NAB 2019 Perspectives: The Switch’s Charles Conroy Says Traditional Sports Broadcasters Can Help But Need To Listen to Esports’ Needs

Company’s new VP of gaming is focused on supporting the space from a ‘genuine’ place

Esports was a dominating trend at NAB 2019, but few exhibitors put their flag in the ground more dramatically than The Switch. The longtime provider of network connectivity and managed, private cloud services formally introduced The Switch eSports division, which comprises technology and personnel dedicated to integrating esports production, transmission, and distribution from anywhere in the world.

At The Switch’s esports activation in the North Hall was recently hired VP, Gaming, Charles Conroy. Joining the company in November, he is a veteran of the esports space, having most recently served as chief development officer for Next Gen Tech, parent company of Complexity Gaming, which was sold to the Dallas Cowboys about two years ago. Conroy is adjusting to life on the technology side and, at NAB 2019, was showing off a newly developed transmission box dedicated to the unique needs of live-esports-content producers and distributors.

Conroy took a few minutes to chat with SVG about his vision for the esports industry, how The Switch is focusing its technology to meet its needs, and why it’s so important that the company enter the industry from a “genuine” place.

The Switch’s Charles Conroy: “It’s the job of the production people to adapt to esports while bringing in the production quality that’s expected in traditional sports. I think that’s where you see the two worlds really marry.”

When did The Switch decide to make this move into esports? What has the effort entailed?
The Switch did BlizzCon and the Overwatch League Finals last year, which was sort of their first foray into esports. Through some traditional sports connections that they had, they were brought in to help produce those events, and they did a great job. [The events] have linear needs that The Switch hit it out of the park with.

A lot of esports is IP-based, so they realized they needed to make a shift to an IP product. They contacted me and brought me in. I had been in esports for 15 years. I was looking for an opportunity to come back into the space working in both the sports world and the esports world. The Switch is a great blend of that. I’ve started helping develop their esports product, and we did that by going to a lot of tournaments and shows and talking to every tech guy that we could.

One thing that I think is interesting about esports and a fatal [error] that a lot of production companies made in the past is trying to fit the esports model into their traditional sports model. Esports matches aren’t a set 90 minutes. It’s the job of the production people to adapt to esports while bringing in the production quality that’s expected in traditional sports. I think that’s where you see the two worlds really marry.

Esports has a need for a lot of the things that traditional sports does, and traditional sports needs to be nimble enough to fill those needs without bringing on the complete traditional sports model, because that’s just not an effective way to come in. We made sure not to do that.

We came in from a genuine perspective. We got a lot of information from a lot of people about what products they needed, and we built our esports box that can bring connectivity and can get anyone on network anywhere in the world. We’ve been sending this to Lisbon and Brazil, streaming both IP and linear.

For a client refresh, we’re doing 32 different feeds, sending six or seven clean feeds out that are translated in different languages for casting, and we do that all out of [that box]. We don’t need a lot of infrastructure to get that going. We’ll take whatever network is there, even if it’s public Internet, and get it onto our The Switch network, which is then secured. That has been very popular for them, but it was one of those things where, instead of shoving linear down people’s throats, we heard the clients’ needs and developed the solution.

What has it been like for you to be on this side of the business, and do you feel that you were able to bring your own expertise in to help build technology that makes it happen?
I will say, there was a really large learning curve. I was coming from sponsorship sales, and I had done some on-camera work. I knew the space really well, but I was never behind the camera. I knew all the guys that were. I came in as an esports expert that was a total production novice. I have a respect for what those knowledge levels need. I was able to meet and learn from all the people I needed to meet and learn from.

I basically got a technical degree in the last four months. The first meeting was super-intimidating because everyone was using abbreviations I had never heard of and it was like they were speaking a different language. I walked out kind of shell-shocked. It has been great since then, though. Our engineers are some of the smartest in the world, and they’ve been very patient with me. I can bring them in and talk to the right people, and I can keep up with the conversation. It’s they who have been able to create what I think is a really cool product, giving me the opportunity to advise how we utilize it, where we deploy it, and how to do that in a genuine way.

What are some of the conversations you are having here at NAB 2019? Are they with novices e looking to understand the space better? Are you seeing a lot of hardcore esports broadcasters looking to take their productions to the next level?
I think it runs the gamut. NAB has the mix, but I’ve still had those conversations where people come up and say, “Wow, people really get paid to play videogames?” We’d love to not have that conversation anymore, but it’s still there, and that’s fine.

You do, however, have the folks from a lot of the major publishers who are looking to up their game. They have 22 million viewers a weekend, and they are asking, “What can we do better?” That’s what I love about esports: there’s no complacency. That’s why it skyrocketed as an industry. Esports, 15 years ago, didn’t really exist. It did, but nowhere near the level it would become. In that time, it has done more than football has done in 100 years.

Every year, this space evolves at the pace that a normal sport would take eight to 10 years to. Esports is skyrocketing, and we’re excited to be a major factor both for those just getting into the space and for those who have been doing it since its inception.

What are you finding yourself spending a lot of your time working on right now? What are you dedicating a lot of your brain power to?
The idea of dedicated esports stadiums is really interesting to us because we are in every major sports venue in the U.S. It’s a really natural and easy transition to wire these esports stadium. I do think we are ahead of our competitors because we have a dedicated esports department. We know how to approach things in an organic way, which is an incredibly important factor in this space. I can’t emphasize enough that [esports] people really appreciate being dealt with genuinely and, if you try to force traditional sports formats on them without really listening to what they need, it’s just not going to work. There are other options they can go to. Esports will benefit from the help of traditional sports, but they don’t need the help of traditional sports, and I think that’s a really important differentiator.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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