Cloud 9's Annie on VALORANT, chasing dreams and why representation matters
Beloved by streamers and feared by anyone caught in her sights, Annie Roberts is now starring for Cloud9 White, a VALORANT team of all-women players. Here she discusses her career so far.
The story of pro gamer Annie Roberts starts with a loss of connection.
It wasn't some Wi-Fi related hitch though. Nor any kind of server queue. No, the connection she required was simply a human one.
"College was a struggle", reveals Roberts. "I was surrounded by thousands of people on campus but I couldn’t talk to them. So I started going onto Twitch streams to find people who had similar interests to me, people who are LGBT, or people who were playing the same game. That's where I started playing Overwatch."
She didn't just play Overwatch – she crushed it, grinding the competitive ladder to become not only a professional gamer but one of the most watched players on Twitch. Roberts, who is trans and bi, has also used her platform to raise awareness for the LGBTQ community, and help others find a voice as well.
Currently starring for Cloud9 White, who recently won the first VALORANT Champions Tour Game Changers tournament without losing a single map, Roberts is going from strength to strength, the 24-year-old is ready to talk about her inspiring rise to the top, from battling depression to even moonlighting as a delivery driver to make it to where she is today.
What are your first memories of gaming?
I was around five years old, sat with my parents watching them play puzzle games. As I grew old enough to play myself I remember a PC game called Trespasser, an FPS set in the world of Jurassic Park, where you could run around and fight dinosaurs. I really liked dinosaurs as a kid, so for me that was the coolest thing ever. Later we bought a PS2, and we also had Gameboys – I played every iteration of Pokémon.
If we slip up, if we fail, we get five times the scrutiny compared to others because we’re 'just a girl team'
When did you first realise you were good at video games?
Definitely around 6th grade, which is pretty young, but I got an Xbox360 and played a lot of Call of Duty 4 every day after school. Eventually I found out about a website, MLG, where you could sign up for tournaments and play with people to win money. It was a great experience — I was aged 14 and playing with 20 year olds who didn't know who I was. I would get through try-outs and basically stomp a lot of the older kids. They’d put me on the team, hear me talk and be like “Holy shit".
Did you ever think a career beckoned in gaming?
I never thought of video games as a job. I was depressed during high school – there was a time where people would classify me as lazy and unmotivated. And then in college I had a large epiphany and realised I was living everything for other people around me. At the time I studied nursing but never wanted to do that. I wanted to make music and play video games. The next day I was super motivated, and started gaming a lot, streaming, playing music and connecting with people.
What were the biggest challenges when trying to make a name for yourself as a streamer?
I had a lot of dark days when I would only have five Twitch viewers for eight hours, where I thought ‘This is going nowhere’. But eventually I realised it was never about being popular on Twitch – it should be about wanting to find people to connect with. Switching to this mindset helped me grow because I was able to be more myself, to be goofy and not take myself too seriously.
But of course then it eventually became a business...
Getting partnered with Twitch was a huge moment in my life. I'd left college and the only money I was making was by working a really bad job delivery driving [in Michigan]. When I wasn't streaming that's where I was. I did night shifts which was absolutely miserable, and I would drive from 6pm until 4 in the morning. You could imagine how that might drive you insane.
Any particular horror stories there?
I just got yelled at so much for stuff I didn’t think was an issue. There’s always the horror story of getting an order wrong. If I forgot one tiny thing, such as a straw, people would cuss me out and not tip me. So I’d drive 20 minutes only to get yelled at.
Do you ever feel pressure as a high profile trans woman in gaming, or does it give you extra motivation to keep shining at the top?
It’s a little bit of both; a double-edged sword. I get a lot of hate for it, but I get a lot more support for it, which is way more motivation for me. I think you should live your life by the people who support you because trying to appeal to people who hate you is going to make you miserable regardless. I enjoy being high profile because I think that representation is needed, and I’m confident that I’m not an asshole, and that I’m someone people can look up to.
You actually retired from Overwatch due to the impact community toxicity had on your mental health. How did you deal with that day to day?
If you're a [known] person on the internet you are going to face hatred daily, and it’s something that you really have to train yourself to get used to, which sucks. I had to learn as I went but it’s something I definitely struggled with for a long time. If someone’s an asshole to me now I'm like ‘Dude, I don’t care, I’m doing pretty well for myself, I’m happy’. It’s hard when you’re super vulnerable, and I definitely was when I had a smaller profile.
