Behind the Scenes at Blizzard Arena: Inside the Home of Overwatch League, the Hottest Property in Esports
An inside look at Blizzard's production workflow for the hottest property in esports
With teams dishing out $20 million apiece to join and Twitch inking a two-year, $90 million streaming rights deal, Blizzard Entertainment doesn’t just believe Overwatch League can be among the elite esports properties in the world – it believes it can be among the elite sports properties of any kind. In order to be a first-class league, you have to have a first-class production facility, and that’s exactly what the video-game titan has endeavored to create with Blizzard Arena in Burbank, CA.
Opened in October 2017, Blizzard Arena has served as the home of Overwatch League competitions since its inaugural season began in January. What was once home to The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson in Burbank Studios is now a modern 11,000-sq.-ft. studio dedicated exclusively to esports. However, the Arena itself is just one portion of Blizzard’s sprawling 74,000 sq.-ft., five-level facility (including the basement), which also includes a second studio for additional programming, two control rooms and an “observer room”, a shoutcaster announce booth, nine edit suites, private practice rooms for all 12 Overwatch teams, “dugouts” for both competing teams, multiple press rooms, vast stretches of office space (including Jay Leno’s former digs), and much more.
“We’ve been planning this project for a couple years, so it was a very extensive buildout and we tried to account for everything,” says Pete Emminger, senior director, global broadcast, Blizzard Entertainment. “Right from the beginning, we built out all the necessary infrastructure to support everything that Blizzard does – not just Overwatch League. So, it’s been very flexible for us. We’ve already done almost every Blizzard esport here and we are continuing to grow bit by bit as we get into new programs, but Overwatch is obviously our main focus right now.”
Inside the Arena: An LED Feast for the Eyes
The Blizzard Arena soundstage, which has seating for up to 450 fans, is centered around the primary stage, where the two six-player teams compete against a 13,000-pixel-wide 4mm LED wall. In addition, a LED halo display hangs above the stage and tracks the payload progression for each Overwatch match. All LED panels are all wired redundantly throughout the facility and driven by a custom graphics/playout system developed in-house by Blizzard.
“All the LED is completely reactive to the game,” says Emminger. “We have a number of custom game software elements that drive all this LED. All the hero panels and other [elements] up on the LED are all driven directly from the game engine and the Halo [above the stage] is totally reactive to the game [to visualize] the Overwatch payload progression.”
Just a few feet in front of the stage is the primary desk set, where four analysts break down the action throughout each match.
In terms of in-arena audio, the house PA system utilizes a Yamaha QL1 mixing console and one EAW line array PA with subs for tiered seating.
Both teams utilize analog headsets (custom-modified from a pilot headset to ensure noise cancellation) and totally independent comms systems (driven by two Yamaha QL1 audio consoles backstage). Via these noise-cancelling headsets, players can hear one another and the comms feed is piped into both “dugouts” located behind the stage so the respective team managers can hear and provide feedback at halftime. The comms feeds are also recorded for postgame analysis during the week.
“We have two separate consoles for each team in order to maintain tournament integrity,” says Emminger. “That way there’s no chance of a configuration error or mix up, which is a must at this level of competition.”
Since competitors play at 144Hz, necessitating short cable runs between the player and the hardware, all of Blizzard’s HP gaming hardware is located in small racks next to both team’s areas on the stage.
Blizzard also has a second studio at the facility, which is utilized for its weekly look-ahead studio show Watchpoint, its Tespa collegiate esports events, player interviews, standups, and other multipurpose needs.
The production team has 16 Grass Valley LDX86 (eight of which are outfitted with six 22X lenses and two wide angle lenses) cameras at its disposal to cover action inside the Arena (Stage 1 at Burbank Studios), as well as for Blizzard’s secondary studio (Stage 5). In addition, the primary arena has four Sony BRCH800/1 1080p PTZ cameras.
In addition, up on the stage, Blizzard deploys a dozen Blackmagic Micro Cinema POV cameras with SLR Magic 8mm lenses for close-ups of each player’s face during competition. Blizzard has a single shading room to shade both the Grass Valley cameras (painted with traditional CCU’s) and POV cameras (using Blackmagic’s DaVinci Resolve coloring software).
NEP Sweetwater provided the LED wall for the primary stage., as well as on-site display engineers.
Inside the Control Rooms: Calling the Shots From Matching Rooms
Blizzard Arena is equipped with two control rooms and two audio rooms, as well as an observer room, which produces the in-game action itself. A Grass Valley Kayenne K-Frame 9 M/E switcher is split across two suites to support both control rooms – 4 M/E per room with a flex fifth M/E as needed. On the replay side, the EVS workflow consists of two EVS XT4K and two XS3 replay servers systems (configured as 24 channels in/12 out), as well as IP Directors and XT Access transfer/transcode engines. The facility also features an Imagine Communications Platinum router, Riedel intercoms, Boland monitors.
Both control rooms are outfitted with two Viz trio real-time graphics systems and one Viz Libero telestrator system apiece – all of which are fully integrated with Blizzard’s custom stats system. The same stats engine drives the streaming experience on Twitch, the LED walls in the arena, and also feeds OverwatchLeague.com and the Overwatch app.
