Eloise tells me that everything she's learned about American culture has come from Twitch chat, like that time when, on June 4th, the U.S. armed forces beat back the alien horde and blew up their mothership thanks to Will Smith’s tactful leadership.
She’s being extremely cordial, but the mistake is obvious. "You're thinking of Independence Day, the movie, it takes place on July 4th, not June 4th." She stares back with those big painted eyes and laughs her familiar inscrutable laugh. I have no idea if I’ve actually been lost in translation or if I’m being trolled.
We're backstage at the Hearthstone Spring Championship in a blacked-out amphitheater a few miles from the sweltering centre of Shanghai. The city's forests are sickly warm in the summertime, and Eloise is dressed accordingly in a mesh tutu, foil Twitch jersey, and a pair of clean Converse high-tops.
The conversation has stalled, and I have to assume she doesn’t actually believe that Will Smith is a Marine Corps pilot, so I try a different approach. "It's clear that a lot of your viewers are enchanted with you. Do you ever try to play that up on stream?" I worry that the question will sound even more clumsy, but Eloise understands immediately.
"A lot of people think I'm trolling, but that's how I really think, that's my real reaction," she reaffirms, sensing my doubt. "I really think June 4th is when Americans attacked aliens."
For the record, Eloise deserves to be taken seriously. The woman born Tang Haiyun has been great at video games her entire life. As a teenager in Beijing she joined the elite World of Warcraft raiding guild Stars—who are probably most famous for their controversial Yogg-Saron world first during the Wrath of the Lich King expansion. Eloise convinced her parents to let her sacrifice the long hours necessary for ultra-hardcore raid prep after showing off her top-ranked Shadow Priest DPS. "My mom was so impressed, she said I had the talent and I needed to go for it," she remembers.
After her Warcraft career ended, Eloise quickly found success in Hearthstone when she migrated to the game during the 2013 beta—placing in the top eight at the 2014 Gold Series, and second in the inaugural US vs. CN Championship. Her talent caught the eye of Andrey "Reynad" Yanyuk, another early Hearthstone pioneer who was was breaking ground on his own esports brand called Tempo Storm. Signing her made business sense: there’s value in cultivating an audience in a crucial region, but Eloise’s affable eccentricity plays well worldwide.
If anything, her breeziness makes it easy to forget she’s also a helluva player. Tempo Storm project manager and Hearthstone Global Games caster Dan "Frodan" Chou tells me the company offered her a contract because they knew they were getting one of the most dedicated players in the scene.
"Eloise is a player first, personality second. She pushes herself more than most pro players in general. No one on Tempo Storm practices more Hearthstone than she does—sometimes 12-16 hours a day—and it shows with her results over the years," he says. "She hasn't had a defining tournament championship win, but she's placed high in several events this year and has been the most consistent player alongside [fellow Tempo Storm pro] David 'JustSaiyan' Shan. No female has had her kind of results and success in Hearthstone. In fact, she's one of the most accomplished females in esports history despite playing only a few years. It's a testament to her work ethic and drive."
Twitch, of course, can be less charitable. The Hearthstone community, much like that of every other popular video game on the platform, does not always play nice. Eloise has scarcely missed a day streaming since she signed for Tempo Storm in 2015, and those early broadcasts veered between teasing and something rougher. "The first time I streamed I think I understood maybe 10 percent of the chat," she says. "So generally I have no idea what they're talking about. I just started telling some stories about myself, but my English wasn't good.”
The highlights scattered around YouTube are inglorious. As you may expect, they focus on Eloise’s overwhelmed response to the reams of Western jokes filling her feed. "What is Kappa? What is 'we did it Reddit?'" she asks, staring quizzically at the chat-box, sounding out each consonant as patiently as possible. Another message crosses her feed a few moments later. "You are a Canadian boy. … Yes I am!"
Throwing a young woman who’s still learning English into the maw of Twitch chat is a no-win situation, but Eloise never got discouraged, and eventually her culture shock became an integral part of her online persona. Eloise remains a strong Hearthstone player, capable of hitting high-legend and routinely posting thoughtful, hours-long set reviews to her YouTube channel—but she’s also cultivated her Western audience via her relative cultural naïveté. Or more bluntly, her supposed willingness to believe that Americans defeated the aliens on Independence Day.
Along the way, Eloise established a friendship with Rumay "Hafu" Wang, another Hearthstone personality who specialises in the arena mode, and also a former Warcraft arena pro. Their collaborative streams are hilarious and charming—a slumber party filtered through greedy control decks—and when I ask Hafu how she’d characterize her friend, she bubbles with praise for Eloise's intelligence. "She definitely plays dumb a lot, she’s a lot smarter than she lets on. Not just in Hearthstone, just in general. I think she’s just really lighthearted. She likes to shock people, she likes memes, she likes trolling back."
However, when Hafu joins Eloise on camera, she has a hard time stomaching the comments in chat. This is a reality for thousands of women in gaming, but Eloise doesn’t slam the door on anything regressive or sexist, and that can bother Hafu. "We run our streams pretty differently," she says. "The way I see it is that she’s a really good role-model for girls, and when you have your chat acting that way, and going along with it, it doesn’t really help females to move forward in this space together. It’s more about the overall mentality of the culture."
Hafu’s reservations are understandable, especially as someone who’s been a perennial target for harassment since, but she also respects Eloise’s right to do things differently. "It’s just how she wants to [run her stream,] it’s an agree-to-disagree sort of thing."
