Hearthstone champ Liooon hopes BlizzCon victory will encourage other women in esports

Hearthstone pro Xiaomeng "Liooon" Li, middle, lifts the Hearthstone Global Finals trophy as confetti falls during BlizzCon on Saturday at the Anaheim Convention Center in Anaheim, California. Photo by Helena Kristiansson/Provided by Blizzard Entertainment

ANAHEIM, California -- Xiaomeng "Liooon" Li could barely get the words out.

Standing centerstage in Hall B of the Anaheim Convention Center, Hearthstone's newest GrandMaster held her Global Finals trophy close and made a request to a BlizzCon audience hanging on her every word.

"Can I tell a story?" Liooon said.

In a way, Liooon's play had already said enough. By defeating Brian "bloodyface" Eason as part of an undefeated BlizzCon run, the 23-year-old made history as the first woman to win a championship at the convention across all of Blizzard's games. Most tournament champions in the past forged their victories through the losers bracket, but Liooon never wavered, breezing her way through the competition to the title.

"Two years ago, I remember I was competing in a huge tournament," Liooon said as her tears began to fall. "I was waiting in line for signups. And there was this guy telling me, 'You're a girl. You should not be waiting in line here. It's not for you.' And now today, I am here, with all this support from the fans.

"I want to say to all the girls out there who have a dream for esports, for competition, for glory: If you want to do it, and you believe in yourself, you should just forget your gender and go for it."

The crowd roared in approval.

A native of Xinjiang, China, Liooon first began to play Hearthstone three years ago as a recent university graduate. She signed on as a referee for a Gold Series Hearthstone tournament and became enamored with the game. Helped by her boyfriend, who is also a professional Heathstone player, Liooon honed her skills on the ladder and eventually entered official competitions.

After finishing in the top six in three straight Gold Open tournaments, Liooon qualified for the Global Finals at BlizzCon by winning the fourth in Tianjin.

Even after she booked her ticket, Liooon couldn't believe she was going to compete in California.

"When I was on the flight coming here," Liooon said, "I was thinking compared to other players, I'm one of the players with the least experience, who hasn't been competing a lot in the top tournaments before. All I was thinking about was to do my best in every single game I could."

Master of ceremonies Dan "Frodan" Chou was impressed by Liooon's technically sound play as he watched her backstage with former Hearthstone Championship Tour world champion Casper "Hunterace" Notto.

"He was suggesting plays, and she was doing them," Frodan said. "Then he'd be suggesting other plays, and then she'd do different ones, and he's like, 'Wait, no, that's actually better.'"

Over the first two games of the final series against Bloodyface, Liooon won both sides of the Druid/Shaman matchup, drawing well and forcing her opponent to exhaust answers before her real threats came online. As Hunter in the deciding Game 3, Liooon's Pressure Plate and Snipe secret pairing, plus a pocket Kill Command and Siamat, were just enough to burst through Bloodyface's Druid armor and healing.

"She's shown great ability in this moment," Frodan said. "I look forward to see if she can keep that up because we all know what her ceiling is now."

Liooon was an instant hit with Chinese fans attending BlizzCon. From her postgame news conference to other interview appearances, she drew an entourage of nearly a dozen supporters who were thrilled to see a Hearthstone World Champion from their country. Liooon was gracious with her time, signing every poster and posing for pictures as she walked the convention floor. The Global Finals trophy, modeled as a solidified wisp of blue mana -- it lit up if you knew where to find the switch -- was never far from her reach.

"It didn't occur to me that I could make it," Liooon said. "I want to thank everyone who has practiced with me and who has been supporting me. Even though they don't play Hearthstone, they would come and watch my play, so I'm really thankful."

Once she was off the stage and away from the confetti-strewn floor, Liooon reiterated her commitment to bringing more women into competitive gaming.

"Over the past couple years, I've encountered discrimination against women in esports," Liooon said. "I think as long as more people become kind toward women and show more respect, more tolerance, I think there will be more women coming to esports to compete and have the same achievements as men do.

"If my victory can encourage all the women out there who want to compete but are afraid to, that's a huge honor to me."