Citizen

Serious Play

Text by

Danielle Powell Cobb

Photography by

Mark Khan

Issue

002

Serious Play

Aerial Powers, WNBA star and gaming champion, plays many games but treats none of them as folly

Interview by

Danielle Powell Cobb

Photography by

Mark Khan

Issue

002

Aerial Powers, WNBA star and gaming champion, plays many games but treats none of them as folly

"We're here, we're here to stay."

If you witness Aerial Powers while she’s on a live stream—gaming in real-time, broadcasted to dedicated fans and viewers—you’ll probably hear some light roasting, a “yeah, don’t run, now” as she pursues an opponent around a pixellated wall, and a lot of team encouragement, “Nice, nice! You got ‘em, you got ’em,” she shouts as a teammate blasts through a wall. Even for those who may not be familiar with the world of gaming, there is a striking familiarity here. It is the same language that we hear against the sound of a leather ball colliding with glossy wooden floors. Aerial is having fun, she is fluent in the language of play. She has spoken it in many accents.

Aerial plays forward for the Minnesota Lynx. She begins most non-game days by heading to the gym. Typically, she’s there an hour and a half before practice, getting treatments, eating, and doing a pre-warm-up before she does one with the team. Put together, Powers spends up to five hours — sometimes more — training, lifting, and keeping her body healthy and in shape. This is all in dedication to her job which according to her, also happens to be her “first love”: playing basketball.

“People wouldn’t realize how many women gamers there..."

"The energy is fun, it’s polite, it’s welcome, it’s family-like..."

When she comes home, Aerial usually unwinds by partaking in her second love: gaming.

“You know, you have something you just go to relax and decompress,” she says, “basketball is like that for me so I’m lucky that that’s my career. And I do the same thing with video gaming.”

Aerial’s love of gaming began in her childhood when she, along with her brother, mother, and father used to play GoldenEye 007 on the Nintendo 64, her very first shooter game.

“Sitting there playing Nintendo 64 with my whole family and going against each other was freaking fun,” she says. “That’s kind of how my love for gaming started.”

From there when a young Powers was in middle school, she and her brother moved on to Call of Duty, to the amusement of her parents who were mostly thrilled that they were getting along. In fact, her father was so pleased he bought the pair more game systems and equipment to encourage them.

“We were in the house driving my mother crazy, talking on the headphones like we weren’t right next to each other,” Powers remembers excitedly.

For the Detroit native, the combined early experiences of gaming in the home and being outside on the court laid the foundation for a spirit of competitiveness that she brings to both passions today. A few years ago, Powers watched a friend livestream herself while gaming and found the experience intriguing. She realized that similarly to how she both plays basketball as well as spends a lot of time watching it, she enjoys both game playing and watching others play. With some encouragement from her friend, Powers too began participating in the interactive live streaming platform Twitch, where many gamers log on to engage each other from all around the world.

“The energy is fun, it’s polite, it’s welcome, it’s family-like,” she says, “It’s giving family atmosphere.”

These days, she even does giveaways and has a mailbox where fans can send her items that she may open while on the stream. When she first started, sometimes even on game days, Powers would find herself gaming on the live stream till the early hours of the morning because she couldn’t sleep. It’s partly how she connected with some of the hard-core gamers and built her community online.

“Having a community where you're comfortable, welcomed, and included [gives you the] …encouragement to branch out a little bit."

Live streaming also became a great way for Powers to connect with Lynx fans and WNBA fans in general.

“People that were at the games, that were fans of mine, would come to my channel,” she says. “Then people that weren’t at the games would also come to my channel…And it just became this cool atmosphere of people that supported me coming to hang out, technically, with me.”

Still, like her basketball career, Powers has taken on gaming at the professional level, making it a kind of second career. In January 2021, she joined Team Liquid, a multi-regional esports organization where she hosts events and conducts interviews among other duties as a brand ambassador and streamer. It’s brought on a new challenge for her, having to bolster new skills in this new kind of work.

“I have to know the players, I have to know the stats, I kind of have to, you know, be able to talk the video game lingo, I have to do different kinds of interviews,” she says, “That’s probably the most adjustment I had to have.”

Powers is also chair of the Diversity & Inclusion Task Force at Team Liquid where she leads on altering the perception of who esports are for and how to make them accessible to even more people. In the last year, for example, she was at the forefront of Team Liquid’s decision to sign the first all-women’s Valorant team. (Valorant is a game by Riot Games that was released in June 2020.)

One thing Powers does not allow in her live streaming is any kind of mean or abusive behavior towards anyone, including herself. As a black woman gamer, she feels a sense of responsibility to ensure that girls and women at any level of gaming see her as someone in this space who is not only good at what she does, but also just having a good time. In 2020, she even hosted ‘Powerz Up,’ a successful all-women’s ‘NBA 2K’ tournament featuring WNBA players, professional 2k players, and fans.

Still, for her, there is a dissonance in who is represented as being part of the gaming and esports community. According to a 2020 statistic Forbes cited in 2021, just over 40% of gamers in the United States are women. And despite the observable disparity in representation perception, Powers expects the proportion of women to keep increasing.

“People wouldn’t realize [how many women gamers there are if] looking at some of these sponsorships that people have,” she says. “The commercials are all guys and it’s never women, so that was a big thing for me to show that we’re here, we’re here to stay.”

In the end, for Powers, gaming like basketball, is both work and play, and similarly, they both emphasize competitiveness and community. For anyone but especially those who see themselves as less represented in gaming and esports or who may just be hesitant to try, she encourages them to first connect with community that embraces you and to back out and move onto the one if you don’t feel accepted, before seeking other players.

“Having a community where you’re comfortable, welcomed, and included [gives you the] …encouragement to branch out a little bit more because you find others like you that play the game as well,” she says.

Credits

All clothing & footwear by Jordan
Jewelry model & stylist’s own
Stylist: Sololiya Baisa
Makeup: Yasmin Aideed
Hair: Melissa Lopez
Photographer Assistant: Justin Afori-Atta
Runner: Matthew Odumuyima
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