Emma EmZ Rankin begrudgingly rolls her Secretlab gaming chair away from her desk so as to not get any egg on it. Draped in a nautical-themed blanket, she pulls over a stool and sighs deeply.
“This is gonna be fantastic,” she says sarcastically. “You could have done anything else, anything, but you decided to have me do this.” In a motion so fast it seems to have even caught her by surprise, EmZ swings her arm up and smashes a raw egg on top of her head.
“Thanks! Lovely! Wicked!” she proclaims as the yolk runs down her back. In a moment, she is gone, stepping away to get cleaned up.
The fact of the matter is she’s right about all of it. It is fantastic and lovely and wicked, because it is a celebration. EmZ has just eclipsed 500 subscribers on Twitch and her fans have decided to ring it in by breaking an egg on her head. In a few days, she’ll get to 750. It is an outcome she once thought impossible. It is an outcome she made inevitable.
EmZ was born in London and has spent the majority of her life there. Her first exposure to gaming is a tale many of us share, something of a rite of passage for gamers of the late 90s and early 00s: Halo. The signature franchise of Microsoft’s Xbox console, Halo served as the gateway game for EmZ, not only an introduction to first-person shooters, but an introduction to the potential games had. A gripping storyline. Smooth and oh-so-satisfying gunplay. An invitation to have friends over and a chance at bragging rights. EmZ had just one issue: it was her uncle’s console.
It wasn’t that her uncle, David, made it difficult, quite the opposite actually. He encouraged gaming as a hobby, as it was for him. It was simply that she didn’t have enough access. She would leave her uncle’s house but her mind would return to boarding Covenant ships, commandeering Warthogs, and, most of all, sniping Jackals and Grunts on the Truth and Reconciliation level. A new world had been unlocked for EmZ, or rather hundreds of them, and when the Xbox 360 came around in 2005, she knew she had to be a part of it for good.
It was a burgeoning passion that her mother recognized right away. And so arrived the Xbox 360 to EmZ’s life. It became quickly apparent that she was naturally talented, racking up kill counts and victories across multiple titles. But something was still missing. She would regularly head over to YouTube to watch montages of trickshots on Modern Warfare 2, the convergence of style, flair, and talent piquing her interest. It wasn’t enough to just be an observer, though.
“I thought ‘I want to do that,’” says EmZ. “So I bought my first capture card, an easycap, and I started recording in black and white,” she continues, with a laugh.
The year was 2010, and this would be EmZ’s first YouTube channel. Although she no longer has that particular channel, it was this moment that began her journey into the public sphere, a journey that has played a part in crafting her personality, confidence, and skill. There were many hurdles to come, however, from within and without.
EmZ is bisexual. Like most of us, it’s hard for her to pinpoint any particular moment in time where she was able to affirm her identity.
“During, I would say, secondary school,” she says, thinking back. She’s quick to arrive at that answer, but her retelling captures the challenges that come with encountering a revelation such as this one.
“I had this crush on a female in school, and I was too scared and very confused as to why I was feeling different ways with her. I would get really red, I would get very nervous, and it was just really embarrassing.” And, of course, the challenges didn’t end there.
“I was scared. Scared of what people would think of me. Or if they would laugh at me or bully me.” It is a story we have all heard, feelings we can all understand, and, lamentably, a hardship the LGBTQIA+ community still faces today.
And yet, EmZ navigates these potentially difficult memories with grace and confidence. The feelings she speaks of seem nonexistent now, her voice level, her attitude lighthearted. It is impossible to tell that she grappled with these concerns for several years before finally coming out. It’s a testament to her resilience and a testament to the encouragement her mother, Tracey, offered her.
“It was kind of a joke,” she says with a laugh, as she begins to retell the way she came out to her mother. “She realized I was getting close to this other female, who I worked with, and she would always make jokes with me.”
EmZ doesn’t recall what age she was when it happened. The edges of that memory have become hazy, the byproduct of a support system so utterly thorough that a life-defining event can occur with the same fanfare as a retelling of what you had for lunch.
“Then, one day, I started to catch feelings for my coworker,” EmZ continues. “And I just came out to my mom and asked, ‘If I was with a female, how would you feel about that?’” It’s hard for EmZ to picture her mother having a different response in hindsight, but in the moment it was still a bit surprising.
“She said she wouldn’t care. And I said ‘Oh, okay then.’” In a way, her mother misspoke. To read the words on paper is to assume an apathy that couldn’t be further from the truth. Tracey’s love and support ran at such a depth that it could not be shaken. Tracey was a single mother, and every action she had ever undertaken shared a common goal: EmZ’s happiness. And what EmZ had just shared with her was a core component of her lifelong happiness. That was all Tracey needed to know.
As with so many other aspects of EmZ’s life, Tracey was proud. So proud, in fact, that she herself did the rest of the coming out on behalf of EmZ.
“After telling my mom she then told my whole family, so I didn’t have to do anything really. She did the whole job for me and my whole family accepted me for who I am.” The retelling is again punctuated with a laugh, a fitting marker of the happiness that surrounds it. “Which is awesome,” EmZ adds. But EmZ also acknowledges her good fortune.
“And that’s literally all that happened. I’m very lucky,” she says with a pause. “I know loads of people have a terrible reaction to it. I know people that have had to endure that type of reaction, and I know it’s hard.”
So much of who EmZ is today is due to a support system that believed in her and built her up at every turn. A support system that is practically the definition of pride. And it is a support system that she would open up to others when she eventually shared the news with her community and viewers.
On May 21st, 2018, EmZ uploaded a Q&A video to her YouTube channel in which she announced her bisexuality to her community.
“I like boys as well as girls,” she says in the video. “I guess you can call me greedy,” she adds with a cheeky smile, her effortless charm an extension of the confidence her family helped her build up. She quickly shifts gears.
“If there’s any of you that are going through the same thing but you can’t actually tell anyone…try to get ahold of me and I’ll try to get ahold of you back,” she says, wrapping up this segment of the video with the hope of sharing the same support she herself had received. Of course, it wasn’t all positive.
“The reaction was good and bad. I did get some horrible comments.” The comments haven’t gone away, either. Whether it’s on her Instagram when she posts a picture of her and her significant other, or on her YouTube channel when her significant other comes up or makes an appearance, there are people who say negative things. But thankfully they pale in comparison to the voices of support at EmZ’s back.
“I tell myself I really shouldn’t focus on the negative behavior, I should just focus on the positive, and I get so much support, and I’m just grateful for that.” She acknowledges that it’s a skill that had to be learned, stating that negative comments used to extract a heavy mental toll back when she first broke the news. “I had to learn how to cope.”
Part of her coping mechanism came from being so open with her community. Her authenticity encouraged the same from her viewers and allowed her to wear her heart on her sleeve, whether in tweets or in full videos. It was something she relied heavily upon during the greatest tragedy of her life.
EmZ is hovering around 70,000 subscribers on YouTube. What started with black and white videos and a laptop placed on a windowsill, so as to not overheat during editing, has blossomed into a very real presence. Her fans have never been more eager and her skills have never been sharper. But the mood is solemn. EmZ pushes to publish a video daily, but that task feels more and more unattainable by the day. Tracey’s cancer has returned, and it is heartbreakingly clear that it is more aggressive than before.
“It was hard to carry on doing what I love when the person I love is infected by something so horrible,” she says. No one could have blamed her for stepping away to manage this situation as best she could, but there was one more checkpoint on the horizon that now felt more important than ever to her.
“I wanted to hit 100K as fast as I could so I could share the experience with my mom.” And so EmZ got to work. Video after video was produced, and the numbers kept astounding her. She was cracking 20,000 views almost every time. It felt imminent that she would break the 100K mark.
One morning, EmZ was getting dressed for work, the sky slowly getting brighter as the 6am sun encroached. She knew it was close, she knew logic dictated that it would happen, but until that number arrived, there was always a fear that she would come up short. This morning erased that. An odometer for the digital age, her channel reported her success: 100,000 subscribers. She called her mom into her room.
“Over the moon,” EmZ says about Tracey’s reaction. “Extremely happy.”
In a couple of months the diagnosis would become terminal. Tracey was entered into hospice care and the videos slowed as EmZ prepared for the worst. She took to Twitch more during these days, the live community giving her a respite, solace during the toughest days of her life. She was frank with them, open in ways some of us can only dream of, and the community repaid her in kind. And then October 10th brought the pain she was preparing to face. Tracey passed away in her sleep.
Over the following weeks, EmZ powered through the fog of losing someone. On October 23rd, she felt composed enough to share the news with her YouTube community. A teary-eyed EmZ walked them through what had happened, pulling no punches as to the impact it had on her. She was honest, giving no timetable for her return and pledging a full commitment to herself as she navigated through this tragedy. Her community embraced her, the comments full of sympathy, empathy, support, and understanding.
“My mom honestly thanked every single one of you guys because she always loved how much you guys supported me, so thank you for giving me the opportunity to make her proud.” Just as the 100K had been, the support of her community was never truly in doubt.
Some members of EmZ’s family are still unclear on how all of this works. They know the numbers are good, and they can tell by EmZ’s reaction that things are going tremendously well, but the industry of gaming is still understandably hard to grasp. It doesn’t diminish the support they offer, however.
“When I joined Cloud9 my nan was really happy, she was cuddling me a lot saying ‘you deserve this.’” Her uncle, David, who first unlocked this journey by sharing the wonders of Halo with her, does understand, however. He knows fully well how impressive her trajectory has been and how hard she’s worked to get here.
“When I hit 700 subs the other day he came into my stream to congratulate me, saying ‘well done, you deserve this, your mom would be happy.’”
The work isn’t done for EmZ, of course. She has her eyes set on the 1K mark for Twitch subscribers and the 200K mark for YouTube. The numbers still catch her off guard, in her retellings, in her streams, and it’s clear she never thought this could happen. But to get a glimpse of her life thus far, it feels equally clear that it was destined. An identity she could not ignore and a support system that would not waver.
“At the end of the day, you’re not here to please others. You just want to be who you are while making people laugh and giving them a place to be themselves. It’s the best thing that you can do.” Simple enough advice, but advice that sometimes feels impossible. Or perhaps inevitable.