Marie-Laure 'Kayane' Norindr is well known throughout the fighting game community as a veteran who has smashed records and played games like Street Fighter and Soul Calibur at the highest levels possible. But, where did it all start for the FGC legend? Stealth Optional had the chance to find out.
"I started fighting games when I was seven years old, and started competing when I was nine," Kayane tells us. Around the turn of the millennium, her brothers were Tekken champions and she thought joining in would be a cool way to get closer to her older siblings and do "adult things." Little did she know that this would turn into a career for her.
It all started upon seeing her on-screen character react to her controller inputs immediately had her hooked. "I'm like, wow, it's better than dolls," Kayane recalls with a laugh. She says that most children have role models like singers or actors, but for her, it was the charisma of fighting game characters that took that played that part for her.
"At seven years old, I wanted to look like my fighting games character," the FGC competitor tells us. "I didn't really play to win at first. I wanted to play to not lose. I didn't want my character to lose. I didn't want my character to be on the floor and dying. So, I just trained to not see my character die. And when I went to tournaments, I was like, 'oh, I'm going to make new friends there. Friends that would understand me and my passion for fighting games."
People were shocked that a nine-year-old was turning up to fighting game tournaments, and the competitors critiqued the little girl they thought was going to cry when they inevitably wiped the floor with her. "I beat them," Kayane recalls amusingly. "But my first goal, to make friends, was not going to happen because people were like 'there's no way a little girl can beat us,' so they didn't want to be my friend, they just wanted to beat me."
Eventually, the competitive community warmed up to Kayane after she persistently kept turning up for tournaments, and by the time she was twelve, she was rubbing shoulders with champions from around the world despite not being able to speak English.
Kayane's exposure to such a multicultural melting pot of players at these tournaments set her on the course that would later see her break records and make a career out of fighting games. "That's what motivated me a lot, competing in this community [and] to meet new people from all over the world," she says. "I also had in mind the way of life of Ryu from Street Fighter. He's with his bag, travelling the world and just fight against everybody in the world to be stronger. And that's the kind of life that I wanted to have."
It wasn't a joke, either. "I've been to more than 20 countries now, competing all over the world," Kayane says. "And I'm like, 'wow, fighting games brought me a lot of things in my life.' That's something really beautiful about it. You can go to any country and say on Twitter, 'hey, I'm going to this country, is there any fighting games players?' and there will be always people that say, 'You can come to my house. You can come to play in my gaming room.' They take you to a restaurant and visit a lot of cultural [places]. So that is really incredible."
It hasn't been all plain sailing for the FGC icon, though, and starting to compete at such a young age, in a time when gaming in general wasn't as socially acceptable, has presented her with a lot of challenges. "When I was a little girl, people would think that I have no reason to be [at tournaments] because video games and tournaments are for men and for adults," she recalls. Other players didn't have respect for her due to the fact that she was both a child and a girl until she consistently attended tournaments and her skill became obvious. "It's a place that I had to fight for."
As time went on and Kayane entered her teen years, her relationship with her male peers began to change too. "Because I was not the little sister, they started to harass me because they were like 'she's getting so much attention because of the media' because it's easy and funny to talk about the girl that destroy guys," she says.
Kayane was a pioneer for women in the fighting game community, and due to this, journalists portrayed her as the woman who was destroying everybody and had her male counterparts running scared. She didn't think of it that way, she tells us, but her peers started to think she was saying these things and getting too big for her boots.
"They thought that I was going away from the community to become famous," Kayane says. "And that's not what it was. So, because of the vision they had of me, they started to harass me because they felt that since I'm growing up, I can handle that. So, it was a bad time when I was around 14,15, 16 years old."
Back then, of course, social media wasn't prevalent and so forum threads about her kept popping up to "trash talk" her, knowing that she'd read it. "It's not anonymous guys that were going to talk about me, it's people I grew up with. So that was the most hurtful thing for me," Kayane remembers. It all culminated in her harassers creating lewd images of her that incensed her older brothers, who then forbade her from visiting forums and going to tournaments.
"I cried so much," Kayane says. "I'm like, 'no, it's my only reason to live. I want to play fighting games. I want to become strong and be a famous player that represents France." She eventually went to tournaments anyway, doubling down on improving her play, and things started looking up once she got sponsors and partnerships and was able to put on more community events.
Kayane still receives negativity from members of the fighting game community, who criticise her for being an event host rather than a 'real player.' "Well, that was not true because I was one of the only French players that went to EVO and succeeded to be a finalist. The last time I did that was in April 2019 ... I proved to them that they were wrong," she says on the matter.
Kayane finds it's a constant battle to prove herself to the naysayers, who will always find fault somewhere, but she lets her actions speak louder than her words. "People will always say that, if you're famous, it's not because of your [skill] level. It's not because you're strong or because of your hard work. They will always say, 'oh, she's on TV because she's a woman or because you're pretty' or whatever. It's too hard for people to say that it's because you are a hard worker." Things have gotten better over time, of course, but there's still a select few who want to have someone to direct their hatred at.
Because of this, Kayane feels people are taking the wrong message about women in the FGC or games and the world in general. "A lot of people use me to say 'see, Kayane's proved that women had their place in this world," the esports star says. "No ... all women have their place, just as men [do], to be in the video games, fighting games, or esports world. We're just equal."
She understands that those who use her as an example for other women to follow mean well, but Kayane thinks it sends the wrong message. "It doesn't matter if you're a champion or not, you should be respected and legitimate and credible. I just want women to participate and feel good and safe in this place without having to prove anything."
Kayane admits the treatment of women in video game communities has improved over the past 20 years of her career, especially in the FGC, but she sees other woman still struggling with the same issues she's experienced in games like Valorant or Overwatch, where women are still hesitant to communicate via voice chat for fear of trolling and harassment.
"You should not have to live with that every day," she comments. "Just because you play your favourite game. And just because you're female player, you have to go through all these situations that should not exist."
As our time drew to an end, we were curious what's next for the esports star. "What I would love to do for next year," Kayane tells us, "is to have my own fighting games and martial arts sports place. I want to have my own dojo that is both [virtual] fighting games and physical." There are a lot of fighting game associations in France, but they don't have a permanent home and have to meet in sterile classrooms - and that's what Kayane wants to fix. She's going to lend out anything people need to put on events, she says, such as screens and consoles. "I think that this will be a life changer for all the fighting games communities in France."
Dust off your arcade sticks, because we might have a Stealth Optional outing to France on the horizon.