In 2014, the Electronic Sports World Cup, now known as the Esports World Convention, entered its 11th year with another major tournament in Paris. Over 5,000 miles away in California, a woman who had been having success in local tournaments wanted to take her shot. Emmalee “EMUHLEET” Garrido got together a Counter-Strike: Global Offensive team, pooled money to pay their way to Paris and even ironed on names on the back of jerseys she found at a swap meet.
Now, she’s a five-time female world champion. That first ESWC event netted EMUHLEET and Team Karma a silver medal as 3DMAX fe won first. But it was an arrival for a player who would go on to become one of the most accomplished female esports pros in history.
“I used to be a closet gamer, I didn’t tell anyone that I played video games when I was younger because I didn’t want to be perceived as a loser or a nerd,” EMUHLEET said. “That was just the stereotype back then. As a woman, not many girls played video games when I first started.”
Listen to the full interview with EMUHLEET on Spotify, including the differences between Riot Games’ hands-on approach vs Valve’s hands-off, what the esports scene still needs to do better to increase female representation and the history behind the tag EMUHLEET.
Since 2017, EMUHLEET has been the captain of Dignitas Female, where she led the org to wins in the Intel Challenge Katowice at IEM Katowice in 2018 and 2019. With the release of VALORANT, she also has become the captain of Dignitas’ VALORANT squad while remaining on the CS:GO team.
CS has been the title with the most focus on female tournaments and bringing in co-ed teams to compete in mixed events. With VALORANT most closely resembling CS:GO as a game, Riot Games has also put that same focus on creating more opportunities for female gamers.
Photo credit: Nerd Street Gamers
“Me and my teammates played only two or three women’s tournaments a year,” EMUHLEET explained. “Other than that, we played in mixed tournaments or online leagues. But the idea behind having these women-only tournaments is to get more women comfortable, who don’t have as much experience, to get out there and get started. With VALORANT, Riot Games and Nerd Street Gamers, with VCT Game Changers, so many teams are getting that experience; it’s amazing to see.”
VCT Game Changers is a series announced in 2021 that will provide top level and academy support to a series of female events in VALORANT. The series is similar in scope to the Ignition Series, which kicked off VALORANT esports last summer as different regions will each host their own tournaments. The next event will be presented by Dignitas and Nerd Street Gamers in June. At the first event, held in North America, Dignitas Female finished fourth. The champions, Cloud9 White, were a younger squad led by captain Melanie “MeL” Capone.
“When I first started playing video games, I didn’t have a female role model to look up to,” EMUHLEET said. “So I wanted to go through the obstacles, learn how to overcome them so I can teach other women so they don’t have to go through all that hard stuff. For the people that started in the beginning, we broke some of those barriers and hopefully made it easier for other female gamers to follow that pathway. Now we have these amazing teams like MeL’s C9 team that are doing so good.”
One of those big barriers for female gamers was simply money. Few orgs have invested heavily in female players, and prize purses for female-only events are small in comparison to male-dominated mixed tournaments.
While winning world championships, EMUHLEET also was a nurse working with patients in rehab. The decision to keep working wasn’t borne purely out of finances but compassion and appreciation for the important work. Still, recently she’s been able to put gaming into full focus.
“I love nursing, it’s just something I love to do, especially in my field, I have a really good connection with the patients at my rehab,” EMUHLEET said. “Making the decision to go part-time with nursing and full-time with gaming was so hard for me. But I had to do it because my team and I were traveling all over the world for two weeks at a time to go to tournaments. It just didn’t feel fair to my patients.”
Photo credit: DreamHack
Now EMUHLEET is a nurse on a per-diem basis. In 2020, the pandemic complicated all fields, but nursing in particular was impacted heavily. At the same time, the release of VALORANT doubled up EMUHLEET’s captain duties as she, and a lot of the rest of the CS:GO community, adapted to a new esport.
“I was talking with my old coworkers about how it’s going, working during the pandemic, and it’s extremely difficult,” EMUHLEET said. “In the rehab field, contact and communication is super important. Having to follow all these precautions with someone that is already struggling with their mental health can be a scary thing at first. But they’ve found a way to adapt over the months. That’s what nurses have to do, they have to adapt in any type of situation. That mentality can apply to gaming too.”
Photo credit: DreamHack
As Masters: Reykjavík is ongoing, adapting has been one of the core focuses of the players at VALORANT’s biggest event to date. For an IGL in a brand new esport, adaptability and flexibility arguably are the most important traits in guiding their team to success.
“I used to be the lead nurse where I was working, so I definitely acquired a lot of leadership skills, having to think fast and adapt,” EMUHLEET said. “All of my nursing I applied to leading my team in esports. One time, I had a patient that overdosed, I had to think super fast because my next decision was crucial for the patient's life. I had to gather all my knowledge, all my skills and come together with my coworkers to save this patient.”
While the stakes are lower in esports, top competitions are certainly pressure-filled situations that require that same quick confidence in decision-making.
“When there is a bunch of utility coming at us, when there could be a team rushing into us, we have to think fast, not panic and that’s going to be what makes or breaks that round,” she said.
After Masters: Reykjavík, the next big event on the VCT schedule is VCT Game Changers in late June. As VALORANT has continued, more and more major orgs are picking up female rosters. Dignitas and CLG trace their teams back to CS. Cloud9 and TSM now have female teams as well. Gen.G, whose female Fortnite team found a lot of success, recently announced a new female VALORANT roster.
Having big orgs invested in the female scene breaks down more barriers for the next generation of female gamers. There’s no question there still is a way to go with the goal being to have a mix of female and male players at the top levels of esports. While progress is happening, it wouldn’t have been possible without the barriers broken by EMUHLEET and the other female champions in CS history.
Lead image credit: DreamHack