Talking trash with the first lady of online gaming
Xbox employees consider it gauche to be photographed in front of the Halo Reach statue on the Microsoft campus.
It’s fine for tourists to “ooh” and “aah” over the larger-than-life soldiers of Noble Team. It’s even fine for visitors to linger for an awkwardly long time, hell-bent on creating the perfect selfie with Master Chief. But if you work there? If you work there, show some restraint, man. There’s no quicker way to be labeled a noob.
“Don’t get me wrong, when you first get hired, everybody does it,” says Alexis Hebert, a creative producer for Xbox and formerly an internationally ranked Halo player. “But you get your picture in the early morning, or late at night.”
Yet here is Hebert being photographed in front of Halo’s stoic heroes in broad light on a Friday afternoon. She’s enduring no shortage of teasing and laughter from coworkers passing through the bustling atrium of the building where she works.
“Eh, these guys are my friends,” Hebert says, smiling even more broadly for the camera after a coworker walks by laughing and shaking his head. Between takes, she sticks her tongue out at another of her tormentors.
Hebert is a pint-sized woman with silver screen looks, but you’ll rarely catch her using them in any serious way. She laughs often, sports a mischievous smile, favors comfortable clothes, and her long, dark hair is usually in a ponytail. She’s a tomboy – a woman comfortable being one of the guys, but also one who could probably out-guy most of the guys, especially with an Xbox controller.
“I think they’re all just now figuring out why my hair is brushed today.”
Hebert has loved video games since she was knee-high to one of the many horses at her family home in Louisiana. She dreamed of landing a job at Xbox since she was a teenager, blasting her way up the ranks of professional Halo players.
During a recent office move, a couple of years into landing that dream job, Hebert’s manager circulated a map of the new space assignments. Each office was labeled with an employee’s name, but one square said, “Unicorn Den.”
Hebert pointed to the square. “What’s that?”
“That’s your office.”
Hebert’s unicorn den is packed. There’s a massive flat-screen TV and a video camera on a tripod pointed at a green, leather loveseat (for streaming game play online). There are photos, video game knickknacks and lots of unicorn paraphernalia (mostly gifts – when people see unicorn stuff, they buy it for her). One wall sports a large, framed photograph of Hebert and her coworkers taken at a mall portrait studio and posed in the style of an awkward family photo. They are wearing holiday sweaters, but she is wearing what appears to be something Stevie Nicks gave to Goodwill.
“Oh, that’s something we do every year,” Hebert says. Around the holidays, when work is a bit quieter, she and her coworkers head to JCPenney for a long lunch. Each person gets $20 and an hour to pick out a festive outfit, then they get a “family photo.” Some years it’s matching sweaters, other years it’s pajamas and robes.
Around the office, she’s known for her work ethic, her ideas, her sense of humor, her bizarre eating habits, and her practical jokes – probably in about that order.
“I can promise you, you’ve never met anybody like Alex. We’re all unique individuals, but she is something much more extreme. And I mean that in a very positive way,” says Aaron Greenberg, chief of staff for Microsoft’s Devices and Studios team. Greenberg met Hebert at a gaming industry event years ago, when she was still a pro Halo player.
Greenberg says it’s not uncommon to wander by her office at lunchtime and see her eating corn or black olives or pie filling straight from the can. Her bottom drawer is full of cans of vegetables and pie filling (mainly cherry and apple – key lime was a disappointment).
“Alex has some pretty disturbing dietary habits. She literally will sit in her office and eat a can of olives with hot sauce for lunch,” Greenberg says. He gave her a case of black olives for her last birthday.
Hebert, who is now seven months pregnant with her first child, swears she has drastically reformed her eating habits of late.
“Yeah, exactly, she’s now eating olives for two,” Greenberg jokes.
Apart from her Fear Factor-style eating habits, Hebert is also an Ashton Kutcher-grade prankster. There was the time she left a stack of dog-eared romance novels, the kind you’d find at the grocery store checkout, on a coworker’s desk. Another time, she set out a package of Oreos for the team who realized, only after helping themselves, that she’d replaced the cream filling with toothpaste.
All the girls I knew played video games. I had no idea that it was rare.
“People will eat anything you leave out,” Hebert says, laughing.
When Greenberg asked Hebert to buy him a big Christmas gift last year, he returned from a trip to find a monstrous inflatable dog with a stocking in its mouth “like the kind meant for the front lawn of a mansion” filling his office, wall-to-wall. Yep. That was her, too.
“Everyone loves her. She’s always positive, always in a good mood and extremely funny,” Greenberg says. “There may be a lot of practical jokes, but she’s very professional when it comes to her work and getting stuff done.”
Hebert made quite the journey from her family’s farm in Louisiana to becoming the top-ranked female Halo player in the U.S. then making gaming into a career by landing a job at Xbox.
Unofficially, Hebert became a gamer at age 6. That’s the year she got a Barbie house for Christmas, and her brother, a Nintendo. After a few days of play she was hooked – on her brother’s gift. She loved her Barbie house, but beating her brother at Duck Hunt became her central preoccupation (later, the game du jour was Halo). In high school, she and her brother started going to Halo tournaments for fun. By that time, most of her large Louisianan family (mom, dad, cousins, and aunts) played as well.
