Valorant Is For The Girls: How Pro Gamer meL Is Breaking The Esports Glass Ceiling

It was hours before the Grand Finals of the 2023 Game Changers Championship in São Paulo, Brazil, and Shopify Rebellion team captain Melanie Capone (better known by her gamer moniker meL) was sitting alone in the back of a van. Sobbing. The all-star gamer, days into the grueling Valorant competition, had tested positive for COVID-19, and she was being escorted 30 minutes away to an isolation room where she’d have to compete remotely. She was, to put it lightly, pretty bummed. “I was like, ‘Dude, how could this fucking happen?’” Capone tells Refinery29 a month later. “I have such a good time playing up there with my teammates. I’m very energetic. I’m very vocal. I like hyping everyone up. I get such a kick out of [talking to the crowd]. … And they told me I can’t fucking play because of COVID?”

The championship game against hometown faves Team Liquid Brazil was a big one for Capone, not only because it would mean winning a trophy on her opponent’s turf, but because she felt she had to redeem herself after her team’s showing the year before. Then under the banner of Cloud9 White, Capone and her teammates at the time were expected to dominate at the inaugural Game Changers Championship, the culmination of Riot Games’ women’s Valorant competition, in Berlin. “Leading up to the [2022] international, we had played the best we’ve ever played. It was not close,” Capone recalls. “Going into it, we were really confident — we were talking a lot of shit, honestly.” Capone and her team thought they were going to take it all; instead, they came in fourth.

Which brings us back to last November and Capone’s lonely van ride. The shame from the previous year and the shock at not having the chance to compete on the biggest stage of her career ran through her head. Still, not one to sit in her feels, she wiped her tears and prepared herself to compete remotely alongside her team. After all, she had shit to do. As the team’s in-game leader, she still called the strats — albeit through a congested nose, foggy head, and throat so sore she hardly could talk. And after a grueling best of five, SR emerged victorious, besting Team Liquid Brazil 3-2. “I was crying with happiness and joy, but I was crying out of sadness that I couldn’t be with my team,” Capone says, adding they “hard carried me that day.” “I would have done anything to be up there with them,” she adds.

Chances are she’ll have the opportunity to compete with them on the same stage again. Because Capone is somewhat of a superstar. The 23-year-old American player has made a name for herself in the esports industry as one of the greatest Valorant players in the game right now with 10 tournament wins under her belt. She’s one of the faces of Riot Games’ first-person tactical shooter and made Forbes30 under 30 list in 2023, a surreal experience for a girl who grew up playing video games until 4 a.m. More recently, there’s talk that Capone could be the woman to break into Valorant’s Tier 1 league, which is currently completely made up of only men. She’s quickly rising within the industry, and on the heels of a Game Changers World Championship, 2024 is already coming up meL

Greats aren’t typically born great, they’re usually made. And that was very much the case for Capone. Her introduction to gaming came, as it does for many athletes, early on in life. But unlike the Williams sisters in tennis or gymnast Simone Biles, Capone wasn’t initially motivated by a need to be the best in her sport or to prove a point; at age 6, she was simply afraid of monsters under the bed. Growing up in Texas, she’d often have nightmares — that is until her dad, an avid gamer who was playing Resident Evil at the time, came up with an idea. “[He said], you can shoot the zombies in the game and you can defeat them,” she says. “I played it a little bit. Then I went to sleep and my nightmares went away because I defeated the monsters in my dreams.” 

Call it inventive parenting or a last resort, either way, she was hooked. Capone expanded her repertoire beyond the (then) mid-level graphics of Resident Evil. She watched her dad play games like Call Of Duty and Half-Life before eventually branching out on her own to “hard-play” Counter-Strike, Valve’s competitive first-person shooter. She took part in her first in-person LAN event for Counter-Strike: Global Offensive when she was 16 and placed third. “I remember I dropped 30 [kills] on somebody,” Capone recalls. “It was really fun.”

Her schedule became, as it remains now when she has downtime, completely nocturnal, with some slight rules from her parents. “I could stay up until 3 a.m. to play Counter-Strike if I had As,” Capone says. She briefly thought about going pro during this time before ultimately deciding against it. Considering how high the skill level was in the competitive scene, she’d need to dedicate tens of thousands of hours to even try to make it at a Tier 2 level, a commitment the high schooler wasn’t ready to make. “I was out here living real life,” Capone says. “But it was something I enjoyed after school. I would do my schoolwork, I would do my clubs and come home. And then from 6 p.m. until 3 a.m., I would just be a general teenager and play Counter-Strike.” 

