Michael Somkuti: Creating gaming communities IRL

Michael Somkuti

No matter who we are or what we like, it’s important for us to find safe spaces to commune with friends and family. Michael Somkuti was looking to connect with people in the LGBTQ+ community who shared a love for gaming. As a nonbinary member of the community, they were aware of the hostility and hate that has recently been directed toward the LGBTQ+ community, including from within the gaming sphere. 

They teamed up with another queer gamer, Chris Compendio, and started LFG Philly. With their background in esports event organizing, Somkuti provided a space not just for gaming but also a space to provide discussions and social interactions. LFG Philly’s Queer Gaming Night brought together nearly 20 people for a night of playing “Fall Guys,” “Fortnite” and “Super Smash Bros. Ultimate” for the first of what they hope will be many in-person LFG Philly meetups.

What’s the origin of your last name, I’ve never heard it before?
It’s Hungarian. I’m first generation on both sides! I grew up speaking Hungarian at home.

I love to hear that. Are you a Philly-born person?
Yes. I’m originally from the Abington area. 

Give me a description of you as a kid?
I played a lot of different sports — tennis, swimming and lacrosse. I never really stuck with one, but I loved the team aspect of being involved. I was also into books and read a lot of comics growing up. I would eat my way through different manga — actually any comics, from “The Simpsons” to “Garfield,” any comics I could get my hands on — and games. Though I didn’t get a video system of my own until I was about 12, when the Nintendo Wii came out. 

So you started your love of games early.
Oh yeah, when we’d go down to the shore, my parents would give my sister and me money for ice cream, and we’d go to the arcade instead. 

What was your game back then?
I think it was “Dance Dance Revolution.” 

Ha! That’s not what I expected. My game was “Night Driver” where you drove down a windy dark road as fast as you could. I swear that mastering that game as a kid made it a snap for me to drive when I got my license. 
Yeah, video games are so advanced and complex now, but I feel like those original games like “Tetris” and all those, were so much fun and were considered real gaming back then. Now we have gatekeepers, mostly men, who try to decide who and what can be called gamers or gaming. Like, “You only play mobile games, or XYZ games, so you’re not a real gamer.” But a lot of us are starting to push back on that. 

So once you graduated from arcade games, what did you play?
Mostly games on my Nintendo consoles: “Pokémon,” “Super Mario Galaxy.” And then as I got older and graduated college, I got into free-to-play team-based online games. They’re very competitive and I found that the online experience could be grating. Now my game is “Apex Legends,” which has a very big queer cast of characters. 

Where did you go to college?
I went to Bates College in Maine as a math major. I started a gaming group there, which was played through Tespa, which is an esports platform. And we were sponsored by a company called Blizzard. We would get packages that would teach you how to do event activations and they would send us all sorts of things. The weirdest one was when they sent us a case of Soylent when it first launched and I had to plan an event to showcase it and send pictures of people holding up the bottles. 

[Laughing] Ick, I don’t know why anyone would use that name after the movie! It’s people, people! (look it up…) So what did you do after college?
I wanted to do esports events but I ended up getting a software engineering job so I wasn’t able to really pursue it. It’s also a hard world to break into, especially coming from a small school like Bates when the bigger schools had whole gaming centers sponsored by large gaming companies. 

I admit to being totally anachronistic in this realm, I didn’t realize how big esports have become until I saw an episode on “Leverage: Redemption” about gamers where the bad guy was forcing his team to play for hours without sleep and the games were played in huge arenas with sold-out crowds. 
Yeah, it’s big. It’s a billion-dollar market. They sell out stadiums and get millions of viewers online. 

Part of the episode was them debating whether or not it could be considered a sport. By the end of the episode, everyone was convinced that it was. 
Yeah, when I was finishing school, I had to decide what I wanted to do; because to be a professional gamer, you really have to devote yourself and train like with any sport. I took a stab at it and when I moved back to Philly in 2019, I started to go through the pipeline to becoming professional. It is pretty tough and pretty grueling. 

During the pandemic, I was ranked fairly high in the skilled tier list of players. It’s like being a master in the chess rankings. I had a coach and a manager, we’d study game footage and train for hours. I guess one of the parallels with other sports is that there’s the actual play and then there’s the strategic work that goes on behind the scenes: The methodology of improving your game and breaking down the analytics of the other teams or players. There’s a lot to consider when you’re playing professionally. 

I’ve read that there’s been a lot of misogyny in the gaming world, is there a lot of homophobia as well?
Yes. I think anyone who has played these games has experienced it. I’ve experienced it trying out for teams. As a player, you never really know who’s going to be on the other side and what they’re going to say to you. There’s a good chance someone will say something misogynist or homophobic, especially if you’re a trans woman. 

Personally, I’ve been called every slur in the book. It can be intimidating. Some people won’t use things like voice chat even though it significantly increases your chances of winning in a team-based game where communication is important, because they’re afraid that people will pick up that they “sound” gay. 

