Even when it comes to gaming, they do everything bigger in Texas. Known for their LAN parties-cum-barbecue bashes, sisters Amber Dalton and Amy Brady used to host upwards of 32 gamers in an old Victorian in San Antonio to play Halo on four big-screen TVs and a 108-inch DLP projector.
When they were done being hospitable, the two would sit down with the guys, pick up a controller, and proceed to destroy every opponent. “We realized we had a talent for this,” Dalton told Fast Company. So she cofounded the female gaming group PMS Clan with Brady.
Back when Microsoft introduced Xbox in 2001, 56k modem speeds were still commonplace, so bandwidth limited social gaming geographically. That meant when the sisters weren’t throwing LAN parties–ad hoc events where gamers would bring their own computers or consoles to play over a local area network–they could be found shooting fellow Texans online with the help of some tunnel software.
As twins, Dalton and Brady say they began competing in the womb. “I don’t think people realize how competitive it is, but when you’re being compared your entire life, that becomes ingrained in you,” Dalton said. That extended to school athletics, card games, and video games from Duck Hunt to Halo. Though the cofounders have stepped down from running PMS Clan’s day-to-day activities, they remain in an advisory capacity, and both work for video game companies: Dalton as marketing director for Twitch, a Justin.tv offshoot that livestreams game play, and Brady as an associate competition engagement manager for the game maker Ubisoft.
As women on Xbox’s platform, they were an anomaly, but this difference wasn’t apparent to fellow gamers, or even to themselves at first. In-game communication was crude back then, so players heard others only when their characters were in proximity. At one point, Brady recalled hearing a woman’s voice and approached this player, trying to get her attention while repeatedly asking if she was a girl. “And she kept killing me over and over again,” said Brady, who goes by Athena in the gaming world.
When the woman finally realized Brady wasn’t attacking, they headed to a virtual lobby to chat. The sisters found a new gaming ally, and the idea for creating a female clan was born. “We were smoking it,” said Dalton, who picked up the name AthenaTwin. “The excitement of finding other girls and forming a team of girls was cool. It wasn’t until later I realized there was more significance to creating a female group.”
The gang named itself the PMS Clan. It was succinct yet made clear these women were to be reckoned with. The letters originally stood for Psychotic Man Slayers, but about two years later, PMS began landing sponsors and getting flack for its name. It had also learned of a disbanded all-girl gaming group from the ’90s called Psycho Men Slayers, so it decided it was time for a name change. Pandora’s Mighty Soldiers they would call themselves from then on, and a storyline was crafted about Pandora’s Box and the soldiers who had to track down and return its evils.
Sponsorship deals with Microsoft, Alienware, Patriot Memory, and others gave PMS Clan the funds to send girls to compete in tournaments globally. Over the years, PMS has counted about 50 championship placements, helping the group gain a sense of notoriety. “We would walk in with our makeup on, hair done, and cool pink PMS T-shirts,” Dalton said, describing its presence at gaming conferences and tournaments. “Everyone’s like, What the heck is this? And it kind of exploded at that point.”
Having launched in 2002 along with Xbox Live, PMS Clan is among the oldest groups on the platform and was at one point its largest clan. It eventually expanded and created a male group, H2O Clan. At the helm of PMS were two distinct leaders: Dalton, known for being nurturing, and Brady, fiercely competitive and always down to business. “We are the yin and yang, and it made everything perfect,” said Brady.
As the “mama bear” of PMS Clan, Dalton guesses she’s met 600 to 700 PMS Clan members in real life–“at least,” she says. There was one woman, a victim of domestic violence, who found the strength to leave her abusive relationship with the support of fellow PMS members. There was also the time she met the mother of a 15-year-old member over coffee. Dalton learned the teenager was depressed and potentially suicidal, but her mom, a reverend, said joining PMS was transformative. She had seen her daughter smile for the first time in a while. As a leader of PMS’s now-defunct teen division, her daughter found the confidence to join volleyball and other extracurricular activities in school. “I’ve heard many, many stories–too many to count–that go along the same philosophy,” Dalton said.
Regina Wu, a software engineer at Intel who is getting ready to take the reins of PMS in December, said she felt comfortable turning to Dalton for career guidance. Wu joined PMS in 2006 when she learned of the group’s charity work. “I realized this was more than about gaming,” she said. “I felt like I could help guide some of the girls into either pursuing dreams in the games industry or just guiding them on their life paths.”
Yet as supportive as PMS Clan was, the trolls were unavoidable. “I’ve seen firsthand how girls would come on and they would leave,” Dalton said. This wasn’t an issue in the nascent days of online gaming, but as broadband speeds grew, so too did the harassment. Outside the watchful eyes of parents, teenage boys would turn into monsters. “They’re the kind looking to ravel you in any way. The girl card is just easy to pull,” Brady said. As a guideline, PMS instructs its members not to respond to attacks, believing doing otherwise would give its flamers fuel. Dalton recalls having controllers thrown at her, and in one frightening episode, she received a threatening and vulgar message along with a satellite image of her home. She tracked down the 16-year-old behind the hostile note and ended up talking to his mom about his behavior.
Though PMS Clan remains competitive, the group has softened over the years. It has loosened requirements to adapt to the changing lives of its members. “Women’s lives change. We have babies. We graduate from college. We get engaged,” Dalton said. “We wanted to make sure we had an environment where women can go through these transitions in life and come back when they’re ready.” The group still sends girls to compete in tournaments, but sponsorship dollars slowed when Dalton, who wrangled many of its deals, stepped down to focus on work.
While killing boys is still core to PMS’s identity, the focus now, it appears, is on providing a community for female gamers, regardless of platform or title. With the rise of Angry Birds and its ilk, women now make up 45% of gamers, according to the Entertainment Software Association. Both sisters believe the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One launches this month will only introduce more women to games, helping bring them to the forefront as PMS had done all those years ago.