After Michele Morrow visited Retro Replay, I had a wonderful chat with her about how our lives are impacted by gaming and whether esports is providing gamers with an equal playing field. She also shared her own story about how gaming helped her through a rough time. Check out the amazing stories and insights she shared with us!
In the spirit of retro games, since we’re here at Retro Replay, let’s go back to your own earliest memories with video games. What was the first game you remember playing, and what retro games still hold a special place in your heart?
The first game that I remember playing was called Tooth Invaders. It’s a game where you fight off the evil cavities that are attacking your teeth. I must have been 4 or 5 years old, and I remember you get these big blocky teeth and you use a toothbrush to brush them off.
Retro gaming holds a very important place in my heart because that’s how I grew up playing. I started on the Commodore 64 with games like Impossible Mission and Jumpman (not to be confused with Mario).
We also had an arcade pack that had Pac-Man, Moon Patrol, Galaga–games you would see more in the arcades. And going to the arcades was a big part of my growing up, too, either at a Chuck E. Cheese or at local malls.
I got a Nintendo NES on my 10th birthday, and all the kids would come over after school and play it. Probably my favorite retro game was Ghosts ‘n Goblins. You die a thousand times in your underwear! And of course all the Marios and Zeldas!
I’ve heard you talk about how World of Warcraft has been a big part of your life, and your own personal story of how you got started playing is something I know a lot of Replayers can probably relate to: the healing someone can experience from gaming. For Replayers who may not be familiar with your story, tell us about what happened and how World of Warcraft helped get you through it all?
While an actor on an independent horror movie, I was asked to go on a behind-the-scenes day to film after we were done principal photography. There was a machine there called an air ram. It was optional, I just said that looked fun. It’s like a trampoline on hydraulics: you step on it and it shoots you into the air.
And I did. And I landed on my head from 10-12 feet. And it hurt. Bad.
The injury resulted in a small neck fracture and removing my left cervical rib. It was called thoracic outlet syndrome. I had a neck brace on and couldn’t really do a whole lot. It sucked.
I learned that gaming is really healing. It made me feel like I was accomplishing something.
I was depressed, gaining weight, and just feeling awful that I couldn’t have my normal life. My boyfriend (now husband) and I, in finding things we can do together, started to play video games together a lot. He introduced me to God of War II, which I was obsessed with, and several other games that I got super into.
Then he introduced me to World of Warcraft.
It was great because it was a game that didn’t end. I kinda had endless content. It felt like I was reading an interactive book! I’d never played it before 2007, coming in during the Burning Crusade. I was mesmerized at how much gaming had changed and how the storytelling had elevated to make you feel like you were in a choose-your-own-adventure.
In my first month, I was introduced to the character of Lady Sylvanas who lost her body and wanted to get it back. I totally resonated with that and wanted nothing more than the same for myself. So I got really into reading about her story: reading the books on it, novels, short stories that had been published online over the years. I loved it!
World of Warcraft really helped me through a tough time. I met so many people that were also going through injury or illness, and kids using it for an escape, who are in hospitals and can’t see other people because their immune systems were so low. I’m still friends with a kid I met: he’s in remission, he’s doing great, and he’s about to graduate from the University of Washington. We’re still buddies.
I felt connected to other people in a time where I felt very isolated. I formed my guild around that time and it still exists, and some of those people I met in 2007 to 2009, are still playing with me to this day. It’s kind of like a family.
I learned that gaming is really healing, or it can be. I played the new God of War a couple of years ago when I had a knee surgery, and that was the best thing I could do to get through that. It gave me something to do. It made me feel like I was accomplishing something. I didn’t feel like I was just waiting around. I loved it.
Speaking of WoW, and you touched on it briefly already, I’m sure many of us who have virtually indulged in BlizzCon saw your coverage as an essential part of the overall BlizzCon experience. How did that connection first develop with Blizzard and the BlizzCon event?
My first relationship with Blizzard was being hired to voice Alleria Windrunner for Hearthstone in early 2014. I about fainted when I got that role because it’s the long-lost sister of Lady Sylvanas and a very cherry role. It was the first time she had been seen in the lore for a long time, so that was exciting!
