Heather “SapphiRe” Garozzo is a veteran professional Counter-Strike player who has gained more notice in the last year and a half for her observing skills.
The observer is one of the most important roles in Counter-Strike that can be overlooked at times. That person is in charge of what the viewers see when they watch the stream.
SapphiRe was the observer for the first two seasons of ELEAGUE but will not be able to attend the Major, which begins Sunday. Still, Slingshot’s Vince Nairn had the chance to talk to sapphiRe last month about the finer points of observing and what’s different about the job for ELEAGUE.
Vince Nairn: How did you first think about becoming an observer? It’s an important role that not everyone wants to do.
Heather Garrozzo: Honestly, I didn’t even think about it being a thing, but I’ve played competitively since 1999, and I had a really good relationship with ESL. I used to do a lot of writing for them, and competed in their league. So one weekend, I think it was for the Major qualifier about a year and half ago, Impulsive, who’s now the TSM manager, he used to work at ESL, he said, “Hey, we need an observer for the weekend,” and I said, “A what?” I just took it for granted. I didn’t even think about observers being a thing, either, even though I watched tens of thousands of hours of Counter-Strike. So I said, “Sure, I’ll give it a shot,” and it turns out I was pretty decent at it because as a writer, I watch a lot of Counter-Strike. As a player, I watch a lot of Counter-Strike, so it was something I was very used to doing. But I didn’t really think about that being a process or part of the production. So I gave it a shot, and I did pretty well, so I kept getting hired for event after event. Now I’m here at Turner.
VN: What are the things that are important to know in order to know what the crowd is gonna want to see? And to be able to direct, to be able to get the right shot? What are some things you had to learn over time to optimize the role?
HG: So I’m essentially a storyteller, so I want to tell the story of the round, the most important information. So if two guys are just having a fight on the opposite side of the map of where the other eight players are, that’s not necessarily relevant. It’s OK if I miss that kill. What I needed to learn, and what I know now, is you want to share the most exciting things. So if three terrorists are about to engage with a CT, I generally put the camera on the CT because winning a 1-v-3 is certainly more exciting than one of the three guys killing the single CT, because they’re expected to get that kill. So I just want to show what’s most exciting so the audience has a large reaction. Especially at shows with audiences, when I can hear that crowd, if I miss something, you just hear a little golf clap. You know, you kind of let them down. I want the massive reactions, and that’s obviously what the directors love. The players themselves love to see those reactions. It’s great for the casters, too, to keep the hype going, so we’re going for that high energy, high impact frags, the ones that are most important to the round and create the best experience for the fans.
VN: Logistically, how exactly does it work? Do you just have all of the possible angles up on a screen and you just kind of say pick one?
HG: So usually we have four computers. One is the main screen, and that’s what’s going out to the stream, and that’s where I’m actually clicking through the players. But then I have a second computer with the map, and I bring the map, full screen map, and I’m looking at that probably 75 percent of the time. I’m watching just dots on a radar and looking for engagements, so obviously I have to know the maps very well and understand when there’s going to be a face-off essentially, when the crosshairs are going to meet. It helps to know the teams and the players too because if players frequently boost on a spot or they peek certain angles or they like to go for wall bangs; especially wall bangs are hard or smoke kills are hard, like Stewie2k pushes through smokes, so you can’t treat a smoke as a wall when you’re watching Stewie. You gotta know he’s gonna jump through that probably. So it helps to understand the players a lot. Those are the two main computers, but we also have a third computer, which is for overview shots, and we have a game director that’s swapping between my feed and the other observer’s third-person feed. So we’ll open up a round with like a third-person point of view of a site, so you see a setup or a push, and then as soon as the fight is about to happen, it switches over to me and then I’m trying to get all the kills. Lastly, we have a fourth computer, which is on a 10-second delay, so that person is essentially reading the kill feed, and then the kills that I have maybe missed. So, for example, Skadoodle got three kills and I only got two on stream. The delay observer is going to string those three kills together so then you have a nice replay package for the end of the round.
VN: Was it something that you took to right away and was like, “Oh I have a knack for this, I’m able to put all of these things together in a short amount of time?” Or did it take some time? How did you grow into your role?
HG: It definitely took time. The first time I did it I was able to do OK because I understand the maps and how the radar works, but it took time to understand how to tell the story. And I have to think about it as, it’s not just watching the game for myself, it’s a million people watching the game. So I have to think about the entire audience, the entire experience. I need to think about casters too, so that’s very important, that’s another part of my toolset. I have a caster audio in my headset, and they have their own computer. They’re not directing it, but they might see something interesting that they’ll want to switch to, or they might talk about money, or the scoreboard, so I need to listen to them and pull up that information. Essentially we want to follow what the story is the casters are telling as well. So it took some learning to understand that I’m kind of working with a team. It’s not just for myself. I do a lot of solo observing at home. I observe ESEA online matches, ESL Pro League qualifier matches, just as a way to practice. I like to actually compare myself to auto director, so I’ll observe, and then I’ll play it back on auto director. It does a good job of at least getting the kills because it knows when the kills happen, so I kinda compare myself to say, “Did I get the most important kills?” So I’ve been practicing. I try to do it almost seven nights a week to keep up on my skills. Now my traveling schedule is pretty hectic, so I’m only home about one day a week, but it’s something I do have to practice and think about.
VN: How much do you need to know about certain players or even casters’ tendencies too when it comes to trying to get the best view for everybody?
