a job. For example, when we played the Blast tournament, there was a thing — interviews with losers. The last thing you want to do after a defeat is to give interviews. But here you'll hear: "No problem, that’s my job." And the job will be done without further ado.
When I worked with players from the CIS, I sometimes had to do a song and dance to persuade a player and explain why certain things need to be done, why it is important. What the business is all about, how the club works, and why we are going to this goddamn photo shoot when it’s not yet 10 in the morning. I can not imagine this happening in my current team.
Of course, this is an extreme example. Among my CIS players, there were many guys with a professional approach who were very responsible in their non-playing duties.
And what do you think: is it necessary to convince the CIS people that they need to do this, or should it remain as it is?
Look, in an ideal world, we should all come to a stage where there are enough players at the scene whose mechanical skills are good enough for us. And in a competitive environment, the guys who are difficult to work with are inferior to those who are more flexible. Unfortunately, now we have a terrible shortage of players. Therefore, clubs have to work with what they have. Gaming skills remain a priority over everything else, and rightly so, although there are exceptions.
Let's say Ilya "Lil," who is obviously stronger than most of the position four in the region — some organizations didn't want to work with him. He is "problematic" for them. As many people know, I don't think that this assessment of him is correct. But in his example, we see a tendency: people don't want to work with "problematic" players. If the clubs had a choice, the "problematic" ones would be left out.
How did Fng fit in? He seems to be getting the most out of the game right now.
I think Artsiom fits in very well. This was obvious long before the official announcement, back when we were still in a lease relationship. What makes him different from many players is that he can "talk." If something needs to be discussed in the game, in terms of communication, or in terms of discipline — the discussion will take place. The things left unsaid are the main enemy of any team. Artsiom participates in all these processes and sometimes initiates them. It's an invaluable quality.
Did you get a chance to visit the guys in their office, and what is the overall vibe like there? Alliance is said to be sort of a "family business."
This is a sore subject. Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to visit the bootcamp in Sweden. We had one bootcamp in Kyiv before the Minor. The borders are closed now, but I am working on coming to the bootcamp in January.
It's true about the family vibe, though. It’s all because the organization is so small, so warm, everyone is on the same wavelength. There is no internal competition, no scheming, no one is trying to undercut anyone. I have witnessed all of it firsthand, unfortunately. Everyone is working for a common goal, they sincerely love the club and the team. At my old job, we had the following situation: the SMM department didn't like the Dota team. And how can anyone possibly manage social media well without love for the team?
I sometimes like to scroll through Instagram recommendations. I'm a Taylor Swift fan, and I often come across fan accounts dedicated to her. They are managed by teenage girls from all over the world who have an incredible approach to content. She may well be a singer who keeps a fairly low profile: she very rarely uploads anything, gives interviews, or appears on shows. But these girls look for "easter eggs" in songs from five years ago, put together fact compilations, and collect fun stats. And these are people without experience in SMM — they just love Taylor Swift, and from this love, from their keen interest in her person, an awesome product is born.
Esports is no exception. To work with a team, you have to love it, and you have to be its main fan. And at Alliance, it is felt to the full. Together, we follow the rosters in different disciplines, watch matches, cheer, write words of support. And this is where the vast difference lies. Let me say this once again: you have to love what you do. Skill is also important, but it is not enough. And thanks to the Taylor Swift fan girls for reminding me of this once again.
One of my former managers, and now a good friend, told me that it is not at work where you should enjoy yourself. At work, you just work — it is in other areas that you should have fun. You're chasing the wrong thing. But I, on the contrary, have always strived to enjoy work. Maybe my view is a bit childish. I could already be sitting in a spacious office, work less, and earn more. But I can't do that. I'm not saying my way is the right way, but for me, this is the only possible scenario.
Let's move on to a less pleasant topic: conflicts. Not only your personal ones but also in esports. Why is everyone so quick to take offense and vent about it on Twitter? Why are there so few players who can go and write something from the heart? What do you think about this?
I would say that each story needs to be analyzed separately because there is no universal wisdom. Every conflict is unique. We can talk about some situations when someone said too much in matchmaking. This is one kind of conflict, with its preconditions and ensuing consequences. There are also conflicts like postponing the forZe — NaVi match.
In some cases, it is acceptable to share details of a conflict on Twitter, in some cases it's not.
It's tough to produce a universal formula and say: "Well, conflicts are due to this, and you need to do this." I think they need to be classified in some way.