That same year, they were auditioning people to be the new co-host with Geoff Keighley for BlizzCon 2014. It was the year Overwatch was announced to the world, and it was cool because I went from going to BlizzCon as a fan to now being invited into headquarters and shown all of the goodies. It was like opening Christmas presents before Christmas morning: I got to see everything, but I couldn’t talk about it.
I hosted BlizzCon six years, 2014 through 2019. I really loved my time on the show.
The massive XP boost from your career achievements definitely shines through in The Game Diaries podcast, currently on a break after an inspiring first season. In the first episode, you define the podcast as a platform for stories from all kinds of people involved in gaming, focusing on how video games have made an important impact on their life. We’ve already talked a little bit about that already. How do you think that the media missed this opportunity and left this gap?
I don’t know. I wonder that all the time. I think just now creators and producers are starting to see the value and educational part of gaming. I’ve seen documentaries about the history of gaming, and they all kind of focus on a very similar arc. Only recently have I seen shows digging a little deeper and showing the human interest side.
We’ve had a lot of people in gaming talk about the human impact. Jane McGonigal did a really great TED Talk about the impact of gaming. But I don’t think the mainstream understands that playing a game and being a gamer is a part of an identity. It’s part of a community. As our world is getting more connected, these communities can connect, thrive, and define themselves.
I think that I got to see that with BlizzCon, specifically. Anybody who attended BlizzCon understands the convention is about this mutual love that people have for their games and meeting the people you play with in person.
Every gamer has a story about how gaming affected their lives, whether from a career level, or an emotional level, or a relationship level. My goal with The Game Diaries is to elevate those stories by taking some of the most important ones I’m aware of in my decade in gaming and bring those to the forefront. Most are stories that the mainstream just isn’t aware of yet.
Since you’re someone whose interviewing style I admire, I have to ask: How am I doing so far?
You’re doing great!
It’s clear that the positive impact of gaming has been something you’ve been passionate about for years now. In a post at Nerdist back in 2014 where you were covering an Extra Life event, you mentioned how gaming is the great equalizer: “It’s participatory. It has no judgement. It sees no gender, no race, no age… and no disease.” Do you see this equalizing effect coming through in esports? How are the different esports arenas doing with giving players an equal playing field?
Terribly. It’s really disappointing because esports has so much potential to be just as inclusive as the rest of gaming. But it’s an industry that requires outside funding, which brings non-endemic people to the table, and, at its core, it’s highly competitive because that’s what it’s based on.
I have noticed there aren’t as many female pros, as I’m sure you have, too. And the reason is because I don’t think boys and girls are promoted to play together at young enough ages to get used to playing with anybody, any gender (it shouldn’t matter).
And I think that esports is putting in just enough effort to make something work. Esports requires a lot of funding, and it doesn’t always have a return on investment. So I think they’re going for the low-hanging fruit: teams that are already formed, guys that have been playing together since they were teenagers.
Here’s the thing that frustrated me the most. I would ask, “Where are all the women?” Even from a broadcast standpoint (and it’s only recently been changing), you would see on a placard of talent announcement 5 guys, 1 girl, and she’s always the sideline reporter. There’s nothing wrong with that role, by the way, it’s an important role. I’ve done it. But when you’re the only girl up there, and you’re the one just talking to the pros, it makes you feel like you’re the eye candy or that they don’t trust you to do more than setting other people up to talk.
Where are all the women? I was told multiple times that it needs to happen when they’re younger, in college. That’s where we’re really going to see a change: when women are joining esports at the collegiate level.
Okay, well… that’s not happening.
There was an AP report in March that did a study on esports scholarships, and they found that 90% of the scholarships and 90% of the roster positions are going to men. When the AP reached out to the colleges to ask why, a lot of them responded that the esports program is not actually affiliated with the university. Even though it’s a “varsity program,” they’re not paying for coaches, events, or scholarships. It’s a different-funded situation, and it allows them to bypass Title 9 [in the U.S.].
