40 years on, games icon Becky Heineman found herself past her ‘escape’

Much can change in 40 years: generation-defining technological advancements; cultural movements that continue to widen the arms of inclusion and acceptance; and personal journeys that allow one to turn inward and find self-worth where it wasn’t thought to exist. Celebrated game developer Rebecca Heineman is the rare case representing all of the above.

Tuesday marked the 40-year anniversary of Heineman’s victory at the Atari National Videogame Championship, the first event of its kind for competitive gaming. She was crowned the best Space Invaders player in the country that day at the age of 16, a moment that, unbeknownst to her, would prove to be the launch pad for her influential career.

Heineman’s victory and the tournament itself were groundbreaking, signaling what would ultimately evolve into the booming esports industry of present day. It all started with Heineman’s supreme Space Invaders skill, but she didn’t even recognize how talented she was at one of the hardest arcade classics heading into the tournament.

“I thought everybody was playing Space Invaders for hours on end with just one quarter,” Heineman told Outsports. “That’s how ignorant I was in my own ability.” Heineman knew herself to be the effective gaming champion of her neighborhood growing up, “creaming” her friend in Atari 2600 classics like Slot Racers and Space Invaders consistently.

She was untouchable, which meant everyone wanted to challenge her. It was an advantageous place to hold because it kept her immersed in the medium. “I put all of my psychic energies into playing videogames. When I started playing, I went right into the zone which made me unbeatable,” Heineman said.

To the outside world, games dominated Heineman’s mind because of her skill and incredible knowledge of what made those games tick. She even learned to reverse-engineer Atari games and taught herself how to code and produce homemade Atari cartridges from her bedroom.

Rebecca Heineman

Rebecca Heineman

For Heineman herself, games represented an escape from an abusive homelife and an internal battle with gender dysphoria. Heineman didn’t come out publicly as transgender until 2003, but said she’s known since a very early age that she was not like the boys she knew. “I kind of knew something was different about me back when I was six or seven, but I just thought it was because my parents kept telling me I was worthless, useless and kept beating me up all the time, ” Heineman said. “Now, in hindsight, it makes sense. I’m a girl. But, as a boy back then, obviously something was wrong with me because I was effeminate and liked to play with Barbies instead of G.I. Joe.”

That abuse dominated Heineman’s childhood, cratering her self-image at the…

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