HG: I think that’s what sets myself apart from the average observer. It’s because I feel like I know the players well, I know the casters’ tendencies, I know what they like to see, and I think that’s what kinda helps set me apart now. I try to study these players just like a team would study their opponent because I want to understand like HEN1 on Immortals goes for really aggressive middle peeks, or he likes to go for boosts on Cache. And he does that very, very quickly on rounds so I know to go to him right away.
VN: It seems like you’re starting to get a following. People know who you are on Reddit, for instance. What’s it like to be recognized for a role that is almost completely anonymous?
HG: Oh my gosh, it’s such a good feeling! At first it blew my mind because I was like “C’mon, guys, I’ve been playing this game for over a decade,” and I was pretty decent at the game. But it wasn’t until I did observing that I really started to get recognized. I think it really hit me when I was in Brazil and I used to stream SK and Immortals matches before they were popular, back when they were on Kaboom and Luminosity, so I got a big Brazilian following. A lot of those people thanked me for showing their favorite teams before they were the big shots that they are now. So I had a big Brazilian following, and I remember walking out of the stadium one night and the tunnel to exit before my shuttle was just lined with people and people were cheering, and they were like “sapphiRe, sapphiRe, autograph please!” They had to have cops, like, escort me into my shuttle, but I signed probably like 40 autographs before I got in. I was almost in tears because I thought it was so cool and everyone was so friendly and nice to me, and then the other thing was IEM Oakland. Right before the show went live, ESL had Anders and I on stage doing a Q&A, and I was like, “Well I’m next to Anders, so no one is gonna ask me any questions,” but there were a lot of observer questions. Some people knew who I was, and it was really cool to stand next to Anders and people still recognized me. I couldn’t believe it.
VN: At the same time, observing is such an important role because you’re in control of what people see in the game. I think ESL Cologne, it seemed like there was such outrage over the observing — which you weren’t doing. What are the kind of balances or changes that go into this role? We know this is a very visceral community, and one misstep or a couple missteps can be taken very poorly.
HG: No one really recognizes good work. (They) just recognize poor work. So Cologne I did the group stages but not the playoffs. There was a little politics involved there, but yeah, it’s a lot of pressure. A lot of people were disappointed by the Major. A lot of people were disappointed that they missed the first-person point of view of these incredible moments. Like s1mple got a 1-v-2 falling no-scope kills, and the camera wasn’t on his point of view even though he was the single person alive against the two. That’s going to be the more exciting moment if s1mple kills those two — and he did — but the camera wasn’t on him. It was shown in the replay, the camera on him, but it just loses that feeling. So I think that’s the most pressure is that these great moments in Counter-Strike history can be diminished if the observer doesn’t make the correct decision, so it’s a lot of pressure. But it feels good that observers are starting to get some recognition, especially because our faces are not on the camera. The most you see from us is sometimes you see at the bottom of the scoreboard it says our name and that we’re in spectator and that’s about it. It’s nice that we’re getting some recognition that’s why I try to do some things outside of observing, providing behind the scenes content because I’ve been very fortunate to be at all these events and to be in this position where I’m hanging out with TSM right now talking about their game, and a lot of people obviously don’t have that opportunity. So i try to, I guess, put a face to myself every time I can.
VN: Kind of going along with what you’ve said, now that this is a role that people are starting to recognize and understand more, do you think it’s at the place where maybe there might be training that goes into observers? Is there anything to do to help the process for more inexperienced people to avoid something like what happened in Cologne?
HG: I’ve been thinking a lot about that. People have asked me months ago and it was very selfish of me, but I was very comfortable with the job security that I had with observing (laughs), so I try to keep some of my secrets safe. But now I realize there just so many events and there’s been so much overlap, and I know that a couple events in the US just could not find observers, so they threw in a photographer friend of mine who’s played Counter-Strike, and he did good. I gave him like a 30-minute tutorial before the event, and he’s like “Oh my gosh I never even thought about this stuff.” So I said, “Hey, this is probably some great content I could do.” So it’s definitely something I want to do during my short off season of a couple weeks.
VN: What’s different about it for ELEAGUE as opposed to a normal tournament? Because obviously when ELEAGUE is on TV they alter the product a little bit for non-hardcore viewers. Does that affect your job at all, and if so, what do you do differently?
HG: Actually working on ELEAGUE I do have to be more thoughtful of the audience. So compared to an event like IEM Oakland, that’s probably gonna be your hardcore Counter-Strike fans that are watching that. They want to see the action. If you click around a little faster, they still understand the maps. They understand the relationships of the players. So that’s OK. At ELEAGUE, we move a little slower when we click around. We try to stick with the storyline. We try not to bounce around too much. We use more third-person point of view shots, not necessarily during fights but more to show setups and how players are in relation to their teammates. Even on what we call a trash round where one team has rifles and the other team (doesn’t), we might show that all in third-person point of view just so you can kinda see how these fights are happening, so you can help the audience understand. Actually, I brought my mom here once, I flew her down, and she had known I play Counter Strike since 1999. My brother played professionally as one of the best in the world. My husband played. It wasn’t until I brought her here at ELEAGUE that she finally got it. That tells me that ELEAGUE is doing a fantastic job of catering to a non-gamer, non-hardcore gamer audience that my mom was able to finally understand it. But the casters are also doing a great job of not necessarily dumbing it down either. They don’t want to fall into that trap where they’re alienating the true hardcore fans. I think they found a really great balance between the two.
Cover photo by Vince Nairn