Blizzard Entertainment Continues To Innovate in Year Two of Overwatch League
Enhanced OWL All-Access Pass, upcoming road shows highlight second season
With the second season of the Overwatch League off and running, Blizzard Entertainment has debuted several technologies — both for the fan-viewing experience and in its broadcast infrastructure.
In addition to an enhanced Command Center feature in Overwatch League All-Access Pass on Twitch allowing viewers to watch games from any player’s first-person point of view, Blizzard is producing live pregame/halftime/postgame shows inside Blizzard Arena for all matches and will produce several Overwatch League (OWL) games in teams’ home cities for the first time. In addition, Blizzard has launched a new media-asset–management (MAM) system and revamped its OWL transmission scheme to allow customized domestic and international feeds.
“We have a lot of new things that are very cool this season from a technology perspective,” says Pete Emminger, senior director, global broadcast, Blizzard Entertainment. “From a content perspective, we are very excited about the new [features in the] Overwatch All-Access Pass product on Twitch and to be hosting our premium pre and post shows live this year. We had a lot of interest in the community for more content like this, and we want to keep creating more engaging content. We definitely learned a lot around the content ecosystem last year and are excited for an even better season this year.”
Overwatch League All-Access Pass Boosts Command Center Features
All-Access Pass, priced at $14.99 for the season, grants access to the new and improved Command Center, which allows subscribers to select among feeds showing the in-game point of view for all 12 players, an overhead view, and the main broadcast view, along with real-time stats.
Users can also watch preset template views that combine player POV, overhead map, and main broadcast feeds into a multiview experience. Available on desktop and mobile devices, Command Center allows users to select up to four preset layouts for one-click or hotkey switching among their favorite viewpoints.
“All-Access Pass [Command Center] is essentially a product where you can watch all the players’ point of views on Twitch, so that added 12 feeds to our workflow [last year],” says Emminger. “This year, though, we have those 12 feeds available all the time as opposed to just switching between feeds. We had to put a lot of new workflows in place because there’s a lot of nuanced complexities [in making] all that happen. For example, we also have to [deliver content] when the players are not playing, between games or during halftime, so we have some slates with some fresh content and stats up during those periods.”
Although Blizzard Entertainment added a coordinating-producer position dedicated to the Command Center production, Emminger says the bulk of the production is automated and allows users to control their own experience.
“It’s also completely tied into our stats engine and updates in real time,” he adds. “In addition to running all those streams thorough our primary transmission [scheme], we had to pair everything up with the data. We have a pretty extensive data system, so it was a very direct merger downstream of all the video and all the data. It took a wide effort across Blizzard and our league’s business to make this all come together.”
Emminger notes that the broadcast team has simplified the control-room workflow for the producer to integrate stats into the broadcast. With a dedicated stats producer on staff, more stats than ever are likely to be in the main broadcast view in addition to the Command Center experience.
Homestand Weekend Series: Migrating Toward the Home-and-Away Model
Overwatch League will depart the friendly confines of Blizzard Arena for the first time this season, hitting the road for a trio of Homestand Weekend Series hosted by the Dallas Fuel (April 27-28 at Allen Event Center), Atlanta Reign (July 6-7), and Los Angeles Valiant (Aug. 24-25 at The Novo by Microsoft at LA Live). The move is part of a long-term vision for Overwatch League to move to a true home-and-away model.
Emminger and company have plenty of experience producing events on the road — including last year’s Overwatch League Grand Finals at Barclays Center in Brooklyn and its massive annual BlizzCon production – but Blizzard hopes the Homestand Weekend Series will mark the beginning of a new chapter for OWL.
“Obviously, across Blizzard, we have a lot of experience with on-the-road productions, so we’re very excited about this,” says Emminger. “Just like in [traditional] sports, where the team owner and team stadium take on responsibility to host consistently high-quality games in their own market, we want [OWL] to do that as well. This is just an evolution of what we’ve already been doing – just with more-consistent cities. We’re just trying to continue to track towards the home-and-away model, which is the league’s long-term vision.”
Pre/Postgame Goes Live: New Shows Benefit Streaming, In-Venue Fans
Last year, Blizzard Entertainment produced a weekly OWL studio show called Watchpoint but saw an opportunity to incorporate pre/postgame into this year’s live stream, as it did at Barclays Center for the Grand Finals last year.
“We decided there was a great content opportunity for us to [transition it] to a live premium pre and post show,” says Emminger. “We had a lot of interest in the community for more content around the match play, but it’s obviously very hard to [incorporate] that content during the matches because everything is moving so fast and you just don’t have enough time to cover everything you want to cover.”
The Watchpoint pregame, halftime, and postgame shows are produced from a desk inside Blizzard Arena. In addition to providing shoulder programming for fans watching the live stream, these studio shows also help to better engage fans arriving early to the arena.
“The live pre and post shows are great for our audience in the arena because [fans onsite] now have more engaging content to entertain them,” says Emminger. “In esports, one of the interesting differentiators from [traditional] sports is that many of the people that come to the arena actually prefer to sit directly behind or next to our analyst desk and commentators. And some of them want to sit in the front row of the stage. It’s kind of like the movie theater: if you ask 10 people where the best seat is, you’re going to get 10 different answers.”
New MAM Frontier: Reach Engine Connects Blizzard With OWL Teams, Rightsholders
In advance of the 2019 OWL season, Blizzard Entertainment also launched a new Reach Engine by Levels Beyond MAM platform and increased its total data-storage capacity to more than 5.5 PB.
“This new system will better support not just ourselves internally but all of our partners and all of the teams,” says Emminger. “We added eight new teams to the league this year, and we have a growing environment, so we knew we had to establish a reliable MAM system. In terms of the long-term vision for the league, when we move the model where all the teams are home and away, the complexity will grow even further. We are trying to plan for all those future complexities, and we felt like Levels Beyond would be the best partner for us to do that with.”
In addition to serving the needs of OWL teams, Blizzard is looking to leverage the Reach Engine content-management platform for more-efficient delivery of content to social channels, Twitch and other streaming outlets, and broadcast partner Disney/ESPN (selected matches will air on ESPN, Disney XD, and ABC throughout the 2019 season).
“We’ve worked hard with Disney and ESPN to collaborate more and get more content out to them,” says Emminger. “That was a big factor related to [launching] the MAM. One of the big goals with the MAM was to get more real-time content out to all of our different social avenues, as well as to the ESPN social team.”
Blizzard Entertainment also moved its entire postproduction operation in-house, having previously outsourced portions of its post projects. As a result, the team added another petabyte of local Dell EMC Isilon storage for the editing team in December.
OWL Transmission Ops: Outbound Feeds Jump From Two to 37
In Season 2 of OWL, Blizzard has added another level of sophistication to its transmission scheme, inserting unique graphics and sponsor elements into different streams depending on the region and distribution outlet.
“First of all,” says Emminger, “you’re going to see different ads in Korea than in the U.S. for international [distribution]. But, beyond that, we’re even doing it domestically, with unique streams across our digital and linear partners.”
The bulk of the OWL transmission platform runs on AWS Elemental and AWS Elemental Cloud, which Blizzard is using to deliver 37 outbound transmission paths (plus the All-Access Pass feeds). Last year, it used just two.
“We had to coordinate with all of our regional productions to essentially bring all the transmissions back to a central-plant operation and then reskin all the ads,” says Emminger. “And it’s not just ads; it’s also things like lower-third graphics and integrated sponsors and actual production [elements].”
Week 2 of Stage 1 in the second season of Overwatch League continues this week.