With the large talent pool, chances of going pro seemed slim so Capone resigned herself to working behind the scenes in the gaming sphere as a producer, technical director, or observer. But in June 2020, when Valorant was released, those dreams changed. “I immediately [said]: ‘I’m going to try and go pro in this game,’” Capone recalls. The game was fresh, something that appealed to the then-19-year-old. Plus, she could use her knowledge of FPS games like Counter-Strike to climb the ranks as quickly as possible. She did her homework, studying CSGO VODs extensively in anticipation for the release of Valorant and filling a journal with notes. “I was doing everything [and] going hard before it came out because in my head, I was like, ‘I’m going to go pro in this game. This is it, this is possible.’”

Melanie “meL” Capone (center) with her Shopify Rebellion team

When Valorant came out, she did just that, first competing alongside teammates alexis, AnnieDro, Jazzyk1ns, and katsumi under the name MAJKL, before signing with Cloud9 in October 2020 to become the org’s first all-women’s Valorant team. Under Cloud9 White, the team took home six first-place VCT Game Changers North America finishes until their devastating fourth place at last year’s world championship. Shortly after, she and fellow teammate alexis joined Version1, where Capone became team captain. Under Capone’s leadership — alongside team coach Loic “Effys” Sauvageau — V1 dominated, taking home gold in Game Changers’ North American Series three times. These successes were, in large part, thanks to Capone’s persistence. 

“She’s always 100%,” Sauvageau says. “A lot of people come in and kind of half ass it and show up because they have to, but they don’t really care. That’s not something that meL does. meL is always on and she’s always here to play and improve every day. That’s something that’s extremely rare in esports.” “meL is a phenomenal player,” Anna Donlon, SVP and Executive Producer of Valorant, tells Refinery29 via email. Between her regular playing and her perseverance in Brazil, “she has shown us that she is a force to be reckoned with.”

And it comes with a lot of work. As much as Capone may seem like a natural-born player, like any athlete, she works hard at it. Arguably the largest improvement hasn’t come from her technical skills on screen, but rather her communication skills off. “The biggest signature that has changed [for me] has been my calling,” Capone says. “I was not perfect. I used to be kind of toxic back in the day.” 

meL is always on and she’s always here to play and improve every day. That’s something that’s extremely rare in esports.

Loic ‘Effys’ Sauvageau

Improving her communication to support her teammates has helped her also evolve into being a leader and support system outside of the game, especially coming into V1. As the veteran, Capone says she feels like more of a big sister or mother figure to the newer players, a role she loves. “I actually had experience to bring to others,” Capone says. “I felt a lot of purpose in that, and it’s been really fulfilling to have the ability to do that, but also to have your teammates trust you to do that. And that trust is something that I’m really grateful for.”

“She has grown a lot as a person in the time I’ve known her,” agrees longtime teammate alexis. “She’s gone through a lot of crap in her personal life, and I’ve been alongside her through a lot of it, and to see her persevere and get through it all is incredible.” The duo, who’ve been teammates since 2020, met in 2016 through a mutual friend when they played Golf with Friends. “That’s my ride or die,” alexis says. “I genuinely don’t see her as my ‘teammate.’ I just see her as one of my favorite people I’ve ever met, and I hope to team with her for as long as I can.” 

In addition to the online dynamics that gamers already deal with (CC: internet trolls), Capone is a woman on the internet, and one who has the “audacity” to want to not only play, but dominate. It’s not news that women in gaming have a tough time (IYKYK). Despite women making up nearly half of all gamers globally, only 5% of professional players are women, according to 2019 estimates. 

And, as Refinery29 noted last year, while there have been a handful of co-ed teams across different titles over the years, they typically floundered or were never taken seriously. Like in most industries, women in gaming have to work twice as hard for even a modicum of respect. There’s also concerns about safety both in and out of the game, a reality for so many female and marginalized gamers whether they’re professional or casual. The whole inception of Game Changers was to help women and non-binary folks break out into the competitive field. But success there doesn’t necessarily mean success in the rest of the industry.

