Red Bull’s New eSports Studio Takes on Videogames as Pro Sport
Energy-drink giant Red Bull’s position on the extreme fringes of alternative sports has become well known at both ends of that often strange spectrum: from the deadly serious — Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner’s 24-plus-mile freefall from the edge of space — to the frivolous — its Flugtag competition in which aerodynamically questionable contraptions are pushed off piers. Between those attention-grabbing outings, Red Bull Media House, the company’s production arm, has grown into one of the top sports-content producers on YouTube and is one of only two sports channels globally to hit 1 billion views.
It was one of the inaugural Action Sports content producers as part of YouTube’s Original Channels initiative in 2011. The company has produced 13 exclusive series, totaling nearly 30 hours of programming, which chronicled the competition and personalities of leading action-sports athletes in snowboarding, skateboarding, mountain biking, surfing, freestyle motocross, and other alt sports. Baumgartner’s live-streamed freefall, branded as Red Bull Stratos, earned Red Bull Media House and YouTube a National Sports Emmy Award for Outstanding New Approaches – Sports Event Coverage, not to mention 9.5 million concurrent views, which took up 8% of all Internet bandwidth that day.
Moving into virtual sports, Red Bull Media house recently opened its eSports Studio at its U.S. base of operations in Santa Monica, CA, betting heavily that it can ride the burgeoning wave of competitive online videogaming into the mainstream and become the ESPN of virtual sports just as videogaming is transitioning into a spectator sport. One of the company’s first major Webcasts along those lines took place last year when 11,000 spectators in the Seattle Sonics’ home arena watched five-person teams play each other on videogame Dota 2 for prizes totaling $11 million. Its ongoing videogame-tournament-event series, Red Bull Battle Grounds, offers a peek at what regular team play sounds and looks like.
For the Seattle event, much of what has been installed in the Santa Monica facility was flypacked for delivery to the venue. It included Panasonic three-chip AG-HPX170 cameras, for wide shots and talent/announce shots on-screen, and Replay XD cameras, for POV shots, mainly of players’ faces and hands, picking up the all-important “actions per minute,” or APM, the number of keyboard and mouse clicks a player racks up during 60 seconds of play, a metric critical in games like StarCraft II, one of the staple platforms of competitive videogaming. (The best players, who are usually South Koreans, tend to average 200-400 actions per minute.)
Audio consists mainly of sound effects and music from within the game itself. However, Webcast videogaming is developing its own audio tropes, such as player-headset mic-booms’ picking up dialogue as participants relate strategy and check on teammates’ physical and mental conditions, and from open microphones on the cameras that pick up the sound of keyboards being tapped and mice being moved, an aural representation of the APM.
Most of the video and audio content comes from within the games themselves, as does much of what would be done by the director in conventional sports broadcasting. The “game-play producer,” an individual who acts as a referee with an omnipotent God’s-eye view of play, often determines the arc of the games. And, as in conventional sports programming, Red Bull’s eSports Studio also produces personality profiles of gamers that pepper the show.
‘This is our Bristol’
“Regular sports broadcasts have been a kind of template for us and for videogaming as it develops into a spectator sport,” says Scott Gillies, global head of production engineering and technology, Red Bull Media House. “At the end of the day, we’re both trying to find ways to tell authentic, compelling stories.”
Gesturing towards the eSports Studio, where those stories are now being put together, Rob Simpson eSports program manager, Red Bull, says simply, “This is our Bristol,” a reference to ESPN’s technical-operations center in Connecticut.
Beyond audio and video, getting live-audio gaming to the masses online has similar analogies to cable and broadcast infrastructure, differing mainly in terms of scale, with a lot less technology needed to reach an audience of millions. A NewTek TriCaster serves as the platform for live video switching, graphics, special effects, audio mixing, recording, social-media publishing, and Web streaming. The stream, after conversion to the H.264/MPEG-4 format via an Elemental Live transcoder, is ported to Akamai as the network’s distributing CDN.
eSports Studio relies heavily on Riedel Communications’ MediorNet real-time network, RockNet audio system, and Artist digital matrix intercom system. On a typical show featuring two teams of five players each, MediorNet modular frames take in a total of 20 HDMI POV video signals from the gaming consoles, converts them into HD-SDI, and carries them to the control room. These inputs are combined with the primary gameplay feeds to produce the complete eSports broadcast assets. An additional MediorNet compact frame is used to bring in complementary shots from other parts of the competition.
The Artist system supports inter-team player communications, as well as the intercom and on-air audio from the commentators; the same product is also being used to create a custom downmix of game audio specific to each team, as well as the overall audio feed to the audio-mixing console.
A single four-core fiber cable, equipped with OpticalCon quad connectors, handles all signals. Within the control room, the MediorNet system acts as a pre-switcher, dynamically feeding eight signals to the TriCaster’s video switcher, and also provides feeds to the edit bay, two SSD recording units, and to a monitor wall comprising two displays with 16-window split views. The MediorNet also serves as an audio de-embedder, in turn feeding audio to the audio-mixing desk. The resulting audio and video mix is sent to two encoders for streaming via the Internet.
ESPN parent Disney learned the hard way that “legacy” media companies, using a favorite adjective heard in the halls of Red Bull Media House, are highly vulnerable to online hacking. That might go double for videogaming, which takes place in an almost totally virtual environment.
Simpson says hacks in gaming are not unheard of, although their goal might more often be to gain a competitive advantage in the game rather than to steal data. He notes that Red Bull has a well-developed in-house IT-security department that watches over the workflow.
The new eSports Studio is now a node on that workflow, an important one in a strategy anticipating competitive gaming’s going mainstream in the near future. Gillies believes it’s almost there: “When you can sell out a stadium in less than an hour, I’d say it’s already well beyond a niche.”
However, it will be important that Red Bull’s media facilities be as accommodating to legacy media companies as possible. The company, which develops and owns most of the programming it hosts, is already regularly supplying sports content, such as the Red Bull Signature Series on NBC, to major networks like NBC, ESPN, and Fox Sports 1. Also, those sports networks are themselves moving deeper into the live-streaming environment. Just as creating their own entertainment content makes Netflix and Amazon look increasingly like film and television studios, so may the eSports Studio make Red Bull Media House look more and more like the sports networks with which it may someday achieve parity.