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Interview: Paradigm Owner Lydia Picknell Talks eSports and Debunks the Feminist Narrative

Lydia Picknell might be one of the only girls on the SMITE pro scene, but she's not trying to fight all the boys in gaming.

Lydia Picknell has quickly risen to semi-stardom in the SMITE community. As the sole owner of European team Paradigm and the former coach for Avant-Garde (Australia) and Rebirth (South America), she's spent the last few years forging a name for herself in the eSports industry. 

Lovingly dubbed "Para-mum" by her Paradigm players, Lydia is a passionate eSports fan who works day in and day out to make sure her team succeeds -- and somewhere along the way, to make sure that the burgeoning eSports scene becomes a more inclusive place for everyone who wants to be a part of it. 

But I was able to pull her away from her (many) responsibilities for a few hours to chat about her experience with Paradigm, her take on the eSports industry, and where everything is going from here. 

From SPL Substitute to Sole Owner

Before she was the manager/owner of Paradigm and the coach for multiple international teams, Lydia was a skilled SMITE player who sort of stumbled onto the competitive scene. Two of her Pro League friends, PeccYz and Adanas, were playing for the now-disbanded Reason Gaming in a weekly online tournament. But their support player, Snoopy, had slept in -- leaving them without a vital fifth player. So Lydia was summoned to save the game:

"They called me at like 10 a.m. and said 'Get online, we need help.' I logged on and got thrown in as support for a weekly tournament, when I'd never played competitive before -- and that's how I became the first competitive female in SMITE. Thanks, Snoopy!" 

It sounds like a once-in-a-lifetime story, but it isn't the only time that Lydia has found herself in the middle of the SMITE pro scene with little to no warning. Something similar happened after she joined Paradigm as assistant manager last October. 

Shortly after she came on board, Paradigm beat the undefeated EU team Epsilon to take first place at the SMITE Super Regionals. And Lydia took on a new role within the team. 

"Zimpstar (who was the original owner and founder of the org) gave me part ownership of the team because I had done so much work behind the scenes. I wanted to prove myself. It took me two and a half years to finally get a shot -- nobody would give me a shot. So I just kind of ran with it. 

After Paradigm took the stage at worlds and walked away in fourth place, Zimpstar made the decision to leave the team so he could focus on other responsibilities. But the news was broken in the most informal way imaginable.

I was on my lunch break, and I get a message from one of our players named Funballer going:

'Hey, you're Zimpstar now.'

And I was like:

'What does that mean? ...Hello?? Talk to me, I have ten minutes. HELLO?'

So Funballer says: 

'Yeah, he's stepping down -- you own the org.'

So I'm learning as I go right now, and it's been an interesting ride. And that's the super professional story of how I became complete owner of Paradigm."

Even if she got thrown into the pool and told to swim, Lydia is definitely doing something right with her Paradigm boys. They're currently the Number 2 seed in the EU circuit of the SMITE Pro League. And they're the only team that's been able to take games off of the reigning world champions, Epsilon.

Lydia is proud of the accomplishment, but doesn't want to take all the credit. 

I don't coach Paradigm -- I'm just the manager...we have an amazing coach on Paradigm, Dazer. He's been with most of the players for like 3 years. He's been around a very long time, and I'm not going to steal his thunder there at all."

But good coaching and good management isn't the only reason that Paradigm is one of the dominating forces in the Pro League. Their consistent roster has a lot to do with it, as well. 

 

Resisting the Rosterpocalpyse

Rosterpocalypses are common in SMITE's professional scene -- lots players are shuffled around (or in some cases kicked from teams) before the start of a season, and oftentimes in the middle of a season as well. In the North American circuit, it's becoming an increasingly common issue. Even after multiple roster changes and the formation of several new teams before this season's Spring Split began, professional players are being removed from their teams because of supposed under-performance and drama between teammates. 

But the boys on Paradigm have been playing together since the early days of SMITE. They've been teammates for years -- a rare thing in the SPL. In fact, Panthera (formerly Epsilon) is the only other pro team that hasn't seen a roster change in the last 2 years. 

"TrixTank, QvoFred, and Lawbster won the launch tournament as Team SoloMid. And the three of them are still together. Xaliea and Funballer and Dazer (as a coach) were on Fnatic. So everybody's been playing with each other for years."

The rosterpocalypse phenomenon has been tough for players and fans alike. Several pro players have come out and said that they don't feel like permanent assets on any team, and fans are getting increasingly frustrated that their favorite players are being pushed out of teams and being moved around so quickly that it's nearly impossible to keep up.

