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The Struggles and Victories of the First Transgender Fighting Game Champion

The Struggles and Victories of the First Transgender Fighting Game Champion: Photo by David Zhou

Photo by David Zhou

Whether it’s with a knockout finish at an EVO fighting game championship, a crushing play in League of Legends, or a dorm-wide Super Smash Bros. tourney, eSports are taking the world by storm. Playboy’s eSports Highlights celebrate and chronicle their rise.


Evil Geniuses’ Ricki Ortiz takes a seat, plugs her fight stick into the console, and makes her character selection. She’s played in countless matches in her competitive fighting game career so this one does not differ from any other for her.

The live stream chat explodes with irreverent, disrespectful, and vile comments along with a deluge of “HeyGuys” Twitch emotes. “Is Ricki a guy or a girl? He’s so gay. She’s so hot.” There usually aren’t any moderators around to curb the abuse. Even if there were, no one can hold back the tide of the “stream monsters” once they’ve been agitated. Ortiz finishes her match, and the chat turns its attention to whoever is coming next. It’s business as usual.

Ricki Ortiz, 31, is a transgender woman who is also one of the most decorated fighting game players in America and a member of one of the strongest teams in all of eSports. She’s been kicking ass at various fighting games most of her adult life, winning numerous major events over the years. Since 2003, Ortiz has finished seventh or higher 12 times at the world’s biggest fighting game tournament, Evolution Championship Series, also known as EVO. She is renowned for her skills in Marvel vs Capcom 2, Street Fighter III: Third Strike, Capcom vs SNK 2, and Street Fighter IV in the fighting game community (FGC).

Yet for all she has accomplished in the FGC, she’s had to overcome so much more in her personal life, dealing with harassment, depression and an identity crisis.

“I feel the brunt of it now, presenting as female,” Ortiz told me. “My skill takes a backseat. People question my gender identity versus me playing the game.”

Finding acceptance in any community, let alone the FGC, can be difficult. Ortiz described her childhood as “normal and relaxed.” Her mother was an engineer and her father was a metal precision worker. Ortiz’ grandmother babysat her while her parents worked. On the outside, her unexceptional life was a clichéd. Internally, things weren’t so simple.

“Growing up, I didn’t know what I was. I was young and felt different. I always played with female toys or played with the girls at school. I never had interest in boys,” Ortiz said.

What she was interested in was fighting games. Her father used to take her cousin to the Golfland amusement chain—mini-golf, laser tag, arcade games, etc.—in Milpitas, California to spend time with him. When Ortiz was old enough, she got to tag along and experience Street Fighter for the first time. By middle school and high school, Ortiz was the kid that could be found at the local arcade every day after school.

While Ortiz struggled to find her identity, she found solace in arcades, where respect was earned by winning. She got good enough that her friend and mentor, 2008 Capcom vs SNK 2 and Super Street Fighter II Turbo Evo champion John Choi, thought she should improve her game by attending a major tournament in Texas. At 16, Ortiz had never traveled outside of the Bay Area but she got permission to go from her parents and found herself bit by the competition bug.

“It was new and exciting. It was fun not knowing what a player would do because you never played them before. There was no YouTube to find match videos, so you played purely on instinct,” Ortiz said.

Going to Texas set off a chain reaction that found Ortiz traveling to more events. After graduating from high school she moved to New York. Ortiz described New York’s arcade scene as “rowdy and in your face” and it helped toughen her up. She needed all the help she could get when she was coming out of her shell, figuratively and literally.

Ortiz doesn’t particularly care for doing interviews now but she’s done her fair share over the years. A quick search turns up videos uploaded to YouTube from her East Coast days, hanging out with long-time fighting game players Arturo Sanchez and Evil Geniuses teammate Justin Wong. In those videos, Ortiz is confident, bordering on cocky. She wanted to be the best, and she wanted everyone to know it. When she wasn’t at her best, like when she lost at the various Evo tournaments, she said she took it hard, admitting the losses “crushed” her. But those losses helped her grow stronger as a player and helped her become a stronger person. It was around this time she came out as a gay male.

“People were speculating if I was gay or not. I was very flamboyant. I came out as gay but it didn’t feel right. I thought maybe if I got into a relationship things would change. I’d start feeling more like myself,” Ortiz said.

