Blizzard Entertainment Takes Live Esports Broadcast to New Heights With Launch of Call of Duty League

Huge show in Minneapolis kicks off months-long, continent-spanning production odyssey

Esports has had the sports-video–production community’s attention for some time now, with much of the hype built around mega championship-style events that pack major arenas: events like Fortnite World Cup, League of Legends World Championship, and many more. Now the question remains, can the format do it on a regular basis with a more formatted structure? The new Call of Duty League is the latest venture to take a swing at answering that question.

At the Call of Duty League Launch Weekend, the main broadcast was directed by Melissa Bricker from inside a Dome Productions mobile production unit.

This past weekend in Minneapolis, Activision Blizzard relaunched its esports competition series (previously known at the Call of Duty World League) based on the popular first-person shooter as a city-based franchise league comprising 12 teams (10 in North America, two in Europe). Each city will host live competitions leading up to a grand final expected to be held sometime in July.

It’s a noted formalization of Blizzard’s esports commitment to Call of Duty and promises to travel a wild production roadshow to major cities across the globe.

“We like to deliver the unexpected,” says Nick Vartanian, director, global broadcast, Call of Duty League, who came to the esports world in 2018 after a successful career in live event production at the NFL and The Walt Disney Co.We like to bring surprise and delight. Broadcast production is broadcast production. We’re producing a show to entertain our guests and our viewers. We want to put on the best show possible, and that’s true whether you are putting on traditional sports, esports, or whatever it might be.”

Production Tools Power Integrated In-Venue, Broadcast Show
As anyone who has worked on a live esports production will tell, the most notable difference between an esports production and a traditional-sports production is that the in-venue and broadcast experiences not only need to completely complement each other but are fully integrated technologically.

Shoutcasters (on-air commentators) are heard by both the audience watching the stream at home and the fans at the venue. Most of what is seen on the screens in the venue is what is broadcast to the home. And it’s all running off the same broadcast infrastructure.

“The big thing in esports is that all workflows are connected,” notes Pete Emminger, VP, global broadcast, Activision Blizzard Esports, who oversees all of Blizzard’s esports competitions, including the popular Overwatch League.For example, our graphics systems are custom apps that trigger graphics in multiple systems. For us, the field-of-play elements are the stage, and they can’t be separate from broadcast because the audience hears the same commentators and sees the same gameplay. We can’t split because it would all clash. So we’re way more integrated in terms of in-game presentation and broadcast.”

Therefore, onsite production trucks (two Dome Productions units dedicated to the full season of Call of Duty League) house a team putting together a show designed to be seen both in the venue and on broadcast.

Nick Vartanian oversees broadcast production for Call of Duty League.

The league’s Launch Weekend took over (and packed) The Armory in Downtown Minneapolis, a popular concert venue that was actually the home of the NBA’s Lakers prior to their move to Los Angeles in 1960. The setup was a sizable one and comprised 25 cameras, a jib, multiple RF handhelds, and a Movicom Robycam for aerial shots within the venue. A multipurpose studio desk located toward the back of the venue was used both for host commentators and to spotlight 2v2 competitions, for which the desk would split in half and move on a track along the floor.

The primary competition space was placed on The Armory’s main stage with theater-style seating for fans. Two competition desks were positioned facing the crowd. Since, again, the setup had to account for the in-venue experience as well, 277 lighting fixtures on 1,084 ft. of truss were brought into the building to bring a concert-like atmosphere to the venue. Support for nearly 1,000 LED video tiles of various kinds required approximately 2,100 amps of power. Those tiles displayed images at 1080p and surrounded 4,944 sq. ft. of staging.

Expanded Pool of Observers Aims for Deeper Storytelling
If you have been following the growth of esports as a production entity, you’ve read about the importance of a certain role unique to the esports format: observers. Observers are essentially in-game camera operators. While a traditional director and TD at the front bench cut the show to integrate shots of the human competitors, the on-air commentators, and/or the crowd, observers are responsible for showing all the action of the virtual game. They choose what angles the viewer sees in the field of play.

A major enhancement that Blizzard brings to the new Call of Duty League is expanding the field of observers on a live broadcast from one to a team of five. It’s a major shift in the creative process and one that Blizzard hopes will take the art of telling the story of a Call of Duty match to the next level. Most Call of Duty esports competitions in the past toggled between POV views of all the competitors, since that’s the way the game is largely seen by the players. Although it may be jarring at first, Blizzard is hoping that the ability to deploy more tools and place more camera angles in the virtual environment will paint a more compelling picture.

“Each one of [the observers] has the capability to go free cam, aerial cam, static cam, surveillance cam, or the traditional POV,” says Vartanian. “What we are working on is, what is the right mix of what we’re used to seeing in POV vs. different camera angles and how do we use those tools to be more of a storyteller. It’s a different play because the core community is very used to the POV look and there was a lot of action. That’s coverage after coverage after coverage. We want to shift more toward storytelling. When it comes down to a “search-and-destroy” (two vs. one), we want to see that in a very unique and different way than we’ve seen it before.”

Launch Weekend in Minneapolis was a 25-camera show that included a Movicom Robycam.

The talented observers taking on this unique challenge in the first season of Call of Duty League are Xavier LaTorre, Quintin Johnson, Ronald “Waldo” Kinne, Patrick Ard, and John Prosper. They are excited about the opportunities provided by this expanded setup but acknowledge that it takes a lot of prep work — and numerous trial runs — to perfect the cohesion of the group.

“A big part of that change is the communication between this team,” says Johnson. “It’s great to be able to see all of this stuff at once and figure out what is the most important thing going on at this time. Making sure we’re all on the same page has been a lot of fun, and we’re hitting a great stride together.”

Adds LaTorre, “There really are infinite possibilities, and that allows us to be creative. We can partner with the casters and the commentators to paint a wonderful picture that we haven’t had the ability to do before.”

IP Workflows Power Asset Management and Transmission
At an esports event like this, it’s surprising just how much the broadcast environment resembles one at a major football, soccer, or basketball event. There’s a lot of traditional hardware in the form of trucks, switchers, replay and graphics machines, and more. However, with essentially the entire league on the road for these shows, Blizzard has invested in making its in-venue and broadcast workflows (operations and transmission) entirely IP.

For example, in transmission (CoD League is broadcast on various O&O properties in the Blizzard family as well as through a distribution deal with YouTube), the ops team takes 16 sources over a 1-gig aggregate data stream onsite and routes that to a custom-built cloud infrastructure using AWS. There, the feed can be transcoded to any format.

That allows assets to be sent to the league’s media-asset–management (MAM) platform, its postproduction teams for edit, and external broadcast paths (such as YouTube). According to Emminger, the cloud-based workflows provide easy routability to anywhere in the world with low latency and actually make it possible to run the show from anywhere (the show is monitored in Blizzard’s main BOC in Irvine, CA), so long as