Lydia had some interesting thoughts as to what might be creating such an unstable environment for pro players. 

"eSports is so new. And nobody wants to be on the worst team. Everybody's highly competitive...and they all want to be the best. So everybody forms a team with high, high hopes. And when the team doesn't work out at the level they expected, people stop getting along so well. Some players lose focus faster than others, and some personalities start to conflict. And they think they can handle it at the beginning when they're winning, but they no longer can. 

There's a lot of egos. We have a lot of people -- a lot of us gamers, really -- who don't tend to go outside a lot, or socialize a lot. So when they start getting all this attention and they have to work with people, they might not know how to do that. There's a lot that goes on behind the scenes. 

...Sometimes who you see on a stream or online is not who they are behind closed doors. If you go to a LAN tournament and you're boot-camping for a few days, you're in a room with these guys you knew online. But now you're around them 24/7 for a week, and sometimes your personalities start conflicting. And someone isn't so happy with who they thought someone was. And a lot of rosterpocalypse stuff happens because of that.

A lot of people want to play with their friends, like what happened in North America, and it doesn't work out the way they thought it would. Then they want to go back, but it's too late to go back...I think it's just so new that the maturity level isn't there yet to realize that a commitment is a commitment. You have to learn to work together."

Lydia says her Paradigm players have stayed together so long that they've learned this lesson several times over -- including what buttons they can press and what they can get away with.

 

Goofballs and Go-Getters

The cohesion that's kept Paradigm together for years doesn't end when a match is over. The boys are a team both in and out of games -- but when they're not on the battleground, they're a lot less serious.

If we're at a LAN, we stick together as a team -- which is unique, because not a lot of teams do that. You'll have little cliques inside of a team. You might have three people together and the other two with somebody else, or they go around to other teams and hang out. 

But we go out together. We'll go out for steak dinners as a team. We always do that once in Atlanta to celebrate that we're at a LAN. Trixtank and Fred always get what's called the Tomahawk steak, which is literally a $100 steak on the bone. And the two of them share it every time -- they eat it of the bone. And I'm just sitting at the table with them in this nice restaurant going 'more wine please...help.

All of them (except Lawbster) are goofballs. [Lawbster] is a very serious guy -- he's hilarious, but very serious. He's our captain. We call Lawbster Papa-Lawb because he's the more mature one on the team.

It isn't all fun and games, though -- even if there are a lot of games involved. When preparing for a LAN event, Paradigm buckles down and starts grinding away in practice rooms before they ever set foot on the competitive stage.

"We're very serious at LANs. They'll go in and practice a lot. Part of the reason we were so successful at regionals was that we used the Hi-Rez studio practice rooms. And they would sit from 10 a.m. (which was the earliest time we could get in) until midnight every single day -- playing SMITE, practicing, and strategizing. Every day.

They're very disciplined. They're goofballs, but they're extremely disciplined when they have to be. And I think you need a balance of both -- of being friends with everybody you're working with, but you also need to know how to be taken seriously by each other." 

Lydia goes on to say that she's a lot more comfortable working with jokesters like the Paradigm boys. When people are too serious 24/7, it can be a little too much -- both for her and for the SMITE scene as a whole. 

Fans have watched a lot of drama unfold between players because of little things getting taken too seriously. Nasty Twitter remarks often get thrown around by pro players who don't appreciate the in-game criticisms they've gotten from casters, which has created a somewhat tense relationship between players and the people who, according to Lydia, are trying to support them. 

"There are some people who get offended over every little thing. But if you're a streamer or professional player, you can't take every single thing somebody says to you to heart. There's a lot of pro players who can't take the criticism from casters. 

But at the end of the day, both of them just want to be the best. The caster wants the league to be the best it can and get the viewers to understand what they should be doing. And if you're a professional player, you need to have a thick skin. You need to learn how to deal with that kind of criticism. 

That lesson isn't just one that players need to learn. Lydia says it's a process she had to go through herself when she first broke onto the SMITE scene.

"I've had to learn that the hard way -- how to take criticism. At first when someone didn't like something I'd done or something I'd tweeted, I would just panic and feel terrible. But now I'm just like: 'You know what? I know what I'm doing. And I know what I meant.'"

And the criticism directed Lydia's way has been heavy -- arguably more than what other managers and coaches have received during their time on the SMITE pro scene. 

More Than Just "A Woman in eSports"

While there are a lot of high-profile figures in the SPL, Lydia is the only female owner/coach working in the league right now. And that's made her a target for lots of angry people who feel like her gender means she doesn't deserve a place in their boys' club.