And I don’t think it’s malicious. I think that it’s just a bunch of kids in a club at a college trying to get something going. They probably have a handful of people they know and don’t have the experience or knowledge to understand how to meet women where they’re at. Or they’re only picking games that maybe only them and their friends know, like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO), which is going to have a lot less women playing than maybe Hearthstone. They haven’t opened their minds up to what other games women could be playing.
This is also an issue in the Black community where there aren’t very many Black pros outside of fighting games. And there’s a reason for that from a socioeconomic standpoint: a monster PC is going to cost you maybe $5000-6000, but a PS5 is going to cost about $700 (if you’re not getting it on eBay!). It’s just more affordable for most American working families.
The fighting game community also meets people where they’re at. It’s very local, very community-based, promoting you coming to participate at an event at a convention center or small venue in your hometown. It also lacks the gatekeeping barriers that we see in a lot of first-person shooters or MOBAs: it promotes you as an amateur to come prove your skill, to get into the ring.
It promotes that excitement to be like, “Could I be the one? Could I be a contender?”
You can’t just pop into a game or enter a tournament in other esports because you need a sponsor, you need these certain rankings, you need to play this amount, you need to have this certain computer… there are so many requirements!
Esports lacks a lot of accessibility for people who are disabled as well.
So there’s just a lot of things that esports could be doing. It’s a growing industry and there are a lot of good minds behind it that are helping it. But unlike sports where no one owns the concept of “baseball,” someone absolutely owns Overwatch, CS:GO, or whatever. So you are dealing with a publisher who is usually using their marketing budgets to put on events instead of it being an actual sports league akin to what we’re used to.
Based on what you’ve seen covering esports, how is the esports industry making a positive impact on gaming culture overall? Is there a specific arena that’s making a positive impact or doing something specific to try to improve the culture.
I think individual people, pros, broadcasters, personalities, and content creators in the space are taking that mantle. You also have esports organizations like 100 Thieves and G2 that are being inclusive and creating a lifestyle that invites people to want to be a part of it. Most of the effort is coming from individuals who are trying to steer this giant ship so it doesn’t hit an iceberg!
SW: It’s like an industry that’s still inventing itself, still experimenting.
And that’s why it’s exciting, right? It has so much potential, and there are so many amazing people involved in esports who are literally pioneers. I think djWHEAT is a really great example of that over at Twitch. He was one of the first esports broadcasters, if not the first. He’s created a profession that didn’t exist before.
You continue to take your career to the next level: accomplished on-screen actor, voice actor, producer, host, journalist, commentator, and podcaster! What kind of career opportunities attract you and inspire you?
I’m at a point where I’m trying to really focus on whatever makes me happy, that makes me excited about life, that’s promoting something good in the world, and will bring happiness to my home.I’m really grateful and lucky to be in this position right now, to be able to pick and choose.
I used to take everything and anything that came my way, afraid of turning down work. But now I think it’s much more about the quality of the position and elevating the content to add my own experience or artistic lens.
I’m in the process of developing a couple of shows that I believe in based on all the experience that I have in what I’m passionate about: highlighting people or events in the gaming industry, or educating the mainstream about them, whether it’s in a scripted form or unscripted form. I want to bridge these two worlds and treat gaming culture as pop culture, because that’s truly what it is.
Finally, after the “Retro E-Sport” segment on the show, what advice do you have for Nolan North if he aspires to be an eSports commentator?
I think Nolan has a future in esports commentating! I’m not sure he needs to have my advice because he is a ridiculous person who is also extremely talented and will do quite well in this field.
SW: So you’re saying he’s got what it takes?
I’m saying the kid’s got talent!
Well, Nolan, it sounds like Michele will be a good reference for you!
For more about Michele, visit her website at MicheleMorrow.com and follow @michelemorrow on Twitter and Instagram. Also check out the inspiring episodes of The Game Diaries on your favorite podcast platform (https://linktr.ee/thegamediaries).
Does Michele’s story about how gaming impacts our lives resonate with you, too? Share your own story in the comments.