“All the girls I knew played video games,” Hebert says. “I had no idea that it was rare.”
She performed well at tournaments, and raised eyebrows. People would say, “You’re a girl and you play video games?”
“I’d say, ‘Yeah, and I drive, I have a job, and I vote, too – what the hell,’” Hebert says.
Hebert’s first professional gaming team was Pandora’s Mighty Soldiers (PMS). The team had members in each time zone, many of whom were also in high school and living at home, juggling homework and chores.
“I was the captain of my Halo team in high school,” Hebert jokes, and though she’d graduated by the time she went pro, it’s not far off. As leader, it was Hebert’s job to wrangle her team. “What do you mean you have prom, we have practice! Can you tell your mom you’ll do your homework in a minute? You’re my other slayer, dammit!”
The practice paid off. In 2007, French video game developer Ubisoft chose Hebert for “The Frag Dolls,” its all-girl gaming team. She and her teammates traveled the world, competing and making appearances at conventions, enjoying the flow of free laptops, gadgets and gear. Hebert was always fascinated to see the reactions of gamers when they were “beat by a team of girls.”
“Why is it extra humiliating that we won?” she’d wonder. “It should just be normal humiliating.”
She pauses, and smiles a rascally smile. “Not to say we didn’t use our gender to our advantage sometimes, casually applying lip gloss during a match while our opponents were dying.”
In 2009, she left professional gaming for Texas-based game developer Terminal Reality, where she worked on “Kinect Star Wars” and other games. She had long dreamed of working for Microsoft, and in 2011, Hebert was hired to help launch Play XBLA, a community website for players to learn more about Xbox Live Arcade games.
According to Larry Hryb – Xbox’s Major Nelson, in the old world a company would talk to the press to reach consumers.
“Now, with the kind of community building Alex is doing, we have so many valuable ways to directly engage with and interact with fans and to stream game play and demo products for them,” he says.
Hebert has led Microsoft to stream game play and interact with fans on services such as Twitch and to get more involved in electronic sports (eSports) gaming competitions. Some days you’ll find Alex hosting live game play on the green couch in her office and broadcasting it on Twitch. Other days she’s chatting with gamers in forums online (look for her Xbox Tart gamer tag), or helping to organize an eSports tournament, or making friends at a gaming convention.
“Alex has led us to do some groundbreaking stuff,” Hryb says. “She’s been kind of a pioneer of social media and community building. And the community loves her because she’s true and honest – they know it’s not just marketing.”
”Whether it’s hard-core or casual games, competitive gaming is taking off. Hebert thinks some of the titles in Xbox One’s portfolio – games like “Killer Instinct,” “World of Tanks” and “Power Star Golf” – would be great for eSports.
“Major League Gaming has only been around for 10 or 12 years, and this is a really new thing for Microsoft,” she says. “I’m excited to help create a road map of where this goes.”
Hebert grew up in rural Louisiana on 50 acres of land that has been in her mother’s well-established French family since the 1700s. Other family gems: they own a crawfish pond, and also the meat shop that invented the “turducken” (a deboned turkey that is stuffed with boneless duck and chicken).
“We ran around like Lord of the Flies,” Hebert says of her siblings and 15 cousins. “I literally don’t think I wore shoes until I was 10. My dad’s parents lived two miles away, and I’d just get on a pony and ride there and say, ‘I haven’t had lunch yet, feed me.’”
It’s a tightly-woven clan. Her relatives all built adjacent houses on the family land, and she and her cousins were homeschooled together there until high school. She got a job as a racehorse trainer out of high school, though Hebert says she comes from a long line of women who “have never had jobs in their lives.” Then, she became a professional Halo player.
“You’ll never meet a doctor this way,” her mother told her at the time. And she didn’t, although she did eventually meet and marry a mechanical engineer, Jeremy Ruiz.
“He’s this 250-lb. former bodybuilder covered in tattoos. He’s learning to play the banjo, and he likes to sit on our porch and pluck away with our four Shih Tzus sitting at his feet,” Hebert says. “Yeah, we get looks.”
Back in the unicorn den, Hebert is playing Halo 3 on her work Xbox. “Not so tough without your turret, are you?” she calls to the screen. A coworker walks by, pausing in the window behind where she sits. She turns around.
“Oh hey, thank you so much for the work on those consoles,” she says.
“No problem,” he says. His eyes then rise, fixing on the massive flat screen. “Um – are you getting shot?”
She doesn’t even turn to look. “Yeah, it’s OK.”
This nonchalance is a far cry from a recent Christmas, when she stopped by her then-boss Chris Charla’s house after dinner. Charla’s guest happened to be Lars Bakken, the multiplayer design lead for Halo developer Bungie. Her boss goaded them into a split-screen game.
“It was very fun to watch. I won’t say who won, but the level of trash-talking was pretty amazing,” Charla said. “Alex is an extraordinarily nice person – until a game of Halo is fired up in her proximity.”
On second thought, Charla decides he can share the results. “Alex crushed – sorry Lars.”Photos by Brian Smale / © Microsoft