Ricki Ortiz grew up in front of a Street Fighter arcade machine, baptized by the sounds of coin-op cabinets accepting coins and the shouts of frustration as one gamer handed over their turn to another.
Not only is she now a renowned esports player, she recently became her very own video game character, an avatar featured in an Absolut campaign celebrating diversity and hoping for the moment we can call come together in person.
“It's surreal and it's exciting,” Ortiz said of the campaign that includes a commercial spot also featuring actress Tessa Thompson and recording artist MNEK.
The spot is wonderfully optimistic during a year when we have all had to make amends with the reality that it may be some time yet before we bask in the comfort of normalcy.
Ortiz’s character in the commercial is herself in video game form, a hat tip to a Chun-Li avatar who breaks free from the virtual world to enter the real world of the future, when raising a glass can take place in person and with the carefree air of a Sunday afternoon.
It’s quite the trajectory to go from someone who wasn’t allowed to go to the arcade as a kid to being so successful that she is now the face of a global campaign.
“I think it's surreal and it's something I never thought would happen,” Ortiz tells En Fuego. “I never dreamed that I could make playing video games or competing in fighting games my job and my livelihood.”
The campaign means a lot to Ortiz not just for what it means for her career but for the representation that comes with this kind of brand. “I want Absolut because I just like what they stand for,” she said.
“And I feel like they help contribute a lot to LGBTQ. They donate a lot and they're just very visible and they're in the spotlight for the community. So, I thought it was cool to purchase a product that basically helps my community out.”
Once upon a time, gaming took place out in the open. The classic LAN party of old was actually row after row of arcade cabinets and pinball machines.
For Ortiz, she had to stay back and watch her older cousin Sonny get to go to these mystical places while she stayed back at her grandparents’ house. Finally, around the age of six, she finally got to see the inside of an arcade. And I have to imagine the experience was a little bit colored by the fact that Golfland in Milpitas is made up to look like a childhood oasis, festooned with the allure of minigolf and the promise that beckons with a Disney-esque castle. How could a six-year-old resist?
Once inside, the gamer who would later dominate in games like Tekken, Capcom vs. SNK 2, Street Fighter and Marvel vs. Capcom 2, found her comfort zone.
It was there that she saw her father and cousin drop quarter after quarter into a game that would become the foundation of her career.
“I think that's what sparked my love of playing Street Fighter right there is just watching them play and being so fond of my cousin at the time and trying to be kind of like him that I just want to mimic and imitate.”
What started as a general affection for characters like Blanka and Guile evolved into five-dollar handfuls of quarters and a love of Chun-Li.
Ortiz would play constantly, making the arcade a second home even as her father and cousin began to lose interest in fighting games. The hunger to compete stayed very much present with the budding gamer.
By the age of 12, she was spending hours not just at the arcade but in front of the same cabinet, racking up one win after another as would-be competitors fell by the wayside.
It’s then that she realized she could not just compete at a high level in fighting games but also make some cash doing it.
“I had my first taste at competing in a competition when I was about 13 years old,” Ortiz recalled. “At the time, they had a flyer at my arcade saying they're going to have a tournament for a game called Tekken Tag.”
Ortiz would come in third, a sting that served as a catalyst for someone who revels in the stress of competition.
“That was really my first taste of competing. I would say after that I got like a fire under my ass. It made me want to compete more and more. So, I started asking around, looking online, talking to friends about other competitions.”
At the time, competing was more analog. It meant traversing the region by car or plane. Whereas now there are myriad platforms on which gamers can not only compete but interact with fans.
“Back then, it was me just traveling to local events and driving to events to play, sometimes flying to events,” she said. “But now it's huge to a point where it's all over the Internet and it's all over Twitch. There's hundreds, thousands of people who watch competitions online and there's massive prizes. And now I travel all over the world to compete and play. And it's much more hectic than when it used to be. But it's still extremely fun. And I love doing it.”
With Love and Support
A career never unfolds in a vacuum, the demands of competition take place right next to daily lives that evolve in remarkable ways. For Ortiz, slowly becoming the gamer she is now transpired at the same time she was realizing who she is as a person.
“Initially, I just thought I was a gay boy at the time,” Ortiz recalled about the first time she openly discussed her identity. “At the time, no one really asked about it. No one really talked about it. I was always kind of scared that someday somebody would ask me, but no one really did.”
One day around 2004 she was asked that profound question on a drive out to Union City. A great friend of hers inquired, as she recalled, “’I don't mean any disrespect, but I just want to ask you if you're gay?’”
Taken aback, Ortiz at the time did identify as such and revealed that she was in fact a homosexual male. A title that she later discovered didn’t adequately define who she is.
What Ortiz also realized right away is that the friends she had surrounded herself with were a support system she would come to lean on constantly.
“That was pretty much my first experience with coming out in the community and [with] people basically who had my back,” Ortiz said.
“And I will say that ever since I came out as a gay male and then I came out as trans, it was a very smooth transition for me, not so much physically, but just like with the entire community and with all of my friends and everybody in the community. I feel it was such a pleasant experience because it was also hard for me to come out as trans. I suffered with that for a while. I always knew that at some point that I didn't feel right as being a gay male because I felt like that wasn't me to begin with.”
Transgender identity wasn’t something widely discussed at the time. Ortiz didn’t have readily available resources to help her with the transition. The only thing she had to lean on, as she recalled, were episodes of RuPaul’s show.
“I didn't know much about it, I knew that's what I was, but I just didn't want people to think different of me. I was just, I was extremely scared back then because it was just very hard for me.”
Life of an esports athlete is very cerebral. Going through such a momentous change and grappling with identity began to take its toll on Ortiz who found it hard to concentrate.
“When I came out, I had a breakdown with one of my really close friends, and I told her about how I felt and about how me being trans and not telling anybody was kind of putting a hinder on my happiness and putting a hinder on just me competing, because though I was still competing and still winning in events, it was always in the back of my mind, even when I'm competing at the time, like I could not get it out of my head, it was always there just eating away at me.”
Just as she had found before, Ortiz had built a bedrock of unrelenting support that made her transition, a moment she had been dreading, a time of great empowerment.
“I finally had a breakdown and I finally came out and the scene was extremely welcoming and opening, like all my friends were so helpful. And they were also so eager to learn more about it and to understand me,” Ortiz said. “And I'm very grateful for that.”
Achieving Big Things
Ortiz finds herself baking in the Southern California sun earlier this summer. Making a commercial might be invigorating but it’s not entirely glamorous.
For Ortiz, creating the Absolut spot meant working for 24 hours over a couple of days in the hot sun for what would later amount to 30 seconds of video.
Going through a wind tunnel, pretending to break through glass, it was a lot. Not that she would tweak the experience: “[It] might have been grueling and I was miserable in the heat, but I wouldn't take it back for anything; It was so cool.”
It was also revelatory. The synopsis is Ortiz’s character is yearning for life outside the virtual world, something of which we can all relate to as we hop from one Zoom meeting to the next.
Ortiz the video game character does get her wish and busts out of the pixelated universe to drop into the placid confines of real life, transported to a day that is hopefully in the not-too-distant future, when the clink of glasses comes with the effervescent smiles of friends who know they can be themselves and not worry about a pandemic.
The ad campaign is also remarkable for the very fact that it chose Ortiz to deliver this message. It’s something she is well aware of as we discuss her life and career.
“I would just love to show other people and hopefully inspire other young kids and adults and anybody that if this Latinx transgender female could do this, then so can you,” Ortiz said. “That it's very possible for all of us to live out our dreams and achieve big things if we just put our mind to it and we work hard.”