“The stats pipeline is completely custom developed with all custom-written software,” says Emminger. “Obviously, no one had an Overwatch stats system, so we wrote our own, and it’s fully integrated into Viz. We also have a custom graphics system for the LED [walls], which incorporates a mix of graphics and game footage sources and that’s all tied into the same stats engine.”
All 24 channels of EVS are recorded to Dell EMC Isilon storage in AVC Intra 100 MXF format, while 64 audio channels record discretely to Isilon storage. Tertiary records are handled by Cinedeck ZX Recorders (PIX recording for 64 channels of audio and for player team comms).
Studer Vista 5 M3 42 audio consoles sit in both audio rooms along with four JBL LSR4328P Studio monitors and four playback computers (primary and backup) running Ableton software with Launchpad.
NEP’s US Mobile Units division built and manages the two control rooms and also provides on-site broadcast engineers.
Inside the Observer Room: Calling the Shots for In-Game Action
The most unique aspect of live esports production compared to traditional stick-and-ball sports is the presence of an observer room, which produces the in-game action while the main control room handles to overall show. Unlike the primary control room, all workstations are on wheels and fully mobile, allowing the observer team to be flexible from show to show.
“Essentially, it’s as if there are two parts of the broadcast: the main broadcast and the game broadcast,” says Emminger. “That is just because the game moves so fast so that it requires this whole team of dedicated people. We have a coordinating producer in the front row [of the main control room] tying it all together and then the director, observer director, and the TD work together to create the whole show.”
Inside the room, the observer director sits at a switcher panel that comes off the primary K-Frame switcher (the observer is setup as a subswitch for the game M/E) and “cuts cameras” for the in-game show.
In addition to the director, the room features four observer positions: two observers handle the “freecams” [third-person views] and two observers oversee the first-person views. Meanwhile, a team of five people is also housed in the observer room to create cinematic and slow-mo content. This area is integrated with Blizzard’s overarching EVS replay and player-comms infrastructure to allow for integration of in-game and in-arena video content for replays.
“We have a slow-mo feature in the game [where] we can actually pause the action, spin the camera 90 degrees, zoom in, and then, for example, we could follow the bullet all the way out of Tracer’s gun,” says Emminger. “We can do all that right here live, which is a capability that traditional sports [broadcasters] obviously don’t have.
“We also have to time the game footage perfectly,” he continues. “Let’s say Genji kills somebody; we not only want the replay of Genji killing somebody, which is easy to bring up, we also want to see the player who died’s reaction [on-stage]. That is on EVS because it’s shot on an in-arena camera versus the in-game camera. So, these observers all work really closely together to put together those packages.”
Two League Operations representatives are also located in the observer room to make any in-game rulings.
Inside the Announce Booths: Shoutcasters Get Full Stats System Access
The Shoutcasters announce booth is equipped with kits featuring 10 Glensound Vita+ Dante announce boxes (mic gain control via computer in control room) and 10 Sennheiser HMD-26-II headsets. The Shoutcasters also have access to the Overwatch custom stats system.
“We provide stats in the booth for the commentators that they can really see deeper into the game,” says Emminger. “It all updates real time as the game is running and they have a tablet they can surf around the system on. They can go to different [categories], they can look up specific players, and they can do fast research like while the game is going on.”
Even More Inside Blizzard Arena: Edit Rooms, Team Practice Rooms, and Press Rooms
Of course, Blizzard Arena is equipped for much more than just live shows. The facility features 25 edit bays (connected to Dell EMC Isilon storage via a 10GBe connection) utilizing Adobe Premiere Pro CC.
In addition, all 12 teams are provided dedicated practice rooms, which are available to teams 24/7 year-round. Each room is equipped with the identical computer hardware that’s on the Blizzard Arena soundstage.
“That is really important for the pro players,” says Emminger. “Just like football players on the field need same equipment for practice, they need the same PC equipment.”
In order to maintain competitive integrity, all players clone their hard drives to save their KVM and display setting at the beginning of the season. These hard drives are then stored securely and can only be accessed by Blizzard’s IT to prevent any risk of cheating. Overwatch League requires a similar process for players peripherals (i.e. mouse, keyboard, etc.), which are delivered to the IT team in a factory-sealed package at the beginning of the season and housed in a secure storage container.
The primary press room can support up to 40 reporters at one time and the facility also has a press lounge and several interview rooms. For press conferences, which are held for Overwatch League stage finals and semifinals, reporters can plug in and take audio feeds directly from the mics in the primary press room.
Managing All the Traffic: Transmission Handled In-House
Blizzard Arena’s transmission facility is fully integrated with the Blizzard Operations Center in Irvine, CA, which manages all global network operations and network infrastructure. All of Blizzard’s transmission infrastructure is IP-based and handles a whopping 2.9 exabytes of traffic monthly (on average). Overwatch League is currently being transmitted to regional partners English, Chinese, French, and Korean.
“It’s funny when you think about how big other [TV] networks are, but it turns out video game companies can have even bigger networks,” says Emminger. “We handle all of our own transmission. For all of our Overwatch League programming, we actually have somebody from that facility sit here with our whole transmission staff, so that we can foresee problems coming ahead in the tech stack. Because we’re so reliant on game servers and IT infrastructure, it’s critical that we’re fully integrated with the Ops Center.”