Girls Got Game: Interview with Valeria "Eleronka" Babenko
She proved that Girls Got Game by outperforming her boyfriend’s team at a CS 1.6 LAN
Making an agreement of advertisement with an intractable streamer? Coming up with creative ad integration that benefits both parties? Gathering her own CS roster and participating in a tournament? All this is not a problem for the heroine of the first interview in the Girls Got Game project, Valeria "Eleronka" Babenko, Marketing Partnership Specialist for WePlay Esports.
Lera's story is the story of a girl's relationship with esports, which grew from a passion for games and participation in professional tournaments to a great love for communicating with people from this sphere and work in the large esports media holding WePlay Esports.
How did your interest in games begin?
Like many people, it was in my childhood. I won't mention the games that I've played, for example, when I came to my mother at work [in CIS, on some job positions, it's not forbidden to take your child to work sometimes - ed.]. There I just clicked on the keyboard, without any particular involvement in the process.
My first memorable game was Warcraft III. Dad invited guests, he turned on the PC and made me play. I immediately appreciated this game — elves, rich lore. The story in the campaign hooked me. Then there were Bloodrayne, Juiced, Tomb Raider: Underworld... By the way, one mission was bugged, and I couldn't complete the game. The Sims, of course, was incredible. I remember that I could sit down to play as soon as my parents left for work and turn off the computer 10 minutes before their arrival. The most important thing was to have time to turn it off early so that the giant old monitor had time to cool down.
Did your parents really touch and check the monitor?
Yes, and I remember that, somehow, my mother took the wires from my computer away from me because I began to devote less time to studying. It seems that I was playing the first or second NFS then. But I found "spare" wires from friends, hid them in my bedside table, connected the computer, and played during the day.
I got acquainted with CS 1.6 when, in the summer, I broke my leg. I had nothing to do and my neighbor, out of the kindness of his soul, installed a game and wallhack with the words: "This will make it easier for you to play." As a result, on the fy_snow map, I didn't understand where to run because I could see through the walls, but I couldn't go through them [laughs]. It was as stupid as possible: I didn't understand whether to shoot or not.
When I later removed the wallhack, it became much easier for me to play. Then I had a break for a while, and somewhere in my first year at university, a friend asked me to check the server (then it was a trend to create CS 1.6 servers). I checked and stayed to play. It was fun for me there, and we gathered with the guys I knew in real life on Skype.
I wanted to present my friend (who asked about the server) a Steam version of CS 1.6 and asked my boyfriend to help me. To which I received a reaction like: "Oh, forget it, you won't figure it out, this is not a girly thing at all," and stuff like that.
Did he mind you showing interest in games?
Yes, it hurt me. I went to computer stores, asked about the official CS on Steam, but in the end, I bought a key on some website that needs to be activated on Steam for myself and my friend.
In 2010, I came across a site where, when participating in tournaments, you were given the titles of Pro, Semi-pro, Amateur, and something else. And there, I saw for the first time that there are purely female teams. I thought, "Wow, I want that too."
Around the same time, I saw an interview with Vladyslava Zakhliebina in Cosmopolitan, where she talked about esports in the Unusual Careers section. And I decided for myself—I must also try.
In the winter of the same year, a LAN tournament was announced in our city. I asked my boyfriend to join his team for the tournament. He laughed at me. But one friend of mine invited me to play with his guys at this tournament, and I agreed. Actually, I didn't play very well. But in the end, we beat my boyfriend's team. We didn't make it to the finals, but it was a cool and pleasant sense of justice triumph.
What was his reaction after that?
He didn't respond to that.
So, you broke up?
No, it happened later, when I began to devote a lot of time to my female CS team. Our goal was to assemble a female team from Ukraine.
But initially, we played rather badly, and even once, one might say, cheated at the tournament.
Tell me more.
In general, this was one of the first lineups, each of us had about 200 hours in the game (now it's even ridiculous to look at this number), and we registered for the female tournament. When we saw that the most famous CS girls (Exilia, Son1a, and others) would play there, we panicked wildly. We believed that the first impression was the most important thing, and we really wanted to do our best.
We decided that it would be nice to seat a couple of guys in our places to increase "our" chances of a good game. Perhaps we would have even made it to the final, but a girl from our own team ratted us out because we had a fight.
It was very, very embarrassing and it seemed that this cheating would ruin my whole life, but no. We tilted and led the life of internet hermits for about two weeks, and then we continued to train hard and improve our skills.
We even had a whole training system. We learned how to throw grenades and synchronized rushings to points (CS slang for walking to points?). We played on aim maps, DM, where the goal was to get 100 frags first from USP, then 100 from AK-47 or M4. We downloaded demos on HLTV and analyzed them. We mainly looked for opponents for scrims in mIRC. We started with skill Mid+ and after some time moved on to HS.
