Heather “sapphiRe” Garozzo is now in a position to be an ambassador for women in gaming. In this article, we talk about how the scene is developing and how it can grow.
Back in the early 2000's, esports was not what it is today. Prior to all the money flooding into the industry, competing at LAN events was all driven by a love for competition. For DIG sapphiRe, she accepted all of these predestined challenges as she steps foot into a room as the only women. She navigates the venue holding her equipment in hand looking to prove she is not one to be underestimated.
Fast forward two decades and the esports scene for women is now on an upward trajectory. No longer the single girl in an entire room at events, sapphiRe is now applying her passion for esports to help more women gain confidence to put themselves out there in the gaming world.
In this interview, we spoke to Dignitas VP of Talent Heather "sapphiRe" Garozzo about running the VCT Game Changers, her own challenges as a women in esports and how the scene can continue to develop.
It was cool to see VCT Game Changers be hosted by Sapphire. Talk to me about some of the challenges with this event?
DIG sapphiRe: It was a couple months ago when Dignitas CEO MIchael Prindiville and I were chatting about a women's VALORANT event. Immediately, I knew this game is special because more women are tuning in to play this game. I knew we had to run this event.
We went to Twitch and told them about this plan. Back then, you would have to scroll really far to find these women's events so Twitch put it on the front page. Riot gave us the okay for the event and then they made the suggestion to make it a VCT Game Changer. We spent the last three months planning this event. There is a framework you start with and we know the general flow of an event.
We were able to bring in all of these partners, with a lot coming in the final two weeks of the event. As a result, we were able to have more budget to do more things as well.
In total, we had a total of 12 partners for the VCT Game Changers. That is a lot of partners for a women's tournament. For all those partners to say that we want to make a difference to help this scene grow, that meant a lot to me. There will be more brands both endemic and non-endemic flooding into women's gaming now because they made a big impact on these players. At the end of the day, the goal is to bring more money into the scene and get more girls into competitive gaming.
I wanted to talk to you about the work you put in with the woman's scene. I wanted to talk about your time with Selfless. You were a former player at Selfless. Talk to me about the spark of retiring from CS:GO?
DIG sapphiRe: In 2015, I began to get into observing while also competing in CS:GO. I still love competing and do miss it, but there is something exciting about traveling the world for observing. I like being able to impact the experience for people across the world.
When I joined Dignitas, I realized I did not have time to do all of this, compete at a high level and work a full time non-esports job. I told Dignitas that I had skills to be a manager for the female CS:GO team because of my background in marketing and PR.
With my marketing background and MBA, they had a Director of Fan engagement position at the time. It took me a couple of weeks to actually make a decision. Leaving the traditional 9 to 5 is scary. There is something nice about that lifestyle. You work Monday to Friday and nobody bothers you on the weekends. That is very different in esports. It took me a while to say yes, but it is the best decision I have ever made.
As of right now, I am the VP of talent with Dignitas four years later. I still work closely with our players, content team and running different women’s initiatives.
I wanted to hammer down on this time management aspect of esports. Talk to me about balancing esports with a 9 to 5 job. What was your time management like? How were you able to balance all of that back then?
DIG sapphiRe: It certainly is difficult having a job that did not understand the esports lifestyle. I would be up as early as I could. In the morning, I would work with my team to brainstorm ideas for content.
Afterwards, it was going to my full time job and rush back home to practice with the team or even compete at an event.
I had to forfeit a lot of personal events and I did not spend as much time with friends as I would’ve liked. I dedicated a lot of time to work and I probably still do that even if all my focus is solely on esports. It also meant less hours to sleep. It is a lot easier now that I work with Dignitas because of how flexible they are to my different interests.
"A lot of this does not feel like work to me and that is what makes this all so special."
That being said, time management for me is that I get less sleep than most people. Everyone at Dignitas knows that I am probably in the office at 6am and will stay here until 9pm, with a few gaming breaks in between.A lot of this does not feel like work to me and that is what makes this all so special.
That being said, it certainly is very demanding and I do not see that changing anytime soon and I love it. A lot of this does not feel like work to me and that is what makes this all so special. I am doing all of the things I still would be doing. The only difference is that I am getting paid to do all of it. It is awesome.
You have been in esports a very long time back when there was very little representation for women at esports events. Talk to me about the challenges back then being in a LAN environment in the past.
DIG sapphiRe: I started doing all of this when Counter Strike first came out in 1999 or 2000. At the time, I did not consider myself a gamer at all. I liked Nintendo and we had Goldeneye back then, but I never viewed myself as a gamer. I was an athlete, not a gamer and I felt like they were two separate worlds.
One day my brother had his friends over and they would have LAN parties in the basement. I thought it was so nerdy until they started winning some money. laughs
"At those events, I was definitely the only woman present in an entire venue many many times. I stuck out like a sore thumb."
A knee injury later in softball and I was stuck at home for a summer. Being the competitor I am, I could not let my brother be better than me at something. I started playing CS:GO and going to more events. At those events, I was definitely the only woman present in an entire venue many many times. I stuck out like a sore thumb.
I ended up being pretty good at Counter Strike, but people would compare me to my brother and discredit my accomplishments.
