I expected my first tournament to be flashy and colorful with loud music blaring from speakers. Well, I was half right about that.
Walking into the basement of a local hotel, I was surprised to see the bare walls and harsh lighting, but beyond that, my eardrums felt ready to burst within a few paces past the doors. I wasn’t sure why I’d thought the hotel would be glammed up for a day of video games, but I thought tournaments were huge affairs. I saw several tables with new computer monitors, jumbled nests of cords, and crowds of men wearing T-shirts of various game mascots and logos. Some warm-up matches had already begun; men sho
uted and rallied together while gunfire and tense music assaulted everyone in the room.
I signed in as a competitor at a table near the entrance. The person manning the station gave me a smile and a “Good luck!” when I set the pen down. He said that matches would start momentarily.
My heart threatened to tear through my chest.
Finally—I was finally here. After nearly chickening out during my subway ride, after years of practicing on my own, after dozens of my online friends urged me to compete, at long last I would sit across from someone while we fought to the death. Okay, so it wasn’t as dramatic as I was making it out to be, but it would be the first time I played against another person face-to-face in a competitive setting.
I was excited to finally be there, but I also felt dizzy and nauseated. It’s just nerves, I tried to remind myself. However, as I strained my eyes to see if I could find another woman in the ebb and flow of people who enjoyed the same game I did, I couldn’t help feeling alone…sort of. Stories of women bullied out of game spaces jumped to the forefront of my mind. With a vigorous shake of my head, I insisted I’d be all right.
“First time?” somebody asked. I turned to my left to see a young man, probably not much older than I was, with a design from The Legend of Zelda on his shirt.
“Um, yeah,” I said after a pause.
“Don’t panic too much. It’s not like anyone here is gonna eat you alive. Besides, take your own advice.”
When I didn’t respond, he pointed at my “Keep Calm and Game On” shirt. I forced a laugh. “Right, right.”
I was starting to feel a little silly for wearing this out of the house.
“Ash and Spiff, please make your way toward table A for the first match,” came a voice over a megaphone.
I was first, of course. Just my luck. When I walked away, the boy with the Zelda shirt shouted something encouraging to me, but I didn’t actually hear what he said over the adrenaline pounding a fast beat through my body like it was performing a drum solo.
My opponent was already waiting at his chair. He wore black wrist cuffs and a red-and-black plaid belt with a plain white T-shirt and black skinny jeans. “Never seen you around here before.”
I ignored him as I pulled the metal chair out from the table. Even though the computers all looked fancy, we were still stuck with lousy chairs. They weren’t adjustable, so I knew I’d have to tilt my head up a little when playing; I was shorter than everyone else here.
He was insistent on chatting. “First-timer?”
I gave in. “Yeah. My first tournament, but I’ve been playing for a while.”
I had already sat down in my chair, but when he didn’t say anything, I imagined him making faces at his friends standing behind him. Once I heard some cackles, I figured I wasn’t too far off the mark.
“I promise to be extra gentle for your first time,” he said, almost as if he was being intimate.
I rolled my eyes before redirecting my focus to the screen. We had a couple minutes to adjust equipment. Spiff kept talking at me, and I kept ignoring him. Wasn’t there supposed to be a referee to keep this sort of stuff to a minimum? Maybe everyone else here thought it was all in good fun. I took in a deep breath and tuned him out. Once the match started and the game music flooded through my headphones, it got easier.
The objective was simple: kill your opponent as many times as possible in ten minutes. We were playing a survival shooter that had both one-versus-one and battle royale modes—this tournament focused on the former—and the map was randomly generated. That meant we had no way of knowing where either of us would start. No matter what, the game’s setting was always grim, though. The palette was on the dark brown side, with greys and tans scattered throughout. There were dilapidated buildings placed throughout, which were perfect for hiding in.
With my right hand on my mouse and my left fingers resting on the shift key, space bar, and A, W, and D keys, I strained my eyes into the distance projected on my screen. We were allowed to have two different guns, and I had a mid-range rifle and a short-range shotgun. I never did get into the style of sniper rifles.
The first minute of the ten-minute game felt like it would stretch on forever. Once we found each other, however, the game’s pace hastened. We managed to score a few points on each other. He was playing well, but I thought I wasn’t at my best. His comment from earlier must have irritated me more than I thought. Don’t let yourself get tilted, I kept telling myself, feeling the match shift in his favor.
I got unlucky after a respawn; the game had placed me right near him. We both frantically jumped, crouched, and dashed from side to side to avoid each other’s shots. I nailed a couple shotgun blasts and was about to get the last one I needed.
That was when I saw a shadow out of the corner of my eye.