Last September, Capone found herself unwillingly at the center of discussion around equity after esports reporter Rod Breslaue revealed on CS legend and current esports caster Sean Gares’ stream that Capone had been turned away from Tier 1 teams due to her gender. In response, Capone confirmed she had been denied the opportunity to trial for co-ed Valorant teams because she was “too valuable of an asset to release” from a women’s team and that there was at least one instance where she was told that “a [male] player was not comfortable playing with a woman.”

“It was a shock to me,” Capone tells Refinery29 of finding out through the grapevine that she’d been overlooked. The gamer chalks this up to “a few bad apples” and has maintained just how welcoming and inclusive the Valorant community has been for her and her teammates — a stark difference from the many headlines about women in gaming that people are used to seeing. And even if her personal experience has shown this to be sometimes contrary, the pushback just acts as further motivation. “That’s just the story of being a woman in male-dominated spaces,” Capone says. “It’s just something that I’ll have to overcome, and it’s just another story to tell if I one day do break those barriers; it just makes it that much sweeter.”

I think the greatest realization of that dream is if an all-female team made it to Tier 1. That would change things even more than just one person.

melanie ‘mel’ capone

Leo Faria, Riot’s global head of Valorant Esports, is confident the industry is moving in the right direction, and that Capone is the one to take the next step, not only because of her talent, but because she truly cares about the sport and wants it to be better for everyone; even if that sometimes means having the hard conversations. “She’s incredibly eager to make progress,” Faria says. “She’s not happy with just being in Game Changers, she wants more.”  

Last July, Capone took to social media to share her frustrations over promotion and media around the most recent Game Changers Championship, saying it lacked the same promotion to the year prior, leaving up-and-coming players at a disadvantage. “I was fortunate to come up through [Game Changers] at a time when the promotion of the events [really] helped me to gain a foothold in the scene,” Capone wrote. “I feel like a lot of the up and coming players now deserve that same opportunity.” Capone has also been outspoken about the need for the Game Changers schedule to better align with the Tier 1/Tier 2 co-ed competitions — giving GC players more opportunity to compete in these tiers and move up.

At the beginning of the year, Riot released its schedule for the 2024 North American GC season, and Capone wasn’t happy. Specifically, the gamer noted that the close timing of GC qualifiers and North American Challengers League Qualifiers prevented a seamless pipeline for Game Changers players (aka women) to vie for a coveted Challengers spot, which are all held by men. “It is frustrating delivering feedback for years and feeling as though it’s been ignored or seeing the complete opposite come to fruition,” Capone wrote on X. “I hope Riot can revisit these changes so we can better achieve our shared dream of seeing women and marginalized genders compete at the highest level one day.”

In response to Capone’s latest tweet, a Riot Games spokesperson told Refinery29 via email: “We continuously gather feedback from stakeholders across our ecosystem — which includes professional players like meL, team owners, tournament operators, and the VALORANT fan base. This has been valuable in developing improved policies, rules, and formats. Over the past two years, as the VCT calendar expanded to account for Global Events, International Leagues, Challengers Competitions, the Game Changers program, and the Off-Season, the quantity of events and dependencies has resulted in some schedule conflicts. We track these instances closely and seek to address them during the format development process for each subsequent season.”

As for what Capone thinks about whether or not she’ll be the first woman to break into a top-level team, a convo that’s largely been had without her (and typically by a lot of male couch casters), the gamer is generally unbothered. “I’ve always been one to really just focus on the gameplay more than anything else,” Capone says. “It is a privilege for me to be regarded as one of the [female] players that can broach the Tier 1/Tier 2 boundary one day, but when these conversations happen, I do wish it was more about the game than anything.” 

It isn’t just about being the only one who’s breaking boundaries for the esports queen either. “I think the greatest realization of that dream is if an all-female team made it to Tier 1,” she says. “That would change things even more than just one person.” Still, she knows there always has to be a first to help those behind them feel like it’s possible.

And eventually, Capone is confident we’ll get there — even if, after making cracks, she’s not necessarily the one to shatter the gaming glass ceiling. “I always refer to the four-minute mile. It had never been done before by humans,” Capone adds. “And then someone did it. They hit the four-minute mile; and then BOOM, next year a bunch of people started hitting it. And then the next year even more people started hitting it. But it only took one person to show that it was possible.” 

When it comes to breaking barriers in esports, something tells us that person is meL. 

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