"I was told by a coach last year for a team we went to Regionals with that I would 'be found in a ditch' because I was involved....

...I've had a South American player (when I used to coach in South America) say that he would 'rape me at worlds' when he qualified.

But Lydia isn't alone in this. The SMITE pro scene -- and the eSports scene in general -- can get a little hostile for everyone when tensions arise between the people involved. 

Recently, fan-favorite caster and former pro player Adanas received death threats from an anonymous Twitter account -- another target in the ongoing (and awful) trend of angry gamers sending serious threats to the people they deem at fault. Someone went so far as to track down Adanas' sister and send him her address as proof. 

To Lydia, this kind of behavior is never justifiable -- whether it's happening to her or someone else. 

"I've known Adanas for a while, and he does not deserve that kind of stuff. He's one of the nicest people, one of the hardest working, and he's been trying to do everything he can to grow this game. It shouldn't happen to anybody...That should never be okay.  That should never be anybody's reaction to anything.

I want to see, somehow, that kind of stuff get taken more seriously...I've had to teach my mom how to hide her Facebook so people can't find her. My little sister, who is much more tech savvy than myself, asked if she should lock down all our internet and be hiding stuff. And that should not be a priority."

In spite of the hostility that most of the figureheads in the SMITE scene receive at some point or another, Lydia's reputation as a "female" in the league precedes her not just at tournaments and events, but in other interviews and appearances as well. And she's not a fan. 

"It shouldn't have to be a big deal that I get introduced as the female owner of Paradigm or the female coach of AG. I just want to be the owner/manager, or the coach. I don't want to be female first. But it's gonna be a long road until we get to that day."

A recent interview with Polygon only exacerbated Lydia's reputation as the "female" in the SPL. Though the interviewer spent several hours with her on the phone, it seems like all he got out of it was the "pity the strife of a woman in eSports" angle that's already been (over)done many times before. 

"I kind of got thrown after this interview with Polygon into this man-hating woman trying to fight all the boys in gaming, and that's not who I am whatsoever...and my problem is that when you Google my name, that's the first thing you see -- so all these other media sites are like 'let's talk about this!'

I had the opportunity to speak on CNN a month ago while I was in Australia. And fortunately they were like 'let's talk about gaming and SMITE.' And I'm thinking 'yeah, 100%'. Then we sit down and they're like 'so let's talk about boys,' and I'm just thinking 'oh no...not again.' That's not who I am. 

I kind of got portrayed as a crazy feminist, and I'm not like that. I just want everybody to be treated fairly...I'm not trying to be like 'look at me, I'm a girl -- give girls more chances.' No. Give them to everybody. Period."

This is the message that she has tried to get out in a number of interviews, but that doesn't quite seem to be coming through. Lydia doesn't want a specifically female-friendly eSports environment -- she wants one that supports any passionate player who takes a chance. 

"I think maybe I have to be doing this in order to make eSports more welcoming for everybody -- and that's my goal. I never went into this to make a statement. I did it because I love to do what I do, and I want to get more people that love eSports involved with it. 

...The message I really want to get across is that if you think you're good enough, do it. It doesn't matter where you come from, your gender, your sexuality, your race, nothing. If you're good enough, you should be given a shot. Period."

But in spite of the difficulties, media bias, and hostile attitudes that Lydia encounters in the eSports industry, she says her work has been rewarding. She's met some great people along the way -- and without realizing it, has affected the lives of a few people too. 

Making A Better SPL for Players and Fans

Lydia's mantra is that if her works makes things easier for "even just one person", then everything is worth it. And a few key moments at SPL events have proven to her that she's done just that.

"I've had some amazing experiences doing what I do. When I was at Worlds I had this gentleman -- I feel terrible because I can't remember his name -- he stops me in the hallway and goes 'Excuse me, are you Lydia?' And I say 'Yeah, hi! What's up, how are you?' And he asks if he can have a picture with me. And I'm like 'Me? Are you sure? Okay -- I'm really nobody, but yeah!'

And then he just started crying. And I ask what's wrong and he says 'You know, my wife wouldn't let me play games. And then I showed her the Polygon article about you, and you just inspired her. And now she plays with me.'

No one's ever said that kind of thing to me and I realized that maybe it's not all bad what I've been thrown into. If it's helping people, if it's getting more people involved in gaming, I'm happy to do it. I really do believe we need more positive role models out there to help inspire more people to do what they want to do.

At the end of the day, when I meet people at these major events, that's when I realize that maybe I am doing good."

