The first thing I noticed when I met Kelly was the Bulbasaur tattoo on her left arm. A classic starter Pokemon, Bulbasaur is hardy, determined, and persistent.
Kelly is all of that – and more.
Kelly is the co-owner of Alliance with husband Jonathan “Loda” Berg, and holds the official title of Chief Strategy Officer. She manages partners, sponsors, and picks the games that the organization invests in. Any new division that comes in works closely with Kelly for the first three months so that they better understand what it means to be part of the Alliance family.
She is also the general manager of all divisions, crisis manager and staff manager. Previously, she also handled finance, administration and social media across all platforms. That meant working 80 to 100 hours a week.
Her role is really ‘bao ka liao’. In Singaporean slang, it means someone who does everything. This extends to the rest of her esports career as well.
A former competitor, commentator and host, Kelly started esports when she was 15. By the time she turned 17, she knew that she wanted to be a team owner.
“When I was growing up, I saw Jeanie Buss becoming the owner of L.A. Lakers. She was a woman in a man’s industry. Being a team owner in esports was the ultimate challenge. I wanted to be in a position where I could make an impact. That was how the drive began.”
Kelly started her esports journey as a player. She competed in Dota 2 with Singapore-based female esports team PMS (now Asterisk*). Later on, Kelly formed a team with former NAVI female team players and called themselves “No Drama Girls”.
As other female competitors swapped teams every other day due to internal conflict, it was paramount to No Drama Girls that each player was honest, serious and solution-oriented.
Beyond just Dota, Kelly was also on an all-female CS:GO team which she says gave her a good starting ground.
“Female leagues show you how good you are, it lets you practice and have some structure. But it shouldn’t be the ultimate goal,” shared Kelly.
Her viewpoint here was direct: Female leagues are necessary for female players to try playing professionally, in an environment they’re comfortable in.
Speaking from experience, her skill level in CS:GO progressed so much so that she was invited to join a majority-male team, and was even involved in planning strategies.
“The guys on the team never really looked at me like I was a girl. I was just a really good player. I think there needs to be a lot more of that.”
Esports as a career
Kelly has carried this same attitude throughout her career. She poured all her willpower towards her goals because she believed in her capabilities, but was also realistic every step of the way.
This is a piece of advice she shares with others too. “I embraced that this was going to be a challenge. I never thought that ‘I’m a woman’. Never. I walk into the room and I’m like, I’m me. I’m here to do my job, I’m here to kick your ass. I don’t dwell on the fact that it’s a struggle because I chose, and I knew it was going to be a struggle.”
Kelly also places importance on having a mentor. Along her path, there were people in the industry who expanded her network and opened up opportunities.
Now that she is a veteran in esports, she contributes by mentoring two to four people a year, strongly believing that uplifting others is important – especially in her home country.
“The Singaporean culture is very competitive and people have the thinking that if you succeed, I can’t, so I’m going to make sure you don’t succeed.”
“I hate women who hate women. It’s already so hard for all of us, why make it harder? Women in leading positions need to recommend other women to jobs and speak well of them,” said Kelly.
The missing ingredient in Singapore’s esports industry
Besides culture, the one thing the esports industry in Singapore lacks according to Kelly, is a really good esports team.
Soccer was popular in Singapore when Fandi Ahmad was playing because he was regarded as a legend. During its heyday, locals believed Singapore had a shot at achieving something at the international level.
Similarly, for esports in Singapore, a good team would propel esports’ popularity, explained Kelly. Going hand in hand, infrastructure too, needs to strengthen.
“There needs to be tournaments. Not only locally but regionally. That’s the most important infrastructure. We need to have people who are trying to groom the next generation of champions in Singapore,” said Kelly, who had to leave her home country to pursue esports elsewhere.
“It’s been very tough, and a lot of times I wanted to give up. I don’t, because on good days I like to think of myself as an inspiration to a lot of women. There have been women who came up to me and said, ‘Without you I would not have been able to think this was possible’, and that’s why I took the first step.”