Esports Production Forum: How Technology Drives the Esports In-Arena Experience
Integrated systems serve fans onsite and at home simultaneously
Esports arenas, venues designed specifically for esports competitors and thousands of fans, continue to be built around the world. From Blizzard Arena in Burbank, CA, to HyperX Esports Arena in Las Vegas to the upcoming Esports Arena in Arlington, TX — and dozens more across the globe — these esports-specific facilities require a unique approach to serve a growing fanbase. At the inaugural SVG Esports Production Forum on Nov. 6 in Los Angeles, top execs involved with the design and technical integration of recent efforts took the stage to offer a deep dive into control-room, video, and audio capabilities.
For Serving Two Masters, a Unified Control Room Is Key
Perhaps the most important consideration in designing an esports facility and its production workflows is the need to serve both the in-venue experience and the live-broadcast/streaming experience for fans at home.
“In traditional sports, you’ve got the event being produced [in-venue], and that is typically its own separate production. Then you have the broadcaster, which is typically a completely separate production layer on top of that. They don’t share the equipment, [with the exception of] some cameras and replay sources,” said CBT Systems founding Principal Darrell Wenhardt, who helped lead the technical integration at Allied Esports’ HyperX Esports Arena at the Luxor Hotel. “What we found out — particularly in Las Vegas — is, we were able to work off a unified platform: same router, comms system, production switcher. That was a big difference.”
For Blizzard Arena, producing an integrated show that serves both the in-arena and broadcast experiences was a guiding principle in its design and integration. The facility — like Blizzard’s arena in Taipei and MLG Arena in Columbus, OH — houses a central control room that serves both the in-house and distribution outlets. Blizzard is so adamant about using an integrated production model that it often declines to use existing control rooms at traditional venues when it hits the road for major events like the Overwatch Final at Barclays Center in Brooklyn in July.
“Barclays has a really great modern control-room facility that controls all the videoboards; we didn’t use it,” explained Pete Emminger, senior director, global broadcast, Blizzard Entertainment. “The reason we didn’t use it, we operate as a completely integrated show with one control and [in-venue] screen controls in the back row. We do not operate as a two–control-room show.
“I didn’t come from network television,” he continued, “so having two camera systems at a live event that’s on television makes no sense to me. So we don’t do that. As a result, I think, we get a much better experience. The experience and hearing the commentators are really where esports is different from [traditional] sports. We have found success in having one central unified control room.”
Ross Video Director, Sports and Live Events, Kevin Cottam, who played a major role in development of HyperX Esports Arena, compared the integrated–control-room model used in esports with that of the growing number of ESPN3 college-sports shows, which typically produce a single feed for the streaming and in-venue shows.
“Being able to unify it all and share resources from the same router, trigger multiple devices, data integration really makes a lot of sense,” he said. “The shoutcasters are calling the event live, so you need to be able to react and [instantaneously] display the gameplay that they are commenting on. They are using a lot of different graphics and data, so you want to be able to display that right away. [At Esports Arena Las Vegas,] we put a control-system layer over the top that can be operated by people that might not have a lot of experience in a traditional broadcast [environment].”
With Shoutcasters Calling Both Feeds, Audio Is More Complex
Audio also plays a major factor in design of an esports-specific venue. Since shoutcasters call the event over both the PA system and the live stream, workflows must deliver the best possible experience to both audiences.
“One thing that is very different from traditional sports is, the casters call the game live at the event, so you are hearing them over the PA system,” said Wenhardt. “One of the things we discovered is, the intelligibility within the venue [is very important] because the people in the venue want to hear this stuff. So you have to start with a good acoustical environment, and then you layer on top of that a very good sound system. It all has to play very well with the broadcast A1 mixer that is also trying to capture this to give the fan at home a very real experience.”
Building Your Own Arena vs. Using Existing Venues
Although esports-specific arenas have popped up all over the world, the majority of esports events still take place in traditional sports and entertainment venues. Although erecting an entire arena solely for esports requires extensive investment upfront, the long-term advantages are numerous. Leading sports-facility-design consultant Robert Jordan CVE argues that building an esports arena not only helps amortize capital expenditure by producing more events, thereby driving down operating expenditures, but also allows the operator to gather valuable data about fans attending the events.
“You have a unique familiarity with your fan base, and you can start developing metrics on who your fans are — especially when, every night of the week, you might be doing a different gaming structure,” he said. “Over a period of time, in addition to metadata on the game, you are starting to develop information on your fanbase. When you start finding that information, that is another monetization point. Having your own building allows you to do that, whereas, if you’re moving around to different venues, you’re not able to have a standardized metric. For an industry that is looking at all kinds of new revenue streams, that is going to be extremely important as things unfolds.”
For Blizzard Entertainment, one of the major advantages of owning its own arena in Burbank is the ability to have direct connection to its Activision Blizzard infrastructure and expertise. For example, Blizzard Arena’s observer room — which produces the in-game action for Overwatch League, including live first-person POV, Free Cam, cinematic-style, and frame-by-frame “bullet-time” coverage — receives almost daily internal feedback in order to constantly improve on the coverage.
“Our observers are on staff at Blizzard, and, every single day, they get to iterate on the product. They get feedback from our internal feedback loop at Blizzard. Also, we can actually have our development team based out of Irvine come up to the arena and sit in the observer room. That would be a lot more challenging if it wasn’t our facility.”
In addition, Blizzard Arena is fully tied into the company’s corporate IT backbone, providing full connectivity to its Irvine, CA, campus and throughout the world. In addition, the arena has constant access to the Activision Blizzard’s IT network support, Operations Center, and development team.
“All those resources are available,” said Emminger. “That’s solely because it’s our facility. It’s a pretty unique proposition.”
Perhaps the greatest challenge in producing live esports events in a third-party venue is securing the massive amount of bandwidth necessary to create and distribute the content.
“It’s all about bandwidth,” said Artistic Resources Corp. President Michael Little. “You require so much bandwidth to accommodate every little thing that occurs for esports. You need to [create and distribute] multiple feeds for international and multiple different flavors of audio. You start finding yourself in this context where you have to be everything to everyone simultaneously and still have reserve [bandwidth] in your back pocket so, when [the client] approaches you, you still have an answer for them. The one thing we discovered over and over was, you just can’t have enough bandwidth.”
Wenhardt added, “One of the advantages of having your own arena is, you are set: that bandwidth is always there. In Las Vegas, they do [shows] every night. They are doing a full front-of-house [show] and, about once a week, are doing a streaming [show]. So the infrastructure and the bandwidth is all built in.”