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Frag Dolls tryouts: More than mashing buttons

Women vying for spot on the pro video game team learn fast that kicking butt is a necessity. Second of four parts. Photos: Frag Dolls hopefuls play tough

SAN RAFAEL, Calif.--It was Sunday, April 2, and some of the best video game players in the world were getting ready for a tournament that could affect the rest of their lives.

This was day two of the all-weekend auditions for a new member of the Frag Dolls, video game publisher Ubisoft's all-women professional gamer team. For the eight women vying for the single new spot on the currently six-member team, this day was what the competition was really all about: the tournament.

On Saturday, the eight women--who ranged in age from 19 to 27, came to Northern California from seven states. Known by nicknames like The Don Wan, Calistah, Cella and Angel, they arrived at the famed THX Studios here for a day of interviews, media training and informal video game play.

The judges were going to take each of those elements into consideration when choosing the new team member, but everyone knew that to have a chance at winning, kicking butt in the tournament was a necessity.

Because Ubisoft granted GameTrailers the right to produce an episodic series about the event and the eventual winner, I was granted access to the auditions only after agreeing not to publish this story, or one that follows it, until after the corresponding GameTrailers episodes had run.

Some of the women were practicing playing "Halo 2," one of the two games on which they were soon to be tested, and the banter and smack talk had already begun. That was important, since the judges were looking to see who could stay cool under pressure, play well and showcase the feisty and communicative personality they sought in a Frag Doll.

Against the wall of the sound studio being used as a game room, Gus Sorola, a judge and member of the Rooster Teeth Productions team that makes the popular video series "Red vs Blue," was watching the Frag Doll candidates intently as they practiced.

"One thing I'm looking for is someone who can play the fast-paced games like 'Halo (2)' (and) some of the slower-paced games like (Ubisoft's) 'Ghost Recon,'" said Sorola, "where it's strategy and thinking. Where it shows someone who's a lot more patient rather than someone who just mashes buttons."

Frag Dolls, day two

He also said he wanted to see how Marcella Fernandez, 21, from Dallas, would fare. She was telling everyone she didn't sleep the night before.

"It's awesome that she's that excited," Sorola said. "But you've got to get your sleep no matter what's going on. If she can hold it together, that's awesome."

Not long after, all the candidates left and everyone else--the current Frag Dolls, the GameTrailers team, Ubisoft's public relations folks, a few others and I--sat waiting for the eight women to return.

As we waited, Valkyrie, one of the existing Frag Dolls, yelled out rhetorically, "Can I ask each of them to give me an example of their (smack) talk?"

"OK, girls," she shouted after the eight entered. "We've seen that you can talk the talk. Now we're going to see if you can walk the walk. Stand up and give me an example of your (smack) talk."

"Say my name," shouted Monica Inderlied, a 21-year-old from Norman, Okla.

"You shoot like a boy," 27-year-old Jennifer King of Seattle said to huge laughter.

"I want all of you to eat it," shouted Rennelly Morel, 19, from Brooklyn, N.Y.

Then the game play started, with each of the eight women sitting down at an Xbox 360, in two facing rows, four on a side, readying to play "Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter."

The room quickly filled with the sounds of gunfire, explosions, the grunt of dying game soldiers and the excited yells of the eight competitors. All around, people were hovering and watching them play.

"If these people standing behind you are making you nervous," taunted Valkyrie, "get used to it. In tournaments, you're going to have a hundred people behind you. I like it. It turns me on. Guys'll be coming up to you and you know what? You have to turn around and talk to them."

"That was awesome," shouted Heather Boyd, 22, from Vero Beach, Fla. "I just got popped in the head." After the first round of individual "Ghost Recon" play, King was looking golden with the highest score. But everyone was also talking about Alyson Craghead, 21, of Mesa, Ariz., because she came in second despite being known primarily as one of the best "Halo 2" players in the world.

They began to gear up for a second round, having shifted the teams, and Valkyrie once again taunted the candidates.

"A lone wolf kills your team, so let's find out who the lone wolves are and get rid of them."
--Valkyrie, member of Frag Dolls team

"Man, are you girls lucky I'm not playing this round," she said.

King won the second round as well, with Hommerbocker finishing second.

Valkyrie then organized the candidates into teams, four-on-four, balancing each side based on how the women performed in individual "Ghost Recon" play.

As they waited, Kat Hunter, a current Frag Doll, told me she was seeing some clear differences in how the candidates were playing on this day compared with how they played in informal gaming the day before.

"Definitely the way the girls came out (today) was not in line with the way they played yesterday," Hunter said. "We had girls stepping up, so I think they're really starting to take it seriously."

As they got ready for team play, each candidate donned a headset that let her communicate with her teammates. This allowed them to strategize as they played: Some could play offense, some defense, and all could shout out directions to teammates or warnings that someone was creeping up from behind.

Valkyrie once again stood in front of the room, booming out directions and strategy.

"A lone wolf kills your team," Valkyrie shouted, "so let's find out who the lone wolves are and get rid of them."

She added, kindly, "Good luck, ladies. May the best team win."

Hunter piped in, grinning, "Don't screw it up."

As they began the team play, all the women looked like they were concentrating so hard they may as well have been taking their law school entrance exams. They chattered constantly on their headsets, shouting out commands and warnings.

But on one side of the room, Morel was looking like the best communicator, and clearly her team's leader.

"There's three coming up towards the base, ladies," Morel said. "Heads up."

Finally, the "Ghost Recon" team play ended. It was a draw, and Valkyrie was full of congratulations.

"Good job, girls," Valkyrie said. "You're all ghetto-fabulous."

Next, the candidates jumped in to "Halo 2."

This was definitely Craghead's game, and as people crowded around to watch her play, she didn't disappoint. She was dominating, and quickly had twice as many kills as anyone else.

Kari Toyama, a 21-year-old from Seattle, noticed that King was getting credit for hitting a ton of enemy soldiers, but few outright kills.

"Everyone's stealing your kills," she said.

"I know," King replied. "They were 'vultching' everyone I shot."

The candidates finished a first "Halo 2" individual round and quickly began another. As in the first, Craghead was far ahead of anyone else. She finished with 50 kills. The second place finisher had 29.

Afterward, the existing Frag Dolls sequestered themselves to discuss what they saw. They talked about each candidate--how she played in each of the two games and how she communicated.

It was clear that Craghead and Morel were the best "Halo 2" players, but Hunter thought King played the best over the two games.

And the candidates? They just kept on playing the games. After all, it's what they do for fun no matter how much they play competitively.

"It was exciting," Hommerbocker said of the tournament. "It was to the point where it gets your blood pumping so fast (and where) you zone out everything else around you. It was so fun to be on a team and beat people down."

Up next: The jury deliberates and the Frag Doll candidates find out who got the job of a lifetime.