If we wrote that we were a team of girls, then either no one wanted to play with us, or low-skill players came in and we were shamed.
You mean something like “Go make me sandwiches?”
Yep, or they ran around with knives, behaved silly. Then we started to write the tag NaVi.Junior in our nicknames. I was Edward because I loved pistols a lot. Some of our girls were markeloff, Zeus, starix — the star roster. And we introduced ourselves as NaVi fans from high school [laughs]. By the way, my best friend and I had an addition to the nicknames “fnvf”. It means Future Natus Vincere Female. As they say — dream big. So we were much more productive during pracs.
Speaking of my ex-boyfriend: the story of our breakup was also associated with games. Sometimes I invited him to play with our team as a stand-in for training when one of the girls couldn’t join. And then one time he went to play with my "teammate" invizible, during our training. And that's all, it was almost cheating on me.
What was the name of your team?
Femme Fatale. We even had a nice logo.
Does anyone on your team still play professionally?
One of the girls later worked as a marketer for the Elements Pro Gaming team, and now she doesn't play. I guess the others also quit. When CS 1.6 "died," the Dota 2 period began, and we talked for a while. The girls with whom we played CS:GO are also playing now just for fun.
What achievements did your team have? Were there any major competitions in which you participated?
There was one tournament in Kyiv, girlz summer open Kiev from ASUS CyberZone, seven women's teams came there. I want to mention and thank Gennady Veselkov, the CyberZone computer club owner: he makes a great contribution to the development of esports, and he also always helped with the bootcamp and supported us.
Although we lost at that tournament, we managed to play against the Moscow Five. It was our largest female-only and final tournament. That year (2012), CS:GO was announced, and everyone began to switch to this version of the game. Plus, two people from the team left for Dota 2, including me.
I played about 4k hours (now over 5.2k) and then returned to CS:GO. I tried my hand with the team at the WESG qualifiers in 2017 but failed, and it was then that I clearly realized that I would not become a professional esports player and that it would be better to devote this time to work.
Did you switch to Dota 2 because its popularity was growing?
No, because CS:GO reminded me of running monkeys and had bizarre physics. Yes, maybe it's more real, but in CS 1.6, I think it was more difficult to shoot.
In the last year and a half, I haven't played competitive games at all. From the moment talents appeared in Dota, I wasn't interested in learning everything again, especially since the game mechanics were simplified to attract new players, and it became somewhat sad. Plus, my computer was updated, and it became more interesting to play games that were not possible to play earlier due to weak hardware. The same The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, the last parts of Lara Croft, and Assassin's Creed: Odyssey. Recently, I started playing Star Wars. Jedi: Fallen Order. Now I'm making up for what I've missed over the years, playing the popular Among Us with friends, and looking forward to the release of Cyberpunk 2077.
I know you played Rainbow Six: Siege intensively for a while.
Yes, about a year ago, calibrated to gold. You play and don't understand anything for the first fifty hours because you need to learn each character.
And here you sit in stealth, with strengthened walls, and then some *especially cunning player* makes a small hole in the wall and kills you. It was a shock for me because you can't shoot through walls in CS[mostly], and the main thing in this game is the aim. In R6, everything falls and explodes: you can be killed from below, from above, from anywhere. I played mostly with random players. R6 didn't really settle in the CIS, and in the end, I got bored. In total, I played for about 500 hours.
Do you use voice chat in games?
It depends. When I play often, I use it because it is convenient. I usually say that I'm a schoolboy. Sometimes they started to hit on me stupidly, but I found the ideal tactic for myself: I started to hit on them first. I chose one of the guys and said: "Introduce me to your mother. When will you get me a ticket?" and so on. It turns out that this is a kind of male solidarity. When I hit on one, the others are like, "Well, he was chosen, we will not interfere" [laughs]. One dude is much easier to deal with than a party.
But there was one case in the spring in CS:GO, after which I didn't play for a long time. I went to MM and was top-2 in frags. The first player had about 35, I had 30, about that. And in the last round, I got kicked. Moreover, they played three and two random (me and another guy). Initially, they wanted to kick this random, and I voted against, and then they voted against me, and he supported the crowd. I then raged badly. I understand that there are girls who shout into the mic, and there are some that do nothing—most girls have those bad days. If I were in last place, it would not be so offensive. They only kicked because I am a girl.
That is why I have rarely used voice chat for the last year and a half. I type quite quickly, and therefore it is easier for me to type than to say something.
Another moment: I have a lot of beautiful skins in CS, and often in the game, there was "Oh, well, you're a girl, it's clear where you got the skins from."
But despite such episodes, there were still good guys, who were then invited to the party, and we played quite cheerfully.
So, adequate players are more?