It was so unnatural that it pulled my attention away from the game just for a moment. Its body was devoid of all light, and the edges thinned out like ripped, fraying black cloth. Its eyes were bright red. I could have sworn I saw its teeth when it smiled—they were sharp, and they glistened.
A headshot K.O. alert brought me back to my senses. That and an eruption of applause loud enough to reach my ears through my headphones.
It was a race against the clock at this point; even if I could score enough points for a narrow, come-from-behind victory, the time for him to respawn and for me to find him anew put me at an overwhelming disadvantage.
Turns out it was enough for him to win. I lost my first tournament in the first round.
We wished each other the customary “Good game,” and then I ran to the bathroom. One of the nice things about being a woman at these events was that there was never a line to the women’s bathroom.
I felt blood pounding through me. I wasn’t sure how much of that was from the match or that strange figure.
“Hey,” someone said next to me as I stood at the sink, debating whether to splash water on my face—I had put on eyeliner and mascara today, and neither were waterproof.
I nodded at her, then wet a paper towel and carefully dabbed at my forehead and cheeks.
“I’m Ellie,” she said. “Nice to see another lady around here.” She leaned against the sink as if we were chatting at a bar.
“Oh, yeah.” I strained a laugh. I was absolutely happy to see another woman at this place, but I was still shaken from earlier. “Actually, I competed in the first game. Lost, though.”
“You can’t win ’em all. Don’t sweat it,” Ellie assured me. “When we’re the only ones here, it can feel like we have to be the absolute best to show the boys that we’re just as good. It’s such crap, feeling the weight of an entire gender’s gamer cred on your shoulders. Forget them.” She slung her cross-body bag over her shoulder. “Actually, I just started a group online for women to play online together. We might even set up some local tournaments one day. You’re welcome to practice with us.”
She held out her hand in a show of comradery. That’s exactly how it felt sometimes; us against the gamer bros of the world.
I took hers in mine, and she squeezed it tight as we shared a handshake.
For a while, I did as she suggested. I forgot all about that tournament.
But some things can’t stay buried forever.
“Colossi, you all know what to do.”
It was a statement, not a question.
After two years of playing games with Ellie and a group of other women, my skills had improved drastically—as well as my confidence. It was amazing what a supportive group could do.
And after dozens of other tournaments, I happened to meet Logan, the guy in front of our group who’d just spoken. He was nice. Really nice, actually. He stuck up for me at tournaments whenever other guys ran their mouths, and he listened to all of my complaints about those guys. Two months ago, when I was playing an online game with him, he confessed that he had a crush on me, leaving me momentarily speechless. We started dating soon afterward.
Most shocking of all was his offer to join his five-person team, The Colossi, for competitive games. Team-based shooters were growing in popularity, but joining one of this caliber was rare. Sure, we weren’t at a professional level, but maybe we could be. One day.
I won’t lie—I was worried about joining the team and being seen as “Logan’s girlfriend.” Furthermore, the previous fifth player was Logan’s ex-girlfriend, Mia. He’d told me that after he ended their relationship, she started acting aggressive toward everyone, so they had voted her off the team. I was worried about team dynamics and had nearly turned down the suggestion to join, but Ellie insisted I was more than good enough to compete with them. I definitely missed playing with her and her group, though; I didn’t have the time to play with them as frequently anymore.
The other Colossi members were seated in chairs in our private room before the game started. We weren’t in a fancy room or anything like that, but we’d still made it to the semi-finals, and that was a big deal. The waiting area had bottles of water on a table, some pretzels and chips, and five chairs.
The game we played as a team was full of different characters with various play styles, which could be broken down into three categories: offense, tank, and support. Logan exclusively played tank, which meant he shielded us from harm, had high health, and drew the attention of opponents. I always thought his demeanor suited that role well. We had another person who played offense but switched to tank when we needed another; this was Ian. He was a quiet guy, and I didn’t know him very well because we both kept our private lives to ourselves, but he was always considerate and the first to mediate any group disagreement.
Sitting next to him was Parker, who called himself an “all-rounder.” This meant he was the most flexible about which role he played. Depending on the map we played on, he would play offense, tank, or support. Lately, he’d been playing offense a lot.
Then there was Caleb, our offense-only player, aka Spiff in online gaming circles. I hadn’t realized this until he’d brought it up, but I had played against him in my very first tournament—the one that I freaked out in and lost.
When I saw that weird figure.
I had completely forgotten about it until he apologized for his behavior then, bringing the whole memory of the match flooding back to me. Fortunately, I hadn’t seen the shadowy monster since.