Do you think enough is being done to tackle online bullying in the industry?
If I looked at the internet 10 years ago, it was a completely different world where people were super unattached to their online personas and thought they could say anything. There’s still so much more improvement needed of course, as there are many online platforms and communities that encourage hatred as it drives viewership for them; it’s incentivised.
Cloud9 are certainly doing a lot around mental health in gaming. Was that part of your decision to join its all-female VALORANT team?
Absolutely. Cloud9 is one of the best orgs out there. We had offers from every single Tier 1 org to sign us as a female team, but a big reason we were attracted to Cloud9 was because of their history supporting LGBT causes, they're very inclusive, and lots of women work very high up there. In fact, the person who initially contacted us was Gaylen [Malone], the only woman to reach out to us from any org.
Does being an all-female team bring added pressure?
There’s always going to be the argument that we were only signed because we’re girls. And there can be some valid criticism with that, but often I find it’s used to undermine us more so than open up a dialogue about inclusivity. We were signed because we’re girls but we’re also trying our best to be respected and well-known, we’re not trying to coast and do nothing. We’re actively working almost every single day. A lot of us are working 8-plus hours a day to be good at the game we play. There is so much pressure on us. If we slip up, if we fail, we get five times the scrutiny than other players because we’re 'just a girl team'.
One of the biggest challenges for me was learning a completely new style of FPS. I went from a super high-paced ability FPS to a tactical shooter that punished you for moving and shooting
Winning aside, it's also representation in major esports for girls at home…
That’s exactly what it’s about. I could care less if a guy came up to me and said, ‘You’re only signed because you’re a girl’. I was signed for other girls and younger people to look at me and have dreams and have inspirations. You can still like me if you’re a guy or not LGBT, that’s totally fine, but a lot of the criticism is that I’m not inspiring men. You have your inspirations – look around you, it’s 99 percent [of esports].
What are you enjoying most about VALORANT?
One of the biggest challenges for me was learning a completely new style of FPS. I went from a super high-paced ability FPS to a tactical shooter that punished you for moving and shooting, somewhat. I had to spend a few months learning new sensitivities, practicing movement, and still think I have lots of things to learn before I truly start to plateau as a player.
Can you give us a rundown of what training looks like day to day?
I work five to six days per week with my team. On an average day I’ll wake up in the morning and play for a couple of hours, then meet my team-mates around 6pm and we’ll do two hours of VOD [Video on Demand] review, some warmup and then three hours of skrims [practice matches]. From there, if we want to do another hour or talk it over we can. That’s actually a pretty light day right now. We have a few people in school right now so we need to accommodate that.
If you haven’t played in a while, do you find you lose sharpness?
Definitely. If I stopped playing for a week and then came back I would be very rusty. Luckily I have enough FPS experience that I wouldn't feel as if I couldn't get it back. I could play for a week and get back to where I was before, and then keep on improving slowly again.
What advice would you give to someone you wants to make a name for themselves on Twitch?
I try to preach about being authentic and down to earth. There are a lot of streamers who start out and get trapped in the idea that they have to be a character, a kind of funny person who rages on purpose, but what ends up happening a lot of the time is that three months later they don’t feel like they’re themselves, and they end up saying ‘Hey, I’m going to rebrand as myself’, and then everybody is like, ‘I didn’t watch you for yourself’ and they leave.
Do you do anything to de-stress away from gaming?
Meditation is hard for me. I can’t sit and do nothing, so I have my own form of meditation which involves playing guitar before matches. Nothing specific, just going up and down scales playing along to the music that I’m listening to. It helps me focus, keeps my mind sharp, my fingers warm and a rhythm in my body.
What's your favourite video game soundtrack?
The Doom soundtrack comes to mind, that’s pretty epic. It’s a soundtrack to me that makes the game, it’s super iconic. All the sounds around it feel like the soundtrack itself.
Any other goals for 2021?
I have plenty of plans... including writing some music and hopefully releasing an album. If I could liken it to a sound I’d say Tame Impala. Kind of like bass guitar, drums, keys, singing, some effects, where it’s not too complex and I can play every instrument.
Are you a fan of VALORANT? Spanning 50 countries and over 300 events, Red Bull Campus Clutch is a VALORANT tournament that you simply don’t want to miss. Exclusively open to students, it will culminate in a spectacular World Final later this year where your team could have the chance to earn themselves global bragging rights.