Earlier, V1lat could write something about "spitting in the face" and so on. When someone has a problem with a person because of their gender, what should be done, how to deal with it?
You know, when all this happened, Vitaly was way out of my league in many ways. At the time, I was a nobody, and Vitaly, on the contrary, was the most influential person in the media.
At that moment, there was no scenario in which I could have fought back. There was probably a scenario in which some other influential people with a sense of justice could intercede on my behalf. Unfortunately, this didn't happen.
There is a phrase that I love very much: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."
There are people in our community with a supposedly good reputation. They don't conflict with anyone, are not involved in any scandals — they wouldn't hurt a fly. But their positive reputation stems from the fact that they never do anything, always remain neutral. Did they do anything good? Intercede on behalf of the weak? Voiced an unpopular point of view? No, because otherwise, they would immediately cease to be good. They watch silently.
They do the same now, don’t they?
Yes, this is happening now, too. But in the past, there were far fewer voices in esports media with the power to be heard. Now there are more of them. Now there are so many influencers of all sizes that there is always an opportunity to get an alternative opinion. Someone will always express a different point of view. People who doubt, analyze, don't take somebody else’s word for it now have "a beacon in this fog of delusions." This was not the case before.
Previously, we had one opinion on the entire CIS Internet, which was considered the only correct one. Even if it was insulting, called for violence, consisted of baseless accusations. At best, people would become silent accomplices. At worst, they would start to nod along.
Because they were afraid to ruin their reputation or quarrel with someone powerful?
I think everyone had their own reasons. Someone didn't want to argue, someone, due to their natural abilities, is incapable of having an independent opinion, someone just thought: "This is not my war." Unfortunately, if there is a house on fire on the other side of the village, there is a probability that yours will also catch fire after some time. Not everyone had the foresight to realize that at the time.
Did it help you, make you stronger to some extent? Now, on Twitter, you respond so fearlessly and with so much dignity that it commands respect. I think that girls/women who work in esports or want to enter this scene face negative comments on the Internet. How to grow a thick skin when it comes to someone else's opinion? How not to react, or vice versa — to respond with dignity?
I hadn't thought about it before, but at some point, people started asking me about it — in interviews, in personal conversations. Sometimes I meet someone at an event, and the first question they ask me is, "How do you deal with this? Teach me that." I can't remember a specific moment or period in my life when this "magic switch" flipped, and I stopped caring. It just happened. It seems to me that self-confidence is at the heart of everything. When everything goes fine for you, you are enjoying life — hate is perceived in a completely different way. Of course, if you are going through hard times, doubts and complexes overwhelm you, and any shot hits a weak spot — the feelings will be different.
You know, I feel like Pavel Durov, who gives advice on how to stay young: be rich and don't live in Russia. Here is a tip from Maria Gunina on how to ignore haters: Just be amazing, and they won't be able to hurt you.
But seriously, for me, this is all about dialogue with myself, about being mindful. My life has never been as full of harmony as it is now. It puts me so high that all these people look small as ants. I will read a comment, and after 40 seconds, I will forget who the author is. While every day the author has to keep in mind that somewhere in the world there exists a person named Gunina, and they need to go see what she put on her Twitter, they have to write something.
You also need to understand that people don't write bad comments because they are happy. Perhaps this is one of the few leisure activities available to them. Maybe they cannot afford to go to a restaurant or a concert. Perhaps they are scribbling their comments while sitting at a job they hate. Or they don't have any friends, and the only way to get the attention of other homo sapiens is to write nasty things.
For example, I can't imagine Angelina Jolie coming to random girls’ Instagram pages first thing in the morning and writing that they are ugly. This is due to a person's internal problems, because they feel inadequate in some areas of their life.
I also can react violently to some news, something can make me angry or upset, and something can seem absurd and funny. I can send a link to my friends’ group chat with the comment, "look what this clown is capable of." But I can’t even understand how broken the gears in somebody’s head must be for them to be sitting on thematic sites for years and writing tens of thousands of offensive comments to everyone.
In the esports community, the development was influenced by its public part: people who stood at its origins and "didn't grow up." Many people have begun to behave better, but especially in the CIS, some people continue to behave rudely in the public field. Do you think that as long as these people behave this way, then readers of esports websites and our audience will behave the same way?
On the one hand, yes. On the other hand, such communication standards were laid down a long time ago. I'm not sure there are measures that can change them. For example, people who have been playing Dota since 2017 will unwittingly internalize the communication style of more experienced players. They might not have caught Versuta's [popular streamer in CIS with an ambiguous reputation — ed.] rage, but they will talk using his quotes.
