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The Very First Female Esports Team in China, Formed 20 Years Ago Because of a Stupid Debate

By Weilin Li
Jan. 16, 2023 updated 04:35

Competitive esports in China is generally considered a male-dominated industry, with female players frequently being underpaid and having a smaller presence in the highest stages. However, this didn’t stop passionate female esports players from trying their best to leave their mark and legacy; some even put in persistent effort for more than 20 years.

The first-ever professional esports team with an all-female lineup, 5Love, was founded back in the early 2000s. In the short lifespan of the team, these girls defied stereotypes and competed in a few tournaments, even the World Cyber Games (WCG).

A photo of China’s first women’s esports team, 5Love, in their early stageA photo of China’s first women’s esports team, 5Love, in their early stage

Recently, game media YYS interviewed the co-founders of 5Love, the twins Vc (Zhong Yi) and Vm (Zhong Ni). The sisters are currently in Guangzhou and Beijing, working for IT companies.

Vc (top) and Vm (bottom)Vc (top) and Vm (bottom)

A Battle Started by a BBS post

Vc and Vm’s love for Counter-Strike (CS) started in Internet cafes. In November 2000, CS had just released version 1.0. But the game’s popularity had already spread to Guangxi, the hometown of Vc and Vm in southern China.

At that time, the Internet was not nearly so popular, so players just gathered in Internet cafes, where they sat in a small room with large CRT monitors. The shape of these monitors was nicknamed “big butt”.

An internet cafe in the early 21st centuryAn internet cafe in the early 21st century

There were no rules against minors going to Internet cafes, but due to the pressure from their parents, many teenagers needed to play games secretly. They had some good choices including Quake, StarCraft, and Red Alert.

Compared with these games, CS was more friendly to new gamers as the battle mode was quite relaxing. Vc and Vm were able to perform very well with the twin’s advantage of tacit cooperation.

In addition to being students, the sisters participated in shooting sports. CS let them use "real guns", bringing them a sense of familiarity and joy to the game.

The twins were talented at games in general. When they were kids, the family bought them a Famicom, and they got the chance to play classic games such as Contra, Super Mario, and Adventure Island.

The sisters soon joined the CS player community after asking for instructions from older CS players, who were nicknamed “brothers” and “uncles”.

One day, a post appeared on a BBS forum asking "Are games suitable for girls?" Out of curiosity and eagerness to prove themselves, the girls soon joined the discussion and brought it to a debate. Vc, Vm, and the rest of the girls who participated in the debate challenged the boys to play against them in CS on an Internet server they rented for the purpose.

The battle was very one-sided, and the boys lost.

This result boosted Vc and Vm’s confidence, spuring them on to gather several female players they had met online and from all over the country. They established a relatively loose organization, and started to play some online games. It wasn’t long before they took things to the next level.

To make their organizations more formalized and devote more time to it, the twins inevitably faced their parents, who suggested they "Study first, and study well". However, Vc and Vm were very independent. In the end, they convinced their parents to let them give it a try.

5Love and Their Influence

In 2002, the Chinese esports environment was still in its infancy. The sponsors of the teams were mainly Internet cafes, in an effort by the owners to attract more ordinary players.

In the team of 5Love, a girl from Beijing oversaw 5Love’s personnel and promotional activities. Then, she contacted an Internet cafe in Beijing.

After Vc and Vm arrived in Beijing, they surprisingly discovered that the Internet cafe was actually very small, and the training room was even smaller.

"Five machines and five people sat in it. There was basically no more space. " The twin said that their dormitory was three kilometers away from the Internet cafe. The dormitory was a small room in the third basement, less than ten square meters.

Fortunately, CS esports developed fast in that year, and many competitions were held in Beijing. There was the Mirinda Cup, which was sponsored by PepsiCo and gathered more than 200 teams from all over the country. More formal than the Mirinda Cup, WCG 2002 was sponsored by Samsung in 2002.

A photo of 5Love when they participated in WCG 2003A photo of 5Love when they participated in WCG 2003

There was also the CPL (Cyberathlete Professional League). For the CS teams in those years, the CPL was comparable to today's ESL and Major tournaments.

However, the championship prizes for large-scale competitions were only around 20,000 to 30,000 CNY (~4000 USD at today’s rate). Prize money was not enough to support an entire team, when a team even won. As a result, many teams were developing simply based on their passion, without much financial backing.

Despite continuous efforts to practice, there were only a few small women’s esports competitions in 2002. They had never won a championship in a large-scale mixed tournament, and their best result was top 8. There were eight male teams dominating the CS competitions, and 5Love had little chance to defeat them.

Unfortunately, 5Love didn't get the chance to continue their dream because the "golden age" was soon over. "The Lanjisu Fire" in 2002 led to the management and rectification of Internet cafes nationwide. Tens of thousands of Internet cafes were closed, and 5Love lost its stable training place.

In addition, Vc and Vm had to go home to continue their studies. So, in 2003, 5Love announced its dissolution, but the members kept in touch.

5Love had its legacy in the CS esports industry, and, in the following years, more CS women's teams were formed in China.

In May 2005, the CPL World Tour was held in Spain. Valen (Zou Xuan), a 17-year-old previous member of 5Love, led the women's team Swan[5] to compete abroad at her own expense and won the first world championship in the history of CS in China.

A group photo of Swan[5] after winning the championship, the third from the left is ValenA group photo of Swan[5] after winning the championship, the third from the left is Valen

"Reveal the value of the women's team"

When the large CRT monitors in the Internet cafe were replaced by LCD screens, the twins graduated from college and found suitable jobs in video game and esports areas. They took relevant jobs like commentator and host.

In 2014, the CS:GO Chinese server was officially launched. But the Chinese CS esports activities suffered a downturn. However, as the domestic esports industry as a whole was on the rise, Vc and Vm had the desire to participate in it again.

After 2016, the name 5Love came back and appeared frequently in the CS:GO arena. In addition to the original members, many girls joined the team.

"If I were 20 years younger, I would definitely become a professional player." The sisters are happy to witness the formalized esports industry today and are also optimistic about the improvement of the women's competition system, but at the same time, they have their own little regret.

"There are so many things that girls can achieve, and this is just one of them."