NEW ULM, Minn. -- Video games have always been a part of Natalia Jackson’s life. When she was 4 years old and lived with her family in Japan, it was her grandmother who nurtured her love of gaming.

“She actually introduced me to games on the Super Nintendo like Mario Kart and Bomberman,” Jackson, 27, said. “I probably got my competitive edge from her because she, my sister and I used to battle it out on those games.”

For years, Jackson played casually. In 2017, she bought her own computer and tried some PC games, including Counter-Strike, a multiplayer first-person shooter game. That video game brought her into contact with other amateur women gamers.

Jackson joined an all-women team and as they racked up wins, they started getting noticed.

“We started qualifying for tournaments and winning money,” she said. “That’s when I probably realized, I really enjoyed playing competitively and that it was possible to pursue a career in esports.”

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Pro contracts

After four years of working toward that goal, Jackson signed a contract in September with VersionX, an all-women professional esports team launched by Eagan-based esports company Version1. Jackson joins four other VersionX teammates who train at a facility in Eagan, Minn. Players receive housing and full-time salaries and compete in national and international competitions.

“It’s really about representation and making that next generation of gamers look a little different,” said Annie Riley, vice president of marketing and creatives at Version1. “Right now, there’s a lot of men in professional gaming, and there should be no reason that women aren’t playing at the same level as men are.”

The opportunity to earn a salary should level the playing field, and so will the attention that comes with being on a professional team. Riley said that the new league that VersionX competes in will shine a light on female gamers where representation is lacking.

“When women don’t get the recognition that they deserve, they don’t get invited to play on the professional teams,” she said. “They don't get this big sponsorship deal on Twitch and it comes back to money and then not being able to quit their day job and make this what they do.”

There are other reasons why many women haven’t pursued professional gaming careers, including online harassment and sex discrimination.

A report released from Evil Geniuses, a U.S.-based esports organization, said within the last year more than 40% all women in gaming experienced gender discrimination compared to just over 15% of men. Some female players reported disguising their online identities, changing their characters to appear neutral or masculine and keeping their microphones muted as ways to deal with harassment.

Riley said gaming culture can be intimidating and that keeps many women out of the industry.

“Which should be really open and welcoming to everyone,” she said. “So the more that we can push forward, get more women onto staff, professional players, the better off it’s going to be for future generations.”

Another VersionX player Rachel Hang says when she encounters toxic behavior online she tries hard to separate what is happening virtually in a game from the reality of her life, so she can keep doing what she loves.

“Because once you turn off your PC, who’s gonna be there? That voice chat?” Hang said. “No, it’s just you. They’re not there, that was just in the game. Just move on and just keep playing, work on your game skills. That’s all you got to do.”

Hang and her VersionX teammates hope to bring that message to their fans and find ways to create a safe online space. Jackson said players know they are role models and they intend to set a good example for other players.

“We can move to create safer spaces for each other,” she said. “I think sharing our experiences and talking about it creates a dialogue that allows us to brainstorm solutions and especially for future generations like little girls who are going to end up playing video games themselves in the future.”