Rising VR Esports Star Shatters Stereotypes

Sonya “Hasko7” Haskins
by Jason Johnson
Freelance writer and editor

“Echo Mom” Sonya “Hasko7” Haskins proves VR and esports can be for everyone.

When Sonya “Hasko7” Haskins is playing Echo Arena, a team-based esport for the Oculus Rift virtual reality (VR) system, she’s an opponent’s worst nightmare. She soars around the virtual hangar-sized stadium, short-circuiting rivals and slinging the disc-shaped puck up the court for fast-breaks — all while laughing maniacally.

Like a game of hockey held in a vacuum tube, Echo Arena from Ready At Dawn Studios involves a range of fast-twitch actions, including goalkeeping, hat tricks and gravity-less body checks — Haskins’ specialty.

But when offline in the real world, Haskins lives a seemingly ordinary life. The devoted mother shuttles her kids around the small town of Johnson City, Tennessee in a battle-worn 15-passenger van. She’s a homeschooler who has cared for more than 100 foster children.

VR esports star Sonya Haskins
Sonya Haskins (left) is one of the top ranked enforcers in the VR esport Echo Arena.

Haskins isn’t a stereotypical esports athlete chasing a lucrative career in the gaming industry. She stands out in a world dominated by fast-fingered, millennial males, who comprise around 70 percent of the audience, according to Nielsen Media Research.

She believes the spread of free-form esports like Echo Arena are attracting new types of players.

“It’s amazing how many different kinds of people you can meet playing Echo Arena,” said Haskins. “It doesn’t matter what religion you are or what your background is. It’s just wonderful to fellowship with others in an environment where your goal is simply to win.”

That simplicity is crucial. When playing Echo Arena, the Oculus Rift’s ring-shaped controllers allow natural body movement instead of the traditional method of clicking a mouse. This new active play style is appealing to mainstream audiences who would rather flex their bodies than their keyboards.

VR for Healthy Living

Haskins didn’t start playing VR games for weight loss, but she’s lost more than 40 pounds practicing for competitions. Once she started played Echo Arena, she was hooked. One of the few participants who plays while seated, Haskins pivots on her stool, shaking the controllers as if she’s performing a solo on a massive drum set.

“In VR, we’re connecting physical movement interfaces to experiences that give the user a sense of embodiment,” said Kim Pallister, director of Intel’s VR Center of Excellence. “VR is letting us make computing feel like you’re inside the experience.”

Pallister said Intel recently helped develop VR technology that will allow people to play esports like other traditional sports. For example, Intel WiGig technology cuts the cord from head-mounted displays — a relief for Echo Arena players who complain about stumbling over their headset’s cable.

Sometimes playing as much as 10 hours a day, Haskins is one of the cyber sport’s earliest converts. Since her husband brought home an Oculus Rift in April 2017, she’s made the leap from stay-at-home mom to one of VR esports’ rising stars.

“I’ve already told the guys on my team that when summer comes, I won’t have time to play as much because I have to garden,” said Haskins, who grows much of the food that her family eats.

When she’s not planting okra on the acre of farmland where she resides, she is among the game’s top players. Haskins plays for TitaN, currently the 10th ranked team in North America.

An ace at using her shield to deflect attacks, she has the highest block rate in the game at 41 percent. Playing the position of enforcer, it’s Haskins’ responsibility to protect her team’s leading scorer, Dual_8, who specializes in flinging the luminescent disc into the goal.

Last October, her team qualified online for the VR Challenger League (VRCL), presented by Intel, Oculus and ESL. They traveled to San Jose, California to compete in the first North American Echo Arena regional qualifier at Oculus Connect 4.

[Read: Esports Get Physical in VR Challenger League]

VR esports star Sonya Haskins
Haskins has unexpectedly become a rising star in VR esports.

Her five children are proud of their esports-playing mother. However, other acquaintances are more suspicious about it.

“My real-life friends, who are conservative Christian homeschool moms, thought I’d joined a cult,” said Haskins. “Not only was I flying to San Jose when I’d usually never set foot on an airplane, but I was going to a gaming convention to meet people I met on the internet.”

Despite the moral concerns of her peers, Haskins said she has nothing to fear. The Echo Arena community is like a family.

When new players venture into the game’s lobby, she’s the first to hover over to greet them, offering friendly advice on how to fly without crashing into the wall. Then she leads the way to the combat room.

“It’s so important to welcome new players and say hello,” she said. “I don’t want them to think it’s OK to be disrespectful.”

Echo Mom plays hard and fast, but always fair.


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