Interview: Abby Sherlock, Applying Esports and gaming to your schoolwork

Throughout your own education experience, you're going to be doing a lot of projects you probably don't want to bother with. But these projects present you with a wonderful opportunity to apply your passions to your schoolwork. We talked with Abby Sherlock, a Masters student at the University of Southern California about how she applied her hobbies and passions to her schoolwork. By doing so, she has created a portfolio of her work to show potential employers.

Can we start with a brief introduction of yourself, what you’re in school for, and what you do in the esports space?

I’m Abby Sherlock, I am a second year Master of Fine Arts Interactive Media and Game Design student at the University of Southern California, Fight On!

I’m originally from South Carolina and did my undergraduate at UC San Diego in Theater and Communications and Film. It was during my time there that I got familiar with the esports club. I had always been a gamer my entire life, but I was never really open with it because it wasn’t socially acceptable where I was from. As a cheerleader and as a lacrosse player, it did not fit.

I feel like we talk about the cultural nerd renaissance, like The Big Bang Theory and people being accepting of nerd culture, this is before then. Then at college, I met people that loved games and were very passionate about them. It inspired me to be more open with my love of games. I could be in a sorority, I could be a theater kid, and I could go to esports tournaments on the weekend and they could all exist at the same time.

That was my TESPA club, which was a collegiate division of Blizzard. That was my door into it all. I worked at Geek and Sundry and Nerdist under Legendary Entertainment, which also did Critical Role, Felicia Day’s The Guild, and some other geek web series.

After that, I went to Blizzard TESPA and was a community coordinator working collegiate for about a year and a half. Then partnerships at NZXT, which was influencers and streamers. Then this past year I was a casting and directing intern for Horseless Cowboy, which is an audio production and voice over company.

That entire time, I was also an esports host doing a lot of on-camera work for things like E3, Supergirl Gamer Pro, and the Overwatch League’s Vancouver Titans.

That is a lot! I think it’s great to take stock of what you’ve accomplished sometimes. It really puts into perspective how much you’ve actually done because it’s usually more than you think it is.

Being self-aware, being reflective, and taking stock of things like that is very helpful.

You caught my eye because you cosplayed for one of your classes. I think applying your passions around gaming, esports, and cosplays to school is an amazing thing to do. So can you tell me about that class you cosplayed for?

(Laughs) I was a princess performer in high school—it was a knockoff of a certain big mouse company, if you catch my drift—I did it then because I was a theater performer. It was a constant in the south and in San Diego that I did for money on the side.

For the beginning Interactive Experiments class in the MFA, we have a badge program—like girl scouts and boy scouts—my professor was a huge member of Girl Scouts and formatted her syllabus around that where you would earn badges around different intersectional areas: software, platforms, or with different kinds of mediums or hobbies. The whole point of the class was to expand what you do know and what you want to know.

So people do things in Unity or the Unreal Engine. I learned how to make a cocktail from someone in the class. Others did Photoshop projects. You’re trading skills and hobbies and crafts in this apprentice-like situation.

For the cosplay, the assignment was to pick something that you could do professionally that was a hobby of yours. For me, I had been doing cosplay for the past four years and really loved it. I didn’t think I could do it professionally, but I could if I put in the time and effort.

I asked my professor about doing cosplay for the class—you have to clear it with the professor first—and explained to her XYZ why it would work for the assignment. She was completely for it and I got an A on the project. So I was walking around on campus in my Princess Belle costume and had little kids coming up to talk with me on campus, back when we could be on campus.

I’ve done a lot of gaming and esports work in the academic setting, but it doesn’t come naturally. You have to advocate for it.

That segues great into my next question. What is the best way for students to go about getting professors to approve things like esports and cosplay around major projects?

The biggest thing for me was showing the cultural zeitgeist that surrounds games and esports. I had a couple of communication classes where you got to pick your subject. A couple of times I felt there was a bit more shade/disrespect around gaming/esports being a topic of study, especially in higher education. 

Showing major publications, like Bloomberg, The Washington Post, The New York Times that are covering games helps. You and I both know Kotaku and Polygon, but for outside people, you have to speak their language. Show them those big names they know from other areas.

A couple of times I had to do that. Usually, most professors were okay with it as long as I proved I could do a good job with it. That meant showing academic papers around games and esports. That’s one of the biggest problems for students is finding accredited sources to cite.

For one project during my undergrad, I had to find the sources before I was allowed to start on the paper to show the professor that there was material to pull from.

