Esports Stadium Arlington Aims To Keep Its Sound Simple
Stereo is fine, for now, but the venue has to be flexible
Live sound and broadcast audio tend to be taken for granted in sports, and esports is no exception. But esports venues face a particularly broad array of sonic challenges, particularly with each game having its own requirements.
“Audio as the ‘red-headed stepchild’ still holds true when it comes to esports, says Corey Dunn, VP, broadcast and events, Esports Stadium Arlington, “which isn’t fair, I know.”
The $10 million, 100,000-sq.-ft. Esports Stadium Arlington, which opened a year ago in the Arlington, TX, Entertainment District, is the largest dedicated esports facility in North America, seating more than 2,500. Esports venues in general have to shoot for the same goals as conventional arenas and stadiums, Dunn notes: achieving high SPL, good speech intelligibility, and full-spectrum fidelity to accommodate the wide range not only of music genres, sound effects and announcer types but also of the games themselves. However, they also have to be able to substantially reconfigure their audio for each game’s unique requirements.
“We might have one event where we have 2,500 people in here and six players per side,” he explains, “and, the next day, it’s a mobile-gaming event with maybe 200 here watching.”
That’s why, when it comes both to the venue’s house sound and to the audio for its live-streamed events, the audio is simply stereo, at least for now, with a WorxAudio V5 left-right line-array sound system connected on a Dante network. The “bowl” audio is sent out into the venue’s concourses via an existing distributed-audio system, with ceiling speakers in halls and restrooms of the Arlington Convention Center, which houses the Populous-designed esports arena. The sound-system design allows fans to circulate through a Gaming Center with 50-plus gaming stations, as well as retail and social spaces (including food and beverage) and premium hospitality offerings without missing a minute of live-play sound from the stage.
“The reality is that these [esports] fans want to be together for a cultural and social experience, and we’re creating the environment to make that possible,” Brian Mirakian, senior principal/director for Activate, Populous, told SVG last year. “However, they’re not there to sit in their seat the entire time; they’re there to choose an experiential adventure.”
Templates Don’t Work
Esports Stadium Arlington is one of a cohort of new venues — including Fusion Arena in Philadelphia and the HyperX Esports Arena in Las Vegas — designed for the fast-growing esports category. However, Dunn, a 15-year veteran who managed his first esports event in 2004, says the AV-integration community is still working on understanding this nascent class of sports venue. In the case of the Arlington venue, he says, the AV integrator essentially used the Blizzard Arena in Burbank, site of the Overwatch championship matches, as a template.
“That’s great for Overwatch but not for the flexibility we need to do a wide variety of events, including one-on-one competitions,” he explains, adding that he spent his first six months at the facility adapting it for a more nimble approach to esports formats, from Counter-Strike’s 5-v-5 on PCs to Guns of Boom, a mobile first-person shooter game, and Madden Classic, which sees 512 competitors playing 1-v-1 on Xbox Ones. “You can’t cut and paste one design and make it work for every venue. We need a more agile framework to host a variety of games, including PCs, consoles, and mobile.”
Familiar Elements, More of Them
Streaming audio uses 16 channels, but only a stereo feed is sent online for streaming; the other 14 channels are used for postproduction applications. Otherwise, an A1 or A2 from Fox Sports or NBC Sports would find plenty of familiar elements in Arlington, including stereo crowd microphones to create an ambient sonic foundation, and announcer headsets with mic booms. Dunn says that, although there have been discussions around 5.1 and immersive sound, they remain possibilities for the future.
“One major difference is the effects,” he points out. “Instead of parabolic microphones around the play, our effects, such as shooting and reloading and footsteps, are baked into the games themselves, so we can control them very precisely and isolate individual sounds when desired.”
Announcer audio in the venue has to be especially carefully channeled: some games, such as Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, have to keep players isolated from the kinds of chatter that play-by-play commentators will typically provide. That’s usually done by fitting players with noise-canceling headphones or isolation booths that have pink noise added to their mix.
Tommy Bridwell, senior audio engineer, Goodman Audio Services, which provides the audio systems for esports producer Blizzard Entertainment’s events, and who had been lead audio engineer at Next Generation Esport (NGE), backs that up.
“The tricky part of live sound for esports events is making it loud enough for the crowd to be energized but also keeping the commentary away from the players, which can give away their positions on the map,” he explains. “We do that with pink noise through the headphones but also by applying noise gates on the console to the [headset] microphones with the thresholds set high enough that the ambient sound from the PA doesn’t open them but tuned so that the voice of the player using them does. We also let a little bit of the house sound into the headphones, so they can get some sense of the excitement of the audience. It takes a lot of fine-tuning to get that all balanced.”
Esports Stadium Arlington’s audio capabilities are managed in two parts: the broadcast zone, mixed for streaming and broadcast out of the venue, and the live-event zone, mixed for the onsite audience experience, according to Justin Grimsley, resource administrator, Esports Stadium Arlington.
“The production zone also has a sub-component: the competition mix and team comms, which each have their own isolated consoles,” he explains. “All audio inputs and outputs are ingested into our Dante network, and then each zone and the consoles for each zone are given audio-channel permissions and configured on a show-by-show basis, depending on the needs and wants of the event and organizers.”
The FOH console is a Yamaha TF1, with two Tio 1608 I/O expansion units to provide audio connection to the media-server system; the broadcast console is a 72-input Yamaha CL5. A Riedel Artist intercom system is used for both player intercom and technical-staff communications.
Not for Music But Still Musical
Esports Stadium Arlington is a multi-use facility and is designed to handle a variety of events, including music performances and fundraisers. It’s not meant to be a concert hall, however. Dunn says other venues within the sprawling Texas Live! district, including traditional sports venues AT&T Stadium and Globe Life Park, are intended to accommodate touring concerts.
“But the live music that we have had in our venue has sounded great,” he adds.
Esports venues, like the games they host, need to be protean and adaptable but also need to reproduce the sense of community that all stadiums and arenas provide for fans. It’s a balancing act that this new and fast-growing category is figuring out on the fly.
“[An esports venue] doesn’t need to be overly complicated,” says Dunn. “But it needs to be flexible because, unlike conventional sports, not every esports game is created equal.”