Imagine you had one year to learn the rules, teams and personalities of a new sport, launched globally in the middle of a pandemic. In that time, every region’s teams have developed unique local styles. But in this scenario, because of travel restrictions, the vast majority of players and teams have never competed against one another. How they might fare in a matchup is largely a mystery.

This isn’t a hypothetical scenario for the live talent covering “Valorant” Masters this week. Roughly a year after its launch, “Valorant,” Riot Games’s tactical 5v5 first-person shooter, will see its first global competition in Reykjavik, Iceland. In a live broadcast, analysts and shoutcasters will be tasked with making what’s on screen comprehensible for a likely audience of hundreds of thousands. It’ll be no easy task: Every match is essentially a wild card. Most of the teams, which hail from every corner of the map, have never publicly competed against one another because of the pandemic. There’s little precedent for how a match might go.

For the on-air talent, preparation is deceptively simple — find some comfy clothes and start reviewing old matches — though the underlying work takes different forms: Watching four games at once across multiple monitors (muting and unmuting selectively); jotting down timestamps; creating sprawling Google spreadsheets, meticulously tracking players and strategies; making notes, rereading them, only sort of understanding them, and then revisiting the original video.

The disparate methods are all in service of the same goal: Help the viewer understand what’s happening in the game — fast — while on air. It’ll be a delicate balancing act.

Endless note-taking

When Heather “Sapphire” Garozzo arrived in Iceland, protocol dictated that she undergo a six day quarantine. Her days were broken up by permitted 30-minute walks; she found a path along the water not far from her lodgings. “Valorant” occupied much of the rest of her time.

Three observers will staff the Masters event, Garozzo among them. Acting as a kind of producer for the live broadcast, much of what viewers will see on screen during the week-long event — whose perspective you’re following, cuts from one player to another or even to an angle above the action — will be thanks to her work. The highest compliment will be if you don’t notice her hand on the wheel, if you never once think about the observers during the event.

“We can make or break a match sometimes,” Garozzo said. “If the observer misses something important, it might be gone, that might be lost to history. The viewer’s experience, those great moments, really come down to the observer’s ability to show the most important information to the audience.”

Some of that comes down to a mix of preparation and prediction. Pro players develop a cadence over time: when they use utility, when they push a site, how they work alongside their teammates, and so on. Garozzo, a former pro herself at the game “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive,” is attuned to these rhythms, and a big part of her job will be watching where players are on the map and switching to the best perspective when she recognizes a play starting, or a fight on the verge of breaking out.

“That’s kind of what separates a good observer from a great observer,” Garozzo said. “You know that Sova has to do something at this point in time. You know, based on the [heads up display] that Sova has some of these abilities ready. You know, based on them slowly waiting outside of a site that they’re going to start entering soon. It’s really having that voice inside your head because of so much experience.”

But it’s hard to train that voice on data that scarcely exists. Garozzo, who works full-time for the esports organization Dignitas, knew she’d be in Reykjavik for the event months in advance. Preparation began with late nights at the Dignitas training facility, posted up on a couch in front of four monitors. She’d eat dinner with the TVs on, unmuting the matches she was interested in, and jotting down notes.

“Leading up to this event I was watching more demos and game tape than I’ve watched in a long time,” Garozzo said. “One of the number one things I write down — and this might be weird — is timings, like, when can I expect someone to do something. Are they doing things 10 seconds into the round, or are they waiting till the final 20 to 30 seconds to execute?”

On-screen, high-energy

Not all of the talent will be working from Iceland. Loviel Cardwell, an analyst who goes by “Velly,” will be working from his bedroom in Las Vegas — preferably in his shorts (which will remain off-screen).

If Garozzo’s observing is intentionally inconspicuous, Cardwell will be directly in the spotlight.

“It is my job to be able to effectively explain what you see on the screen, and not just for the hardcore audience, but also the people who are tuning in for the first time,” Cardwell said. “You know, the 35-year-old mom who has a son who loves video games, the 25-year-old who wants to try ‘Valorant’ and he’s just tuning in, or maybe, that 18-year-old who wants to be a professional one day.”

“I have to be able to develop story lines. … Why is this player even special? Why am I even talking about him?” Cardwell cries out in faux-exasperation.

Oh, and he also has to make it fun. He’s not worried about that part.

“How do I make it fun? Have you seen me work before?” asked Cardwell, incredulous. “It’s my energy, man!

"Yo, listen. The number one thing is I work in video games. And at the end of the day, what are we talking about? Video games. … This is what I love.”

Teaching requires preparation. For Cardwell, that means headphones on, music up, video on the screen and notes open — for hours. “There’s just no sunshine and rainbows to it. It’s grind time,” Cardwell said.

Garozzo is a pen and paper note-taker, with several notebooks worth of observations about the participating teams. Cardwell’s process is a bit more arcane. He starts with a clean Google spreadsheet, and fills it with all of the available statistics. Underneath, he jots down the things he notices about each team on individual maps as he reviews match footage. Then, he compares the data to his more emotional notes to see if the two align.

“I don’t make 'em readable sentences,” Cardwell said, laughing. “If I gave it to you, it’d look like a 15-year-old was writing freestyles to a rap song on top of statistics homework.”

The event is a profound glow-up for Cardwell. At the ripe age of 19, he moved across the country, from California to the D.C. region, to try to make something of himself during the global financial crisis. Opportunities were few and far between. Eventually, he landed a gig working for the Best Buy Geek Squad.

“It seemed like everything was going bad,” Cardwell said. “[I was] playing catch up on credit cards, getting help from family, trying to grind. It wasn’t pretty at all.”

Now, he’s poised to take the (virtual) stage at one of the biggest esports events since the beginning of the pandemic, working from the comfort of his bedroom — in shorts.

“I started from ‘Gears of War,’ I went to ‘Rainbow Six’ and now I’m doing ‘Valorant.’ That is a major leap that you do not see often. Not even often — it is extremely rare, period,” Cardwell said. “I went from nothing to now being a part of one of the biggest gaming events of all time. It doesn’t make sense to me.”

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