Back then, I felt it would be so cool to start my own org and I knew what I wanted to do, but I did not have much support to make this happen. I never did as much as I wanted to back then.
That is why I am so thankful I am a part of Dignitas and for this last event, we worked with so many partners for VCT Game Changers to really bring my vision to life. I do not have to apply anything for it, but I still get to lead my vision. It took longer than I thought and being the only woman in the room always felt weird.
Same time, I did wonder how nice it would be to have women role models. Maybe I would've done this stuff earlier. I certainly love where the scene is tracking now and it's very cool to see women involved these days.
In 2021, we have been seeing a lot of progression for women's esports to the point where you now are able to partner with NYX cosmetics. What is it like having non-endemic brands enter women's esports. How does that help this scene develop?
DIG sapphiRe: The partners we were able to bring for this event and they made it all happen. The validation those partners are giving to women's esports teams is what matters. It means that a partner like NYX makeup is saying, women belong here and yes women deserve to have the spotlight on them. They deserve to have their faces on the front page of twitch. Those partners are validating other women to jump in.
I have seen stats that 44 percent of gamers are women. Yet, only 10 percent of female gamers have made themselves known because they are so intimidated by the idea of harassment and feeling like they don’t belong.
A lot of people come up to the Dignitas girls and say that they are the first female gamers they have met. They then ask how to find more women's teams and how to find other women who play games.
There is not enough spotlight on these women's events and that is something I want more of. NYX professional makeup putting us on their 14 million follower instagram page is mind boggling. This helps validate that they belong.
"There is not enough spotlight on these women's events and that is something I want more of."
The stereotype of no female gamers begins to shatter. Women who game also might love cosmetics as well. Something I really enjoy is that they provided hundreds of dollars of product for all the VCT competitors. Giving all of these gifts shows that we matter.
What does it mean to be that pillar and role model for girls in esports to achieve these higher positions in esports orgs?
DIG sapphiRe: Last year, I had time to sit and reflect on my role in being that role model for women in esports. Back then, I never wanted to talk about how I am a girl. I felt like it isn't that special that I am a woman. To me, it felt as if I am just doing esports work.
I realize now that it is important that I get on camera more, do more interviews and talk to members of the community so that other women know that they can achieve the same thing.
I am not anyone special, I am just a girl that loves esports and I want to do everything possible to make this a welcoming and fun competitive space. It is a role that I have accepted and put onto myself because of the position I am in. I do make extra efforts to make sure I am available to answer questions.
As a result, we at Dignitas launched a women's initiative platform called Radiant. I want to talk about so many different female teams. I want a place for women to find all of these women's events in VALORANT. There is not one great place. Through Radiant, we do interviews with all of the teams and have them be able to tell their own story.
It is important I serve this role as an ambassador for women in gaming so they gain confidence that they too can find success in esports.
What do you feel like is the next step to help this scene grow? What do you feel is the best way to help bring women's esports to the forefront?
DIG sapphiRe: To go into detail, Riot Games support of the women's scene and the initiative they take is the most important thing for this scene. At the end of the day, it is all about the publisher in any esport. Every publisher can control what happens to the scene and how it shapes. What Riot is doing to help the scene come together is awesome.
I would love other tournament organizers and esports teams to jump into more LAN tournaments once again to get women together. When you get everyone together, you have more opportunities to get content and tell stories. One of my favorite events is ESWC back in the CSGO days when I was on Team Karma. We went in as a last place team and then we got to the grand finals. There is this moment where we are celebrating and behind us is Brax, Skadoodle, AZK, N0thing and Shroud. They are standing behind us and going just as crazy.
It is not just women helping uplift women. The men that can be our allies and support this event by talking about how amazing this event is, is super helpful. That is why having the talent we had for VCT Game Changers be a mix of men and women is important. It is about inclusion which is why we had some of the best voices in VALORANT help spotlight women.
"It is not just women helping uplift women. The men that can be our allies and support this event by talking about how amazing this event is, is super helpful. . That is why having the talent we had for VCT Game Changers be a mix of men and women is important."
Bringing those voices to help narrate the story for these events is incredible. I would love to see more LANS where you have these big name casters celebrating these moments. Being in an arena where everybody stands wild and the casters hyping it up makes that moment memorable. That brings in more people because they will never want to miss a moment like that again.
It seems like Dignitas is a team you are really passionate to be apart of because they really want to help you with your initiatives. What do you feel like makes Dignitas different from other esports organizations and why do people stay there so long?
DIG sapphiRe: We are not the biggest esports organization in the world, but I am actually thankful for that. It means we can have a more personal connection with our players and talent. We are not spread too thin and we even joke that we know what socks our players are wearing that day because that is how close we are. These are friendships that form between team managers and players.
Everyone spends extra hours at the office playing games together and then we find opportunities for our players to take the next step in their career. I am an example, Bakery is an example and even Fifflaren is an example. We are so passionate about helping players navigate their career after pro gaming.
You don’t have to leave Dignitas when you are done playing or done creating content. If you have been around this long, you have something special beyond just talent.
Whether it is about building a brand, or getting really good teammates or we have good chemistry. We want people to feel they have a future even if they feel like their professional gaming career is coming to an end.