Frodan demurred when I asked if Tempo Storm had any significant concern with chat’s relationship with Eloise. "[Our] only concern is for the fans that don't give her a second chance," he says. "If you can dig a bit deeper, you will find one of the most unique individuals to grace a competitive gaming community. She's unafraid of talking about politically sensitive topics. She loves learning about new cultures. She asks wild questions to get people to talk. Many haters perhaps fail to realize that she is genuinely curious and tries to balance her curiosity with her ability to entertain."
He’s right. To be clear, Eloise isn’t bothered by the perception of her as guileless. She tells me that her chat treats her well, and she routinely uploads "cute and funny compilations" to her YouTube channel— the sort of soft-focus tributes you’d expect to be pieced together by the crazier corners of the internet. Occasionally she sings, which musters a higher Biblethump-to-text ratio than any other stream on Twitch.
Regardless of whether or not you agree with her methods, Eloise is a trailblazer. The influence of Chinese esports personalities is usually limited to Mandarin-speaking regions, and she’s found a way to elevate herself as a genuine crossover success without sacrificing her personality. So while there are undoubtedly people drawn to her stream for creepy reasons, her most valuable asset is her outsider status—a stranger in a strange land of overconfident children making bank playing wizard poker.
And then there are the moments where Eloise morphs back into Tang Haiyun, and you catch the devastating, neutering wit hiding behind her self-imposed credulity. Over the course of our conversation, I learned that Eloise is equal parts funny and fascinating when talking about her experiences with Western gaming culture.
On meeting other Hearthstone pros from around the world:
"I have to say, all the white guys look the same to me. I’m not kidding, I’m very serious. I had to go to Twitter and look at their portraits to remember people."
On the primary differences between Western streamers and Chinese streamers:
"Let’s say Forsen, Reckful, and Reynad all spoke Chinese and they started streaming in China. I don’t think they’d be popular at all, because that’s not Chinese people’s taste. Chinese people like streamers who blame themselves, and make fun of themselves. Chinese people don’t like people who blame the game."
And here’s Frodan, when I ask him to give me his best Eloise story:
"Eloise met up with me one time in Shanghai while I was traveling to China for an event. I mentioned my hair was too long but my hair stylist back in America wouldn't be back from vacation for a few weeks. She offered to take me to her salon and her favorite stylist which I obliged. The entire salon is run by males with ...interesting fashion choices. I didn't think about it too much until the stylist kept complimenting me on my physique and rubbing me semi-inappropriately as he was shampooing my hair. It was then that I realized Eloise had taken me to a gay salon."
That’s the paradox of Eloise. She might front the naive ingenue persona, but it’s also her gimmick. She thrives in a place between intention and accident, wide-eyed innocent and trollish puppetmaster. The pro gaming community is built on questionable investors and vaulting ambition—her boss is also one of the most famous cranks in the entire scene—so it’s great that we have someone in competitive Hearthstone who thinks all that chutzpah is as silly as we do.
The scene she comes from also has a completely different relationship between broadcaster and viewer. She tells me that one of the most famous Chinese Hearthstone streamers routinely refers to his chat as his advisors. "He plays so bad. So bad! But he asks his viewers to teach him how to play. That’s how [the audience] knows that he’s friendly," she says. It’s a universe removed from the excoriations handed down by, say, Kripp on a nightly basis.
With that context, it’s easy to understand why Eloise is confused but fascinated by the West. If you didn’t come up in a scene that emphasizes cynicism, fatalism, and externalized anguish, it might seem pretty ridiculous when others freak out after a bad beat. Eloise’s post-loss tweets are a personal favorite—punctuated with a smiling face, and a bubbly forward-thinking optimism.
Lost to @Fluffy_HS so I'm out :( well I can rest and enjoy the event now :)June 18, 2017
Complaints about Hearthstone’s competitive health certainly have their place, but occasionally it’s nice to watch someone largely at peace with the way things are.
Our entire conversation dances around a lingering, awkward question. Eloise makes a good living playing video games. She loves her fans, and has a great working relationship with Blizzard. But this is also someone who pulled 17-hour days to grind through high-end World of Warcraft progression raids. She made her reputation long before her face and charming grammatical misappropriations were being beamed out by webcam. So, as far as her (intentional or otherwise) kawaiiness has gotten her economically, does she ever feel like her talent is overlooked?
"In the West I feel like people respect me as a woman, but they don’t respect me as a player. But in China, people respect me as a player but don’t respect me as a woman," she says. "In China, people hate women a lot. They’ll just say 'you’re ugly, you’re fat,' but whenever anyone ever talks about me, they might say some mean stuff but they’ll still say I’m a good player. In the West, it’s like the opposite. They’ll be like 'she’s cute, but she can’t play.'"
"Do you find that surprising?" I ask.
"I think generally people around the planet don’t take women seriously, just in different ways," she finishes.
Eloise sounds a little resigned when we wrap up with that line of questioning. It’s not something she addresses on stream, and perhaps after a lifetime in the scene, addressing the videogame equality fight feels more dispiriting than anything. But I hope she keeps talking about those issues, because her powers are subversive. Eloise isn’t in awe of anyone. She entered the Western Hearthstone scene as a young Chinese woman struggling to parse our memes. Along the way, she found the language to target all the sensitive spots of the male gamer id. Hearthstone boys are boorish and loud, and Eloise doesn’t take them seriously. People might enter her orbit looking for someone to jeer, but after a 20-minute conversation, you realize that she’s been laughing at you the whole time.