I think, yes. Here it is more likely that negative experiences are more often left in memory. It's the same with the girls — you can meet skilled female players in the team, or vice versa, like these, "Hello everyone, my name is Jessica, and I will play with you today." Girl, I don't care what your name is. Go and open the point. And then she, in her mock voice, "I need a drop, I need a drop!" Although she doesn't give drops to anyone and doesn't help. I often mute these players. I don't like whiners.
I once talked with one guy in the game, and he asked: "Are there many of you girls playing at all? I play at 5-6k and haven't met one." I say, "Well, you know, we don't always confess that we are girls."
And now, if he came across a girl like Jessica, as mentioned above, who would continuously whine and blame everyone for her game failures, he would have a wrong impression of female players.
What is the story behind your nickname?
I had something like a standard Leron / Valeron, but many of them in public games, and I decided to add a little femininity to the nickname. It turned out to be Leronka. And then my stepfather called me Eleron [russian pronunciation of Aileron - ed.]—this is something connected to airplanes. I liked it, and I called myself Eleronka.
How do you feel about female esports? And what about mixed rosters?
It seems to me that mixed rosters are the best option. If there are one or two girls in the team, it would be cooler.
For girls on a contract, regular training for 6-8 hours 4-5 times a week —the process is more streamlined. And when you have five amateur girls on your team, it isn't easy to decide. On an amateur level, girls will often go to play with a guy rather than a team. Also, work/study, plus girls are still more emotional than guys.
I remember we had a case at that LAN in 2012. We played against a team and, if we won, we could have qualified from the group stage. But our girl-captain saw that she was being shown on the stream from an angle that she didn't like. She tilted and stopped coordinating. And we tried to cheer her up: "Get yourself together. No one is watching this stream. We can still win them. We have tactics." But no, we couldn't win; she was silent almost until the end of the game. We tried to give tactics with another girl from the team, but it turned out worse for us because of the unusual situation, and we were distracted.
It is much easier for guys; in this case, they ignore such trifles. I know that there are female teams with very skillful girls. But on average, women's teams fall short of men's at the pro level. The guys have a more serious attitude to the professional level. They see it as a real career and set goals. It seems to me that guys are easier to abstract. Also, as far as I know, female pro players have a much lower salary than guys. For example, if a girl were told, "Here's $5,000 for you, do your best," we would see the results, but in fact, there is no such income (at least in the CIS).
Is this due to the lack of tournaments where female teams are invited?
Well, yes. An example here is Dignitas Female — I like them, but they have only $105,000 in prize money won, and that's in four years!
Does it mean that you don't see any future in the development of female esports?
Let's think logically: can you agree that it would be unreasonable to create some The International for girls or set a condition that there should be at least two female teams in the tournament? Even if we assume that a female team went to the same ESL or TI at the same level as a male team, if there was such a condition, I don't think they would have passed to the playoffs. Of course, there are exceptions, but I still think that finding 1-2 skilled girls for a team of 3-4 boys is much easier than gathering a full stack of five top professional girls.
I support your opinion —it's very reasonable. For example, there is almost no one interested in games among my acquaintances/girlfriends. I have to explain what I am doing. And here's a word about clarification: give your definition of esports, as if you were trying to explain what it is, for, let's say, your grandmother or for a friend who has no idea about computer games.
In my environment, all my friends and even my grandmother know both about streamers and donations, what esports is, and they more or less understand disciplines. But if you imagine, I would explain it this way: a computer game competition, team and single. They compete in reaction speed, tactical maneuvers, and quick decision-making.
I would immediately make it clear that it's not just sitting and clicking with a mouse. I even noticed from myself that when I play, the reaction speed increases. For example, you have 15 seconds to defuse the bomb. During these 15 seconds, you manage to think over a million strategies, where they will come from, and so on. When you don't play for a long time, you go into the game and feel a little slow. Therefore, I think it is necessary to play more often to maintain the reaction speed.
Did I understand you correctly: do games help you develop your reaction speed?
Yes, and mentality also develops. I am also grateful to games for meeting so many people. When I lived in my city, Kremenchuk (Ukraine), and had not yet played, it seemed to me that I was not of this world. Then I liked fantasy, sci-fi, or rock instead of pop, and I had few people in communication who liked it. Or, let's say you choose to watch a movie at home instead of going to the club on Friday night. My interests were not particularly shared. And when you meet people in online games, they don't care what music you listen to. They care about how you communicate.
Perhaps games instilled in me the idea that you shouldn't be afraid to be yourself. There are people in the world who will be interested in you. And not just, "Well, you didn't go to the club with us - that's it, we don't talk with you anymore." Before, I was sad that all my friends were online and somewhere far away because, at some moments, it still hits you and seems that you are lonely.
How did you get to WePlay? What is your education?