That left me as the support-only player. I had smart game sense and knew when to time my abilities to strengthen and heal my team members, but I had frequently played as a tank back in my group with Ellie.
“Hey, Logan…?” I asked. Despite my attempts to hide it, the apprehension in my voice was palpable.
“What’s up, Ash? You don’t have to worry about a thing.” He flashed me a charismatic smile. He knew I got anxious before big competitions. That’s what he probably assumed this was about.
“Thanks, but…” I swallowed the excess saliva collecting in my mouth as I tried not to trip over my words. “I was actually wondering if I could play as tank this time instead of Ian—if the situation calls for it, I mean.”
Logan stared at me as if I’d personally insulted him. “No way. You know you’re our best support, babe.”
“He’s right,” Parker chimed in. “There’s no way I could keep us alive for as long as you can.”
Logan has always taken his leadership role seriously. Sometimes too seriously.
He crossed his arms. “The game starts in a few minutes. We can’t come up with a new strategy with you as tank right now. Just stick to playing support. It suits you.”
“You mean ’cause I’m a girl?” It came out of my mouth with more virulence than I had anticipated.
“What the hell, Ash?” He stepped forward, and I already regretted my words. I took a step back. Logan was far bigger than I was, and when he got upset, he put on a tough guy act. I never feel comfortable around him when he’s like that.
“Hey, hey, chill out, guys,” Ian said, placing himself between us, hands on our shoulders. “Game starts soon.”
Logan sighed dramatically. “Ash, let’s talk about this later. But today, you play support.”
I hung my head. “Oh…okay. Yeah, you’re right. Sorry.”
It wasn’t a genuine apology, but I still said it. Ever the people-pleaser.
Over the intercom, the game announcer excitedly called forward the opposing team, giving their introduction. We stood at the door, waiting for our turn. I hoped I hadn’t messed with our team coordination with my suggestion. I should have waited to bring it up. If we lost, I’d be blamed.
But wasn’t that how it always felt?
“And on the opposing side, The Colossiiiiiiiii!” the game announcer shouted.
As he introduced each of us, giving the audience some background on us as individuals, we walked forward in a horizontal line with Logan at the middle. We were given a couple minutes to get situated before the game started, so the announcer chatted away.
I put on my headset. Unlike the one from my first tournament, these had microphones so that team members could talk to one another. That was vital for well-coordinated team play.
As I tried to make myself comfortable—impossible considering my anxiety over what I had said earlier—I momentarily tuned out my teammates. They were chatting about nothing in particular; it was just to fill the nervous, awkward silence. I tested out the mouse and keyboard for lack for something better to do.
All of a sudden, the shadowy figure appeared.
It was sitting right next to me.
I gaped at it, the breath sucked out of me, as its blood moon-like eyes mesmerized me. Its dark tendrils reached out to me, and I—
I blinked, and it was gone. Logan was sitting there now. His hand was on my arm. “You okay?” he asked.
Nodding rapidly, I assured him everything was fine.
He gave me a quick peck on the cheek, so fast that anyone not paying attention wouldn’t have noticed. “All right. Best of luck to us both.”
We secured a spot in the finals, much to my relief.
All Colossi members celebrated at Caleb’s place on our win. Normally we had drinks and food at Logan’s place, but his family was in town and staying with him. Caleb owned a small house with his wife, who was currently away for work, so it made the most sense for us to go to his place this time. The rest of us didn’t have the space for hosting guests.
Except for our team leader, we were all drinking beer while playing a fighting game on the couch in Caleb’s living room. Logan entered with three boxes of pizza.
“All right, team!” he called.
We paused the game. We always stopped playing when Logan wanted our attention.
“Great work out there today,” he continued, food still in his hands. “Let’s meet tomorrow afternoon for a strategy meeting about the finals. But you know, when we play hard, we party hard! So let’s feast!”
He ceremoniously dropped the pizza boxes.
“Dude, I don’t think pepperoni pizza really constitutes a feast,” Parker noted with an elbow jab into Logan’s side. Logan responded by pulling him into a headlock.
Ian handed me a paper plate with two slices of pizza. Like me, he stayed out of the roughhousing.
We ate fast; there was no easy way to snack and play games at the same time.
“Hey, I’ve got a proposal for you all,” Caleb said after a swig from his bottle. “Let’s liven things up a little. How about the person who places last in this next match has to do a penalty?”
“What do you have in mind?” Logan asked.
Caleb gulped down some more beer and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “How about spending two minutes in the creepy basement?”
Parker snickered. “What the hell is so creepy about your basement?”
“It’s haunted, for starters.”