You really have to go to bat for yourself, but it gives you a really cool leg up in the future. I talked about my Legend of Zelda paper when I interviewed for Critical Role. Having that physical portfolio to draw upon is a really cool way to add to your website or cover letter or resume. It shows you can critically talk about something you’re passionate about.

Can you just brainstorm some ways or subjects students can connect games to their schoolwork? Give them a head start on how to connect them together.

It’s different at each college/university. UCSD was really focused on social justice and history. A lot of the time I wrote on gender diversity in games. Find those intersectional areas of representation and identities where you could apply that to games.

I wrote one on The Feminization of Casual Games, which was about Harvest Moon, Animal Crossing—“casual games”—and the gender diversity of their player base. That’s a gamer paper, but it’s also a socio-anthropomorphic paper. You’re talking about sociology and the psychology of people.

Your thesis can’t just be, “This is a cool game.” My Zelda paper was on gameplay with a narrative. I looked at The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and I talked about how it was the best game of all time because the mechanics relate directly with the narrative. That was for a games class, though, so slightly cheating. I also did a paper on Star Wars: Fallen Order and talked about Odysseus for a literature class.

Again, it’s usually a combination of things. Like we talked about how Hades is a great game, but why is it a great game? For a history class, you could look at the representation of racial diversity in it. It’s finding these takes on games that show you’re thinking critically about them as trans-media subject machines.

Awesome. I had a similar experience in one of my communications classes where I talked about the lack of communication around esports pros and the social consequences of it.

Yeah! If we’re talking from an academic standpoint, you can read about how players aren’t socializing as much as they should be, but you, as an academic, need to be asking why and how and how do we potentially fix that?

On the off chance that a teacher is not receptive, what do you suggest they do?

Like I said previously, get outside resources from major publications like Bloomberg, The New York times, or WIRED and show them tangible proof that what you want to study is valid. I had an example like this at UCSD, not to throw anyone under the bus (laughs)—I studied abroad in Tokyo and did Japanese Technology and Anime and I have a film minor. This was back in 2017, which is not long ago, but anime has come a long way since then.

My program advisor basically said animation wasn’t a film genre.

Wait, what?!

I know! I wanted to apply one of the classes from abroad to my film critical studies minor. My advisor told me it wasn’t high brow enough. That this was a cartoon, not a film.

Then I looked at it from a different perspective. These people don’t think this is a film. Why don’t they think that? So I wrote this very sassy, four paragraph email about Hayao Miyazaki that was basically:

“I’m pretty sure this Academy Award-winning anime director wouldn’t appreciate this.”

They let me do it. It’s not esports, but anime is pretty culturally adjacent. The advisor was pretty condescending and derogatory and I knew that wasn’t right. You have to be confident in your belief of what you’re doing is worth other people listening and learning about.

Be direct and do your research to prove them wrong. Anime makes so much money and is a gigantic industry. Have those resources to send to professors that show them it is real and is worth studying. That it is in our best interest to be on the early side of academic studies on the subject. Make it a positive for them.

Advice for those looking to get into the gaming and esports space?

So much! For me, one of my biggest things was mentorship. I’ve been really lucky to be part of a couple of games-oriented programs that provide mentors. Having advice from someone who has been through it already, who knows the space, is immeasurably helpful.

In return, I’ve also been a mentor. My own mentor told me I was in a good place to offer mentorship and that I should continue that cycle of mentorship. That’s been really wonderful for me, learning from my mentees.

That would be one of my most vital pieces of advice. I’ve seen a lot of mentor/mentee relationships last for ten to twenty years, especially in the film and TV space.

I think hobbies outside of games are one of the biggest blessings in the world. It makes you a more well-rounded individual in a hyper-focused industry. Especially if you’re into game design or esports, it makes you a better collaborator. You have knowledge about other areas in life: operations, hospitality. If you’re in game design you’re talking about levels, combat, villains, and all of these different areas.

When you have more knowledgeable lived experiences, you’re going to be even wiser and be an even better person to work with because you’re going to know more about the world. Find other hobbies outside of gaming.

That echoes my conversation with the Art Director for Smite about design, he talked about how a level designer needs to know things about architecture or how nature works.

Yeah! And sometimes you have these really great game designers, but sometimes they’re so stuck inside their bubble that they can’t innovate because they haven’t gotten out of their bubble. That Art Director for Smite and I are on the same page! We’re vibing!