My specialty is not related to my current work, "Electromechanical automation systems and electric drives." I am an electrical engineer. I wanted to work at a carriage plant as an engineer. But when I graduated from the university, it was "Maidan" in Ukraine — during this period, layoffs began at enterprises, and I got a job at the post office, just so as not to sit at home while my resume is being considered.
My working hours were from 08:30 to 19:00 and on Saturday from 10:00 to 15:00. Then they called me for an interview at the plant where I wanted to work. And when I already had completed the documents, another massive layoff happened, and they stopped recruiting new people. I then had a period of tilt. I thought that all my life I would work at the post office and take out loans to get my child to school.
And then my friend sent me a vacancy for an SMM role in Virtus.pro. I start googling "what is SMM" and I think: "Wow, for the fact that you throw memes in socials and hold giveaways, you get paid for this?"
But specifically in Virtus.pro, there were many work experience requirements, and I didn't receive an answer. I don't remember that episode very well. But I saw another vacancy from WePlay. I read everything I could about them and wrote to WarLocK [at the moment, our Lead Esports Manager - ed.].
What year was that?
In 2015. At that time, they didn't need an SMM, but they needed a person to work with streamers. And I agreed. My parents then said that it was not serious, working on the internet. But I didn't care.
Then I was in charge of collaborating with a couple of streamers and reminding them of the agreements. For example, they need to release a post, finish off the number of hours on stream, or remember to mention partners' activities, etc.
About two months later, they entrusted me with creating posts in the official group. I remember that one of my first posts was about discounts for the Goat Simulator game [laughs]. As a result, I worked in SMM for about 2-2.5 years and returned to working with influencers when the influence marketing concept had already appeared. By the way, at first, I acted intuitively, and then I attended SMM and marketing courses, and, as it turned out, the intuitive decisions were correct.
What are your current responsibilities?
My responsibilities include finding influencers with an audience suitable for our product, building relationships with them, and conducting various joint advertising activities. Our company has great products, so when advertising, we try to give influencers the opportunity to talk about the product in their own words, the way they see it. Therefore, I try to avoid setting clear terms of reference but voice expectations and why all this is needed in general. It seems to me that the worst option for advertising is when they give a standard text without trying to adapt it even a little for a certain influencer. For example, I think that a "paid" text that appeared from an influencer and did not resemble his usual communication style on social networks is terrible.
Do you only have to communicate with CIS influencers?
No longer. Quite recently, I started communicating with foreign representatives of the CS:GO and Dota 2 pro-scenes.
Have you ever had any interesting cases when, for example, an influencer asked for huge amounts for advertising?
Basically, I try to communicate with influencers directly, but for some people, cooperation is possible only through a manager or an agency. And with the managers who represent their interests, communication, in general, is successful. They don't inflate advertising prices, unlike agencies, whose prices are sometimes unreasonably high.
Most often, agencies in the CIS region are approached by representatives of brands that don't understand esports, so for them, such prices may be a common occurrence. And if you look at the real state of affairs, then foreign agencies take a percentage of the transaction amount, and ours draw the numbers they like.
For example, I had a case in my practice. The streamer told me the X amount for cooperation, and the agency representing his interests said X times two. I asked this influencer why this is so, and his answer was: "The agency justified this price, taking into account their costs, time, and other things. I told them that this figure would rather scare away than attract potential advertisers, but they didn't hear me. "
Most often in the ru-segment, it happens like this: the agency turns to the influencer and says: "Do you mind if we include you on our list?" If the person does not mind, then the agency is now his official representative, setting their advertising prices.
In general, my main responsibility is to get high-quality advertising at a reasonable price for us. Accordingly, I am looking for the most profitable communication channels with influencers.
Has it ever happened that you have a certain idea of the player/streamer, and when you start communicating, the opinion becomes exactly the opposite? Were there cases when a person surprised you with his/her behavior?
I think, yes. In fact, they turn out to be very nice guys in most cases. I remember when we met Diana Rice [famous streamer in CIS - ed.], I thought she was like... [chooses words]. I don't know, not that pretentious, her behavior seemed to me to be pretentious: her story, her image. And then, when I talked to her, she turned out to be a very nice girl. Very open-minded and pleasant in communication. And I really have no idea how streamer guys can be so open, i.e., how they show themselves on streams is not just an image, but a part of their life.
It was a pleasant surprise, right? Was there a negative experience?
There was one YouTuber with whom we negotiated advertising, and then he disappeared. And ignored my messages. But one of our employees was able to negotiate with him and return the funds for the failed advertisement.
What are your future goals for your career/life?
Well, for starters, wait for the release of Cyberpunk :). But seriously, perhaps, this year has shown that plans can change at any time and not only for personal reasons. Therefore, I'm not ready to plan anything yet. I like what I am doing now, so I want to develop further in marketing, communicatinh with interesting people, and be a part of cool events.
Life experience has shown me that the most interesting adventures happen exactly when you do not plan to leave your comfort zone.