“No way. Just because you’ve heard scratching noises and a lady moaning down there doesn’t make it haunted,” Logan quipped. “You’re just crazy, dude.”
“You think Mia’s angry spirit is haunting us or something?” Parker asked.
“Dude, she’s not dead.” Caleb nearly spilled his drink while he howled in cackles.
Logan laughed. He had a very airy laugh that got on my nerves whenever I was in a bad mood. “I guess whoever loses will just have to verify for us.”
“Sure. I’m in.” Ian grabbed a controller. I did the same, not wanting to be the only one out. Ian and I always go along with the rest of them. We’re the enablers.
Everyone chose their fighter and got down to business. About halfway through the match, I began to suspect the other four are focusing on taking me out. It was a free-for-all, but occasionally they came at me two or three at a time. I survived every now and then, striking my attackers off the stage, but they whittled down my available lives. I only had one left, and everyone else had two to three remaining.
With a well-timed strike from his character, Caleb knocked me off the stage. I was forced to sit on the couch, waiting for the penalty to begin while the four guys split up and took one another out. I smiled and laughed with them like I was having a good time, but all I wanted to do was go home. I contemplated going to the bathroom and calling a car ride service.
Instead, I waited for them to finish the game, and then I said, “I don’t wanna insinuate anything…but are you sure you all weren’t gunning for me first?”
Logan threw his arm around my shoulders. “No, no way, babe. We just know you’ve played this game more than we have, so you were the biggest threat.”
“I mean,” Caleb interjected, “after your weird comments pre-game nearly ruined our chances at the finals, you can’t blame us for having one dig at you.” He was acting all casual, sipping at another bottle of beer and reaching for his fifth slice of pizza, but his tone cut through me. “Anyway, do you want another slice before you start the penalty?”
I waved my hand. “Nah, I’m not really hungry anymore. Where’s the basement?”
Like always, I went along with the flow. I’ve learned better than to rock the boat with these guys.
Caleb tossed his controller to the side, stood up, and made a dramatic bow, holding one hand out to me. “Follow me, fair maiden.”
When we left the room, we heard Parker shout, “Do you need Logan to go with you to keep you safe?” and then an “Ow!” when Logan must have shoved him on the couch or something.
“But really, call us if you need something,” Ian said. He’d followed us.
“It’s cool.” I tried to play everything off. I didn’t believe in ghosts or spirits or anything vengeful lurking unseen—well, normally I didn’t believe that, but seeing that ghastly figure before the semi-final had made me apprehensive. I was clearly imagining things. Maybe I hadn’t slept enough lately; I’d been staying up late to chat with some of the ladies in Ellie’s online gaming group. I’d barely to get talk to them otherwise.
Caleb opened the door to the basement. When I reached for the light switch, he hurriedly said, “Nah-uh! No lights! Gimme your phone, too. Just in case you decide to use it as a flashlight.”
I narrowed my eyes. “Seriously? Come on.”
“You can’t be without it for two minutes? Really, Ash?”
I groaned and handed it over. “Fine, but don’t go crawling to Logan for the password.”
He grinned and closed the door once I reached the bottom of the stairs. I heard laughter from upstairs and some shuffling around, like something was rubbing the hardwood floor. Were they moving furniture or something? Maybe repositioning the couch, I pondered.
Caleb’s basement smelled musty, and there wasn’t much space. He had a washing machine and a dryer in a corner, and in a small room next to them was the utility closet. There was nowhere to sit, so I started pacing around the tiny perimeter. How long can two minutes feel, honestly?
Surely, I tempted fate with that innocuous thought. No more than a few seconds later, the shadowy figure reappeared. And it had friends this time.
There were four of them, and they had me cornered. Gripping the washing machine to my left, my eyes darted around the room for somewhere to run, but it was no use. The room was tiny, and they were so close to me already.
The one in front outstretched what must have been its arm. Bits of black flickered to and fro at the edges, like a fire lapping up anything near it.
I recoiled and screamed. Laughter ensued from upstairs.
Terror had seized its icy grip on me. I closed my eyes and darted for the stairs. I twisted the doorknob and pushed the door—well, I tried to. The door wouldn’t budge. My hands frantically searched the wall for the light switch, but I couldn’t find it. I knew for a fact it had been there earlier.
“Chill out, Ash! You have another seventy seconds to go!” I heard one of them jeer. I’d recognize that voice anywhere. It was Logan. I felt my heart crack. Why was he doing this? I turned around and saw the four figures slowly drifting toward me.
“Open up!” I yelled louder, slamming my fists on the door.
“You gotta face the penalty!”
I screamed nothing in particular and ran back down the stairs with my hands in front of me as a barrier. I must have passed through the otherworldly beings because I didn’t feel anything when I ran past them.
