This weekend, the improvement of Team Dignitas Female will finally be truly tested.
This weekend at the Copenhagen Games in Copenhagen, Denmark, 29 of the best women's Counter-Strike: Global Offensive teams will fight it out for the lion's share of $14,874. Eyes will be on Team Dignitas, currently the best women's team in North America, to see if it will be able to best the longtime No. 1 women's team in the world, Team Secret.
The team, formerly owned by Selfless Gaming, joined Dignitas, owned by NBA franchise the Philadelphia 76ers, in late February, and with that move came the support of a top professional organization. Everyone on the team except manager Heather "sapphiRe" Garozzo, has left other jobs meant to help pay the bills because, well, Dignitas does now. Team captain Emmalee "EMUHLEET" Garrido, prior to the transition, was splitting time between being a nurse and a Counter-Strike pro.
Naturally, that's not the best way to achieve peak performance. sapphiRe, who's been a part of the CS:GO scene since the late 1990s, serves as a backup. The longtime pro and her squad also had to do fundraising to go to events previously, including 24-hour streams, travel to local centers to play with fans and other outreach projects.
"We now have the ability to finally 100 percent focus on Counter-Strike," she said. The team has been putting in six to 12 hours of practice a day, scrimming, watching demos and playing death matches online.
The rise to the top of North America hasn't been easy for sapphiRe and her team. There was one constant roadblock: Counter Logic Gaming Red. But at Intel Challenge Katowice in March, Team Dignitas beat CLG Red and locked itself in as the best from North America.
The next obstacle is Team Secret, which Dignitas will likely meet in the latter stages of the Copenhagen games. To prepare, the team has been practicing in Europe to learn their more aggressive style of play.
"Dignitas was kind enough to allow us to bootcamp in Europe leading up to this tournament," sapphiRe said, "so we had the opportunity to practice against European teams, which have a very similar playstyle to Team Secret."
And learning how to combat Team Secret's aggressive play might give Dignitas the edge it's been needing.
"It's something that usually throws us off when we enter those international events because we don't have the opportunity to practice against that playstyle on a daily schedule," sapphiRe said.
If Dignitas is able to best Team Secret and win Copenhagen, the team will still have a lot of work ahead of it. Co-ed success is a must for the team, too.
"We're really firm believers that to become the best team possible," sapphiRe said, "playing against only females would hinder us."
The premise behind women's tournaments is to provide women an access point for competitive gaming, which can be difficult given the toxicity of online gaming culture at times. Even the video on Dignitas' YouTube channel introducing its new women's team was met with more dislikes than likes and debate in the comments section.
Women's tournaments have existed since the early 2000s, and sapphiRe believes that they inspires women to not only play CS:GO, but to play it competitively. These competitions, she said, are one of the main reasons the Counter-Strike women's scene "is one of the largest in all of esports."
"I don't want to see every single main tournament to have a side female tournament; that's not going to help progress. I'd love to see a day when they don't have to exist." Heather "sapphiRe" Garozzo, Team Dignitas Female coach
SapphiRe remembers when she and her team were doing a signing event in California. They met a fan who goes by "ProMise9k" in-game. She got an autographed jersey from sapphiRe's squad and immediately framed it and hung it on her wall. ProMise9k continued to play and eventually formed Silhouette, another North American all-women's team that was the No. 1 qualifier for Intel Challenge Katowice and will be at Copenhagen Games this weekend.
"She was a fan of ours, and now she's taken her love of the game so far that she's competing in the same tournaments as us," sapphiRe said. "That was a great honor for us: to see her grow, to see her be inspired by us."
That's the kind of impact having a women's team presence in an esports community can make. That doesn't mean, however, that sapphiRe wants to see many more women's tournaments.
"I'd like to see those tournaments in moderation. I don't want to see every single main tournament to have a side female tournament; that's not going to help progress," she said. "I'd love to see a day when they don't have to exist."
Team Dignitas recently announced its new main CS:GO roster, consisting of some of the best players in the world. SapphiRe would love to work with them and get some guidance.
"Unfortunately they're European based, so there's not going to be too many opportunities to do that," she said. But Dignitas is currently making plans for all of its players to go to Philadelphia to bootcamp at the 76ers facility and meet with doctors, sports psychologists, and nutritionists.
That could be the perfect opportunity to scrim with the men.