It's a noble goal -- and not the only one that Lydia has. In fact, she spent a fair amount of time working with international teams like the Australian Avant-Garde and South American Rebirth to make the SMITE Pro League a better (and fairer) experience for every region involved. 

"The reason why I worked with Avant-Garde in Australia is that our scenes in SMITE, the NA and EU scenes, have been around for 4 years...But Australia just got their pro league in the last half of last year, and sent a team to worlds. There's no way you can be prepared in that amount of time to play at that high of a level. 

When I got involved in eSports, I sat down with Krett, who was one of my mentors at the time. And he said he was starting a program in South America, and wanted to send some coaches there to help them learn to play SMITE a little better, because they're just not at the same level as our NA and EU teams. So I did that [with Rebirth]...and just fell in love with the idea of helping out these other scenes.

...I want to help their scene. I do as much as I can to help them. I wouldn't be involved if I didn't think I could do something...There's kind of nobody fighting for their corner on this side."

Lydia has since had to leave her coaching positions with both Rebirth and Avant-Garde, because the many hats she was wearing ended up pushing her to the point of over-exhaustion. A choice had to be made, and she knew that her home was with Paradigm. 

What's Next?

I asked her what the future looks like -- not just for her team, but for the eSports industry in general. It's obvious that eSports are a growing phenomenon, and Lydia thinks they're on their way to becoming a cultural cornerstone. 

"It's starting to get bigger and bigger. Because we have streaming sites, it's going to continue to grow. I mean, we have Geico sponsored teams. We have Reebok. We have Coca-Cola. Bud Light started getting involved in League of Legends this year. It's insane, and as these big sponsors jump in, it's going to grow and grow and grow. I think in 3 years, it's going to be a normal thing to be a professional gamer. 

North America is a little bit slower to pick up on it. But in Asia they have schools dedicated to teaching kids to be professionals at Starcraft. In Europe they have some schools that are starting to teach eSports. North America will be last on that bandwagon I feel, but once it catches on here I think it's gonna be huge, and it'll be seen as a major sport."

Lydia is already feeling the growth of the industry in the interest that she's gotten from major media outlets like IGN. Though she refers to herself throughout the interview as being "really nobody", the rest of the gaming world doesn't seem to think so. 

"Backstage at Worlds this year, I walked my players to and from the media room. And IGN comes up to me and they're like 'Can we talk to you?' And I say, '...Me?'

....I've had some people tell me that I'm way too down to earth about it and I should be really arrogant, but I'm like 'why, dude?' It's just a video game at the end of the day. We're playing a video game. Calm down. It's not like we're rockstars selling our arena -- not SMITE yet. Yet."

#AlliedStrong

Before wrapping everything up, I ask Lydia if she has any final words or shout-outs that she'd like to give. She immediately names one of the most beloved players in the SMITE community -- David "Allied" Hance. 

Earlier this year, Allied was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. Soon after he made the announcement, the SMITE community banded together to start raising money for his treatment. Hi-Rez put together an official charity stream that raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, and Lydia did a 24-hour stream that raised nearly $9,000 CAD for him as well. 

She was also the mind behind the #AlliedStrong t-shirts that many SMITE fans proudly wear -- even the head honcho of Hi-Rez, Todd Harris, dons his Allied shirt from time to time. 

"We actually made Allied an honorary member of Paradigm, and he's going to be getting a jersey this month with his name on it.

The thing about the SMITE community is we're all one big family, and everybody sticks together. We're all pulling for him. He's been such a cornerstone in this community -- I call him a pillar of the SMITE community. 

...And he got a lot of attention from people outside SMITE. To see that kind of community come together was amazing. eSports is awesome. It's great."

In the time between our interview and the writing of this article, Allied made an announcement that he's still got some lingering effects from his chemo treatment to deal with, but that his cancer has gone into total remission for now. And that is thanks in no small part to Lydia and the whole SMITE community that banded together to support him. 

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Lydia might be one of the only women working in the SMITE scene right now, but her contributions to the community and the eSports industry as a whole go far beyond the "girl power" message that often gets attached to her name. She's a passionate eSports fan who has busted ass to make sure that she's leaving this industry better than she found it -- and hopefully making it a place that's more welcoming for everyone. 

I'd like to thank Lydia for taking the time to sit down and chat with us. You can follow her on Twitter @livelikeagypsy, or keep up with her Paradigm boys @ParadigmGG. We're looking forward to see what she does in the future, and to seeing her team take the stage at the SMITE Super Regionals (and hopefully the World Championships) later this year. 

Published Jul. 21st 2016

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