All four boys were cackling upstairs.
“She’s flipping out down there!”
“Logan, do you have a thing for crazy girls?”
“Okay, okay. I think she’s had enough. Can we open the door already?”
“Don’t ruin our fun, Ian. There’s nothing down there. She must be nuts.”
I heard their voices clearly, as if they were in the basement with me. Tears streamed down my face. I didn’t know why, but I remembered every terrible thing The Colossi had done to me or around me—some of them before the team had even formed. Caleb’s relentless taunts, Logan’s insistence that I always stay on the back lines and heal him while he protected me, Ian never sticking up for me, Parker making rude jokes about Logan’s ex-girlfriends to impress him…
It wasn’t just things the four of them had said, either. Every comment about sending me back to the kitchen, me ruining a match, my breasts, and more came rushing back to me in the moment.
The figure at the front of the pack stood over me, towering over me, and stroked my face with its long, curling strands of what should have been fingers. It chilled me to my core. My heart threatened to stop completely. Maybe that was preferable to continuing like this.
Suddenly, there was a thud and the sound of glass crashing to the floor. The sleeve of what looked like a sweatshirt and a person’s hand reached through the now-open window of the door and unlocked the knob.
“Over here!” a woman’s voice cried as the door flung open.
I hesitated for just a moment. If I left now, I would never be welcome on the team again.
Was I ever truly welcome?
I whipped my arm forward, tearing through the airy figure, and ran amid the shadows to reach the door I hadn’t seen earlier. They beckoned to me.
“Ash, wait!” a voice—Logan’s—pleaded. “Don’t listen to her!”
On the other side of that doorway was a woman with curly black hair, wearing jeans and a hoodie. She held out her hand to me.
I’d seen her before. I’d looked at pictures of her and Logan on his online profile. I’d watched videos of her playing with The Colossi a few months ago.
She smiled. It was warm, but it also looked sad. “Are you Ashley?” When I nodded, she continued. “Do you want to leave?”
That meant leaving the group in their time of need; the championship final was a few days away. Even more than that, I recognized this signaled the end of my time with Logan. We’d only dated for two months, but he’d made me laugh a lot. Just as much as he’d made me feel like crap, I supposed.
Mia waited. The figures tried to grab me, but whenever their tendrils got close, they just bounced away from us.
“I don’t know if I’m ready. But I’m willing to try.”
My hand touched hers, and my body felt warm again. She gently pulled me through the doorway, just for the door to disappear once it closed. We ran, jumped into her car parked a block away, and drove off. The constant hum of the engine calmed my racing thoughts as I tried to shake off the feeling of that thing’s icy touch.
“I’m sorry I took so long to help you,” Mia began, breaking our silence. She probably knew I wasn’t in a state to talk, but I was happy to listen. Anything to block out the echoes of their voices. “I was afraid of what the guys had said about me. I thought you wouldn’t believe me. No one does.
“I dumped Logan about a week before I quit the team. He…did some things. When I told the team, they thought I was trying to get back at him after an argument mid-match we had once. So they all treated me like the crazy ex Logan painted me out to be.”
I remembered seeing Mia at a local tournament not long after she and Logan must have broken up. No one had talked to her there, but tons of people flocked to Logan while he and I had been chatting. “I’m sorry… I shouldn’t have listened to them.”
She waved my regrets away.
The clock on her dashboard read 1:04 AM. I reached for my phone in my empty pocket. Right, they had taken my phone. “Shit, I left my purse there. Phone, too.”
“We’ll figure out how to get them back. Do you have some friends who can head there later to pick up your things?”
“Yeah… I have a friend who doesn’t live far.” I wanted so badly to send a message to Ellie right then.
I stared ahead at the dark parkway Mia was taking us on; she had insisted I spend the night at her place. She’d said she didn’t want me to be alone. With the image of those figures, I wasn’t sure I’d get much sleep anyway. I wanted to ask Mia about them, but I was afraid I was going insane.
As if she’d read my mind, she said, “It’s okay if things don’t make sense for a while. Maybe ever.” She gripped the steering wheel tighter. “I don’t really know what happens there.”
I had just been in that basement, and even I was having a hard time coming to terms with it. I’d probably see the guys again at tournaments around town; it felt like a pit had swollen in my stomach. How long would it be before I felt safe at a space that used to make me happy?
After a long pause, I told her, “Thank you for coming to get me.”
“We look out for each other.”
I didn’t need to ask; I knew who we was.
My body finally felt relaxed enough for me to smile at Mia. “By the way, would you be interested in joining my friend’s gaming group?”