Women in Games: The Overlooked Audience

In a series of interviews designed to profile the various women who take up pivotal roles within the gaming industry, Johana Riquier had a chat with Cholwe Shabukali, who fronts Zambian esports outfit Team Gematrix.

Johana Riquier is an African gaming advocate, speaker on diversity issues as well as games business development manager at Unity overseeing the Middle East and African region. The interview below is conducted by her.

Who is Cholwe Elen Shabukali? 

I am a 25-year-old Zambian lady currently pursuing a degree in Public health at the University of Lusaka. Despite my profession being in the science fields, it has not hindered my passion for pursuing an entrepreneur lifestyle. 

How did Team Gematrix come to life?

Team Gematrix was founded in 2018 by myself (Cholwe Shabukali) and my co-founder Musole Prince. We are both avid gamers and share a keen interest in eSports, the idea of having an organisation that could allow ourselves and other local players to compete in eSports tournaments became our driving force. 

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To find the best candidates/players for the team, we hosted a tournament that was open to all Zambians. It was from this tournament that we picked our top players, namely Justin Banda (aka Mr. 5000) and Mwelele Zaza and signed them as eSports players for Team Gematrix. We made our tournament debut at the Pro Series Gaming (PSG) tournament in Nairobi, Kenya a month after our official announcement as a Team.

Asides from having our players contend in tournaments locally and internationally, we also host online and offline tournaments on console and mobile platforms. In partnership with Edutainment Health Foundation an NGO based in Lusaka, Zambia, we plan on providing gaming workshops to young women that have undergone various forms of abuse.

These workshops will serve as entertainment to help their recovery process and hopefully became new hobbies. 

 As Team Gematrix, we will soon be launching eSports clubs in select schools that will teach members various skills such as web designing, basic programming and tournament management in preparation for career options in the esports ecosystem.

What do you attribute your success?

The little success that we have attained has been through hard work and mostly learning on the job. However, most of it can be attributed to my Mentor Mark Mondoka and the Bongo-Hive organisation, a startup incubator based in Zambia. Bongo-hive provided us with free access to legal aid and masterclasses on how to start and run a business. It was through bongo-hive that my co-founder and I met Mark Mondoka, he gave us one on one sessions and guided our every move. He also advised us on how to tackle specific business challenges.

Can you give me an overview of esports and the game development scene in Zambia?

The gaming community in Zambia is strong and growing. However, the eSports scene is relatively new. As Team Gematrix we were the first eSports team to be formed in Zambia. Because of this we have had challenges in getting particular help such as endorsement deals or partnerships that could further help the organisation flourish more, instead, we have had to create a path and prove that eSports in Zambia can become a success. As of now, more eSports teams and organisations locally have started emerging. I’d like to believe that our impact is felt across the country and that all the works we have done have been able to inspire and motivate other gamers or eSports enthusiasts. 

Much like the eSports scene, game development in Zambia is also on the rise, and most Zambian developers such as Mwaba Creedos Mugala, who has gained international recognition for his efforts in developing an original Zambian game called Project Lumpa. On an annual basis, organisations such as Agora Code Community & Nerd Otaku Zambia also host the Global Game Jam in January. At the Game Jam, people come together and are split into teams and make cool games in 3 days with little to no coding background.  

Please share your experience of being a woman in games in Zambia and the international scene?

I have learnt a lot about myself throughout my entrepreneurial journey such as running and growing a business, networking and managing people in an organisation.

Some of the worst experiences I have had are of people continually reminding me that I am just a young woman. I should focus more on “being” a woman than running a business; this has been the case when it comes to pitching for sponsorship or endorsement deals for the team. I was advised quite a lot of times that having someone older than me and male (preferable white) in the meeting room would increase our chances of closing deals and that potential sponsors and or companies would take us more seriously. 

It made me feel like my hard work as a young black woman isn’t enough and that I have to be something I am not just to grow our team further. 

What are the two main challenges that you encounter as a black woman in games? In your opinion, what are the solutions for those challenges?

The two main challenges that I have encountered as a black woman in eSports are: –

  1. As pioneers of eSports in Zambia, we have had to break a lot of barriers and change a lot of stereotypes towards eSports and the notion that gaming is just a hobby to pass the time. 
  2. Despite having multiple starts up incubators in Zambia, no institution teaches how to start up in eSports. The eSports industry has a lot of different aspects than your average business venture, because of this is I have had to learn on the job. My opinion for a solution would be to keep an open mind, be ready to adapt and learn, read a lot about business, network with people in the industry, and not be afraid to ask for help. 

This series is to highlight women of colour in games and encourage them to look into this industry. What would be your advice?

The advice I would give would be to stay healthy, it’s always harder to pave away than to follow one, but we have to be the ones to start so that the people whom we inspire will be the ones to make our roads even better. It applies to business, to learn to work with what you have, block out any noise and distractions that aim at pulling you down or stopping you from your goal. Work hard and work smart.

Please share with us how we can support you in continuing this fantastic job.

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As Team Gematrix, we have been blessed with the opportunity of being the first African eSports team to attend the World Esports Championship in Las Vegas, and we hold a total of 6 African esports championships. 

We have had to make a lot of sacrifices to make it possible for our players to attend specific tournaments. Despite the limited resources we have had, I believe we have continued to impact many people in our community.

I firmly believe that with proper resources, we can achieve even more significant milestones, the support we need is adequate seed capital to facilitate our operations and business models. We need strategic partnerships that can help us achieve specific goals – no business should be an island; we would also need support in acquiring endorsement deals.

Cholwe can be reached via email, and you can follow Team Gematrix on Facebook.