There’s a commentator for a game called “Overwatch,” who is a trans woman and she gets harassed about it during the livestream chats, but fortunately there seems to be a movement where things are changing. There are teams that are all women and what’s funny is that sometimes they won’t even know it until they’re doing some skill sharing and realize, “Hey, we’re all women on this team.” And there seems to be a focus on returning to the joy of playing. But I don’t really do much tournament playing anymore. At one point in my career, I realized that I’d hit a ceiling in terms of the amount of effort I wanted to put in versus where I was in standings. 

When did you come out?
Well, I did a lot of musical theater and choir and all that, so I think that atmosphere made it easier for me. In high school, I was out within certain circles of friends but by college I was more open about it. And now I just don’t care who knows. 

What made you want to start your group, LFG Philly and what does LFG stand for?
LFG is an acronym that in gaming terms means “Looking For Group.” It means that someone is looking for a like-minded gaming community to join. 

You may have people online that you play games with, but how do you find queer friends to play with? Sometimes as you go through the grind of competing, it’s nice to do it with someone who you know will have your back. It’s hard to find, especially because a lot of people who play video games can sometimes be a little introverted, though I think that’s changing. 

So when people join teams, it’s with strangers?
Yes, like with a lot of sports, you are put on a team depending on your skill levels. There’s a social media platform called Discord, which is a platform that contains individual forums and each forum has voice chat channels. So you’ll go on and, say for instance you want to be an “Overwatch” player, you’ll see posts saying, “I’m looking for someone at this skill rating who plays this character” and you’ll message them and set up a tryout. But you often don’t know who you’re going to be playing with. 

A nice thing about LFG Philly is that it’s not a virtual group, you actually meet up in person. 
Yeah, Philadelphia is pretty blessed to have a thriving gaming community. There are schools with clubs, and plenty of gaming centers like Nerd Street on Broad. A gaming computer can get expensive so it’s cool to go and play on multi-thousand dollar state-of-the-art computers that you can use for $10 for three hours. So if you’re a beginner, you don’t have to put out a lot of money to try it. And they’re open late, so it’s fun to meet up and play together. 

IRL right?
[Laughing] Yes, in real life, IRL. 

It seems like you draw a nice variety of people to your group. I saw different races and gender expressions represented in the pictures on your insta pages. 
Yes, we’ve had one meeting so far but there was a nice turnout. I’m really pleased because I just wanted to have an event that would be a safe space for queer gamers no matter who they are. Having experienced and seen what can happen online, a lot of people are turned away or turned off of gaming or intimidated because they don’t have a certain level of skill. This group is where they can meet other queer people and socialize and be respected. We’re not just about competing. You don’t have to be a professional player to join! 

Okay, let’s do some random questions. What was the first gay bar you went to?
I think it was Toasted Walnut. I went with some lesbian friends. 

What was your favorite thing to pretend when you were little?
I liked to pretend that I was a spy! I love spy stuff, I had the little spy kit that had things like the glasses with little mirrors on the side for looking behind you. 

I had those too! If you could get one thing back that was lost or destroyed, what would it be?
I once went to a car wash with my parents and I had my copy of “Pokémon Platinum” and I left it in the side of the door and it was gone when the car came out. We said something, but they said that they weren’t responsible for items left in the car. [Laughing] I think about that ALL the time. I’m still mad! 

That’s funny and terrible at the same time. Who are you surprised to see follows you on social media? 
Major League Soccer’s ELeague follows us on Twitter, which is kind of random but cool. 

What superpower would you want?
Teleportation. I love to travel but I hate being on airplanes so that would be really helpful. 

Favorite teacher?
My music teachers, especially Michael Stairs. He was a master of the organ and played at Wanamakers and with the Philadelphia Orchestra. I learned to sing from him and he was absolutely incredible. Choir was a big part of my life. I did it from elementary school until college. He was one of the first people I ever came out to. 

Anything I missed?
Someone that really influenced the way I look at gaming and changed my perspective was Dr. Kishonna Gray who did a lot of research applying CRT and media studies to video games and she talks a lot about online interactions in a way that was accessible to me. It made me think of video games more as queer entities because when you are playing, you’re assuming a new identity and it can be anything. I don’t know. It was interesting. 

Oh, another cool thing. There are two professional players. One is named Sneaky, [who] does cosplay with women characters. Over the years, it’s wild to see how much they’ve evolved. It really influenced me and my own journey with gender and sexuality. It reinforces how important visibility is for us. 

And there’s a Twitch streamer, Kylie Gabor, who is a drag queen that was recognized by the “Apex Legends” team. She hosts a monthly tournament for the LGBTQ+ community called SlayPex and Overwatch’s Calling All Heroes series of tournaments and does initiatives for marginalized genders. Kylie calls herself “The Queen of Apex” and was invited to go to the offices of EA to meet with their team.

Do you identify as a nerd?
I do! I love computers and programming. I even love reading about computers!

Ooh, I might have to get you to help me set up my computer to control the lights, etc. 
Not me! I’m a data privacy nerd, so I’m very anti-smart home. I’m old school that way. I’d rather reach up and flip the switch.

Noted and now nervous! 

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