Sylvia Gathoni, top Kenyan video games star on the Forbes list

Sylvia Gathoni

Sylvia Gathoni, also known as QueenArrow, is a professional e-sport athlete.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

The name QueenArrow may not ring a bell to most Kenyans, but this 23-year-old e-gamer is a super-sleek fighter, a fierce opponent and a global icon. Among gaming or e-sports enthusiasts locally and abroad, QueenArrow is the model of finesse and, arguably, one of Kenya’s best talents in the field.

This week, the name Sylvia Gathoni— more popularly known as QueenArrow — featured in the latest issue of Forbes Africa’s Top 30 Under 30 innovators ‘‘leading a new era of change’’ on the continent.

Electronic sports, or e-sports in short, involves video games competitions, typically with multiple players. Most of those involved are professional players as individuals or teams.

Gathoni is the first female professional gamer from Kenya, and the first e-sports athlete ever to make the cut for Forbes list of global trailblazers. She is the only woman in Tekken 254 Circuit, which largely involves professional gamers in Kenya.

Tekken is a hand-to-hand combat game with universal acclaim and commercial success. It is considered one of the best-selling video game franchises of all time, and the fourth best-selling fighting game with nearly 54 million units sold worldwide so far.

After joining competitive gaming at 18 in 2017 playing in Mortal Kombat XL, Gathoni went on to triumph at Safaricom Blaze e-sport Tour’s Tekken tournament in 2019. From then on, she has been unstoppable. ‘‘This has to be one of the biggest affirmations of my e-sports career so far. I am super-honoured,’’ she tweeted after the announcement.

Gaming endeavours

The Tekken 7 pro player was the first Kenyan to be signed by a major e-Sport company, XiT Woundz from North America, which has been sponsoring her gaming endeavours. In February last year, Gathoni was signed by UYU, an American e-sports company as part of their content creation team.

Gathoni is also supported by Red Bull. Said she: ‘‘When the Most High ordains something for you, it shall be yours.’’ After annihilating enemies in combat games in multiple global gaming competitions, it is hard to imagine who could have deserved this feat more.

She said about the recognition by Forbes Africa: ‘‘It shows that Forbes is not only recognising e-sports as a valid career path but also recognising that the African continent is a peer and equal in the e-sports world. There is obviously a lot of untapped talent in this field.’’

Gathoni is hardly modest about her win, and insists the best of her is yet to come. ‘‘I will let my body of work speak for itself. I am on the up and up. I look forward to more dubs and more glories. Getting to my level at Tekken, and to attain my objectives as a player, has taken hard work. My focus at the moment is to find what sets me apart in gameplay and content creation.’’

Does she consider herself ready to take on the best in the world? ‘‘I am a pro. But given my current trajectory, I will definitely get there soon.’’

While cagey about her earnings from gaming, Gathoni says she is able to pay her bills comfortably.

Yet play is not all Gathoni does. In October last year, she graduated with a Bachelor’s law degree from Catholic University of East Africa. She is currently enrolled at the Kenya School of Law.

How does she juggle school and career without compromising either? Gathoni admits that it is a slippery balance to maintain. “My parents have sacrificed to put me through law school. Even as I game, I always remind myself that I have an obligation to meet them by doing well in my studies. I am determined to demonstrate that it is possible to balance school and my e-sports career.’’

Active traveller

Besides her studies, she is an active traveller. She spoke to Sunday Nation on the sidelines of the Generation Connect Youth Summit in Kigali where she is a visiting speaker. The summit is jointly organised by the Global Esports Federation (GEF). Gathoni is a member of GEF’s Athletes, Players and Communities Commission.

‘‘I try to put in at least two hours every day for my gaming practice. Over time, I have appreciated that gaming is about the quality of training rather than the quantity of time one puts in.’’ She also sets aside time to work out. ‘‘Physical and mental health are important to remain in e-sports for long.’’

Gaming, she says, has made her discover her capabilities as a woman in an area that is dominated by men. ‘‘I am as valid and equal as my male counterparts. While there have been difficulties along the way, I can say I am at a better place now.’’ Her transformation has also been the game’s transformation.

She says: ‘‘More people now recognise gaming as a valid career path like any other. There is a lot of interest in the prospects gaming holds.’’

This evolution from merely a hobby to a full-fledged career has pulled investors, local and international, to put their money in the country’s fast growing industry. Currently worth an estimated Sh13.9 billion, Kenya’s video gaming industry is expected to grow to about Sh17 billion by next year.

Local gaming industry

Jay Shapiro is one of the investors who have pumped millions into the local gaming industry. In 2018, Shapiro founded in 2018 the Nairobi Gaming Development Centre (GDC), which hosts creators, indie developers and studio owners to research on games, to code and network.

The Canadian has run gaming enterprises for more than 20 years in the US and Singapore before he relocated to Kenya four years ago. Says Shapiro: ‘‘There’s a huge level of optimism here. Video gaming in Kenya is at a cottage level and it can only grow bigger. It’s an amazing time to be here.’’

Gathoni, however, stresses the need for more stakeholder engagement to take e-sports in Kenya to the next level. ‘‘The government needs to engage with those of us in the ecosystem to understand challenges that set us back. We would hit higher levels if the cost of peripherals (playing kit), for instance, were lower. This would encourage more young people to get into gaming.’’

She also proposes review of the legal framework to promote gaming. ‘‘Our law gives the impression that gaming and e-sports are forms of gambling. This is inaccurate and needs to change.’’

Having ‘‘a consistent tournament culture’’ in the country is what will ultimately allow Kenyan players to participate on the world stage, she notes.

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