FIGHTING MONSTERS

Photo by Michael H. Yu/Courtesy Khaos Gaming

Photo by Michael H. Yu/Courtesy Khaos Gaming

Friends within the fighting game community supported Ortiz, offering respect and love for her decision to come out. Sadly, many within the community took Ortiz coming out as gay as ammunition for harassing her. Instead of talking about how great of a fighting game player Ortiz was, online communities and stream monsters focused on her sexuality. Ortiz lived this way for roughly six years before she researched the meaning of being transgender.

“Around 2009, I watched videos featuring transgender people. I used to watch RuPaul’s Drag Race and I thought it was so cool,” Ortiz said. “I finally realized I was transgender female. I wasn’t put on this world to be male. I’ve always been a female. That’s what I felt deep in my heart and soul. That was my true identity.”

The revelation should have given Ortiz relief and hope. Instead it became a new burden for her to carry and opened the door to a new wave of anxiety and harassment. When it seemed the community had moved on from her sexuality, it now turned its gaze on her gender. Just two years after finishing second in Super Street Fighter IV at Evo 2010, losing to the legendary Daigo “The Beast” Umehara, Ortiz bottomed out because of her depression.

“In 2012 I was so depressed it showed in my play. Mentally, I wasn’t there. I wasn’t happy, even if I won a tournament,” she said.

asset3 ricki ortiz1

It wasn’t until Ortiz reconnected with a friend she hadn’t seen for a year or two—one who, the last time they’d seen one another, had presented himself as male—that she found relief. Her friend presented herself as transgender female at a local fighting game tournament. A tidal wave of questions washed over Ortiz.

“How do I start this? What’s the process of being who I want to be? How do I get the medical attention I need?” Ortiz asked. “She was my gateway to a new world. She invited me to group meetings with her and other friends. It opened my eyes and gave me the passion to pursue who I want to be.”

Ortiz’s journey was just beginning. She made a lot of hard decisions, including making a full transition from male to female. She’s in the second year of the transition, which can take up to five years, and the process is made even more difficult with the number of exclusions in medical coverage for transgender people. And besides the physical aspect, it’s important to Ortiz to become more knowledgeable and grow as a member of the Trans community.

“After everything I read, it was scary. I knew this is what I had to do, but I wanted to be sure. I feel great I did it. I know who I am,” she said.

Ortiz persevered and finally found her way out of a maze of anxiety, depression, and harassment. She took advantage of the resources and support groups available to her. They brought comfort to her in an awkward period of self-discovery. She’s become a source of inspiration for the LGBTQ community by remaining an active public figure in the fighting game community. She doesn’t hide who she is anymore. People approach her about being the opposite gender and she’s in the position to offer them advice and support she didn’t get right away.

“I tell people to make sure you know who you are. If you’re sure about yourself, take the steps to be true to yourself,” Ortiz said.

People still refer to Ortiz as he, sometimes out of habit and sometimes as an insult. The stream monsters focus intently on her appearance as it has changed recently. She’s had plenty of time and experience to build up a thick skin and now she feels more reassured about herself than ever.

“I don’t waste my time on negativity. As a person going through what I’m going through, you have to be unapologetic about your authenticity,” she said. “You will not grow if you’re listening to negativity. View the positive. You’re here now. You’ve gotten this far. You’re constantly working on yourself. That’s what matters.”

With her personal life more or less in order, now Ortiz can focus on her career, a career going through its own transition. She is hungry to compete in Street Fighter V (releasing Feb. 16 this year) as it replaces Ultra Street Fighter IV as the marquee game on the Capcom Pro Tour, a year-long tour of events leading up to the finale known as Capcom Cup. She didn’t have the best results in 2015, not winning a major event on the Pro Tour, but she seems confident heading into 2016.

If she can get back to her top form, she could easily compete in the grand finals of Evo again like she last did in 2014 when she eliminated one of the “Five Gods of Street Fighter”, Japan’s Naoto Sako, in a thrilling match.

“I want to keep competing and winning. Street Fighter V will give me more opportunities to show my skill,” she said. “Maybe then people will stop focusing on ‘Ricki the Trans’ and focus on the games again. We’re all regular people with the same passion. We should have fun and respect each other.”


Michael Martin is a full-time freelancer based out of Seattle. His favorite video game series of all time is Street Fighter and he loves the competitive fighting game scene. Follow him on Twitter @Bizarro_Mike.


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