It seems that this is a tough question that a specialist in sociology or social psychology must answer: how to change the behavioral paradigm of such a large group of people?
I believe that the situation won’t change until Dota 2 fades into oblivion. People are too willing to absorb these primitive patterns of conduct. Even if positive influencers suddenly "wake up" right now, they will no longer be able to change their habits.
But there were also positive moments. For example, from recent news, experienced players helped a newbie in public to make a rampage.
Yes, it's cool, but we understand that for one newbie who was treated with kindness, 1000 newbies have been discouraged from entering the game.
Are female esports dead or alive?
Mostly alive. I don't know how female CS is doing now, but a year ago, everything was more or less okay with it. There were female tournaments, new lineups were announced from time to time.
In general, I think that female esports is very much alive, but female Dota is definitely dead.
There must be an almost fantastic coincidence of several factors for the female pro scene to exist: the clubs must be interested in supporting the rosters, and tournament organizers — in holding tournaments. No one is interested now.
You were also a part of female esports. Have you thought about who is more to blame for this? What would you change? Let's take that unfortunate tournament in which you participated as an example, and V1lat's words about the girls not coming to the tournament to play, but for a different purpose. Wasn’t it biased, too?
Neither my team nor I were at that afterparty, so I don't know how exaggerated these stories about drunk girls climbing on the table are. I understand that there is no smoke without a fire, and there are people who behave in a very specific way in an informal setting — both girls and guys. So let's apply sanctions to these individuals. Why do we only apply them to women? I know of cases when guys behaved inappropriately at tournaments — should we cancel esports?
In my opinion, this was another successful attempt to manipulate public opinion. "All women are whores" is a very convenient formula that doesn't require proof or explanation.
Isn't it typical for many young people after drinking?
I don't know the scale of the mess that took place because I didn't see it with my own eyes. Whatever it was, it is simply absurd to impose sanctions on all girls based on this case. But the reality at the time was that no matter how absurd what our "1.5" influencers said was, this was the only version of the truth.
Is it really necessary to separate female and male esports at all, or can we come up with something with mixed rosters?
It's hard for me to say, because it depends on many factors. After all, esports is show business. It would probably be much more useful for both scenes to have a separate female pro scene with their own sponsors, including non-endemic ones. To have a separate show product. It would be both interesting and profitable for those involved in the process.
Of course, if one day, a girl shows a decent level of play and can play in a professional male team...
It seems to be already the case in China.
Yes, I have heard, and there were precedents in CS, but this is not tier-1. Of course, I would be all for it if such a star shined at tier-1.
But there is also a completely valid option of a separate female scene that doesn't have to be subsidized but is self-supporting thanks to sponsorship deals.
Even now, cosmetic brands are interested in esports. For example, the Kyiv minor was sponsored by L'Oreal. And they gave me a set of men's cosmetics [laughs]. Avon also hosted an amateur tournament for girls.
It would be possible for interested brands to create a separate esports product, a commercial project, and it would be cool. But for this, we need to wait for the moment when esports is even more tightly integrated into our lives and will cease to be a hobby of the "chosen."
If you look at the development of traditional sports, then initially there was no female basketball, football, volleyball — they appeared only as the popularity of a particular sport grew. And most likely, all of this will appear in the future.
Can you give any advice to girls looking to get into esports?
Take care of yourself, your development, be focused on yourself. A person who is confident and knows their worth, and this worth is backed up by real talents, skills, and expertise — they'll find their way to the dream. Work hard and don't wait for a lucky break. Yes, it will be difficult sometimes. You will have to fight stereotypes, prove something to someone. It may seem unfair because your male colleagues don't have to. But the world itself is not fair, and it owes you nothing.
For example, you wake up for school in the morning, and during the night, it has snowed, and street cleaners haven’t yet had time to remove it. So, someone has to go first and make this path in the snow to make it easier for the others to walk. And we are the ones who have to make this path in esports for the next generations of girls. This is such a difficult but noble mission.
Maria Gunina on social media:
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The "Girls Got Game" project is a series of interviews with girls who "live and breathe" esports. Do you consider yourself one of them and have an interesting story that you want to share with us? Email us (firstname.lastname@example.org) or tag us on social media using the hashtag #girlsgotgame or #womeninesports — we will contact you.