Talking to the world's top CS:GO observer: sapphiRe on the challenges facing female players, CLG dropping their teams

by Colin McNeil, Daniel Rosen Jan 4

Podcast video topics and time stamps:

4:34 How did you become an observer?
13:30 Do you feel as valued by TOs and/or audiences as on-camera talent?
19:09 What’s your favourite team/player to observe?
24:10 Advice for anyone who wants to get into observing
32:25 On harassment of female CS:GO players
38:00 Why online women’s-only leagues aren’t the answer
44:26 CLG’s decision to drop main CS teams but keep CLG Red
49:06 advice for women looking to enter competitive CS:GO
50:41: A message for non-endemic investors looking at esports

If you’ve ever watched a professionally broadcast game of Counter-Strike, you owe a debt to the observer.

It’s a role that’s not always front and centre in one’s mind while watching CS:GO, but it’s vital to making the game watchable, consumable and marketable.

While on-screen broadcast talent call the action and analyze the game, the observer sits behind the scenes, dictating what the viewers and casters see, predicting player movements and making split-second perspective decisions in the middle of chaotic firefights.

For the woman who is arguably the world’s best Counter-Strike observer, it’s all second nature at this point.

“Observing for me has become... it’s almost zen-like. I put on my headset and I’m just in the zone,” Heather "sapphiRe" Garozzo told theScore esports. “I’ve kind of gotten to a place where it’s very routine for me.”

sapphiRe, who also manages Team Dignitas’ women’s CS:GO team and functions as their director of marketing, appeared on theScore esports Podcast to talk female CS, the barriers women face in becoming professional level players and provide a window into one of esports’ most important, but least recognized jobs.

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Being a good observer, she said, is like being a good film editor: No one knows you exist until you screw up. “If I go on reddit and no one says anything about the observing, I know that I’ve done my job for the day. I’m shocked when we get compliments about observing because it’s not something you really think about until it goes wrong,” she said. “I’m supposed to be a ghost.”

And again, like a film editor, an observer’s work has a narrative to it.

“You want to tell a story, you want to show the most important information in the round. And you are working with the casters, it’s a two-way street,” she said.

Just like a fan watching their favourite team, sapphiRe has players and teams that make her job that much more fun.

“SK is probably one of the most fun,” she said. “I love being able to observe FalleN when he’s AWPing. He’s so aggressive. So I love it when he’s on Mirage, he’s playing CT side, he pushes really close to the A Ramp and like, you’re not supposed to push that close with an AWP. And he just no-scopes like three or four guys, it’s so nuts.”

And when it comes to NA?

“Cloud9. Cloud9 is so fun. Those guys just do crazy things. Stewie and autimatic, I don’t know how they pull off the things they do, but they have great clutch rounds that are really fun to be a part of.”

But it wasn't always so. There was a time when even the world’s best observer didn’t know the job even existed.

“I had no idea what an observer even was until a few years back,” sapphiRe said.

“I’ve been involved in Counter-Strike since 1999 and I have a very good relationship with ESL,” she said. “One day [former iBUYPOWER and Team SoloMid manager Derrick "impulsivE" Truong] he said, ‘Hey Heather, we could use an observer for [the ESL One Cologne Qualifier 2015].’

“I said, ‘You need a… a what, an observer?’ and he’s like, ‘Yeah yeah, the person that clicks around in the game.’ I never thought about that before. As much as I’ve been involved in Counter-Strike I never thought that yeah, there’s actually someone there guiding the action.”

So the then-Team Karma player gave it a shot.

Her first outing was a success, and it wasn’t long until ESL came knocking at her door with more observing opportunities. “They kind of hired me event after event. And obviously ESL is one if not the biggest event organizer, so being on the talent broadcast ticket for that certainly helped grow some of my popularity,” she said.

When she’s not observing, sapphiRe manages the Dignitas women’s CS:GO team. It’s a scene she’s been involved with for years, from the player and management side, but when she first started playing CS, it was something of a taboo.

“I used to be the only female in the room, I had never run into another female on ESEA,” she said.

“It used to be very against social norms. I was a three-sport athlete in high school but I was playing gaming on the side, and there’s no way I would tell anyone that, it was so embarrassing to tell people that I was going to play Counter-Strike on the weekend.”

Those social norms have since adjusted, at least a little. But women still face challenges when it comes to breaking into the competitive scene, facing potential harassment and cruelty online just for playing the game.

“There’s definitely far more [women playing now],” she told theScore esports, noting the amount of CS streamers who are women, “but they don’t necessarily seem to be as interested in competitive play. I wonder if that is — you know there’s an intimidation factor.

"It’s difficult out there ... I’ve become immune to it over the years, but people are really cruel and sometimes you feel like you don’t belong there and it’s really hard to find people you relate to. You don’t know where to even find other female players.”

That immunity wasn’t always there though.

“I know one time… something that someone said was awfully mean and I got to the point where I went on Twitter and I’m like, ‘This is not fair, why are people saying this to me?’

“There was 15 or 20 pros from teams like iBUYPOWER, NiP — just really respected pros — that were like, ‘Yeah that happened to you Heather but this happened to me.’ And other players said, ‘This happened to me,’ and they get attacked too. And it kind of made me feel better. Not that I want them to be attacked but maybe I’m not necessarily the only target. People that happen to be in the spotlight are naturally going to be attacked on the internet by someone that’s nameless.”

Despite the anonymous venom online, the core of the Counter-Strike scene, said sapphiRe, is nothing but welcoming and supporting.

“I do know a lot of females have got a lot of harassment online but when we go to a LAN tournament, people are really pleasant and they’re cheering us on. It’s funny that it [harassment] never necessarily comes from the higher divisions. The professional players and the semi-professional players, they are so nice.”

But to get to the LAN, you have to play first.

“I would love to see more women — whether on women’s teams or mixed teams — playing in these open qualifiers. There’s these events happening every single month for DreamHack, ESL and even the female events like WESG and ESWC. Why aren’t females trying to play in these?”

The way forward for female CS, said SapphiRe, isn’t as simple as more online leagues. “I don’t see a ton of value in female online leagues,” she said.

“When they’ve happened in the past, honestly, there’s just a lot of drama around it. It didn’t seem like necessarily something that inspired other women to make teams.”

And there's also an issue of player verification.

“My teammates and I … we just can’t stand those qualifiers. Because you don’t trust who you’re playing with," she said. "You don’t know that someone’s boyfriend isn’t playing, it’s just a really hard thing to admin and make sure that it’s fair."

For any women out there looking to take the plunge into competitive CS:GO, sapphiRe has some advice.

“Don’t be scared to start too low. It’s better to be on a team than trying to fly solo. It’s hard to get noticed that way,” she said. “If you can get to a local LAN event, that’s a great way to start networking and meeting other players.”

Improving and growing not only individual play, but the women's CS scene in general, boils down to a simple philosophy: “If you want to be the best, you have to play the best.”

Colin McNeil is a supervising editor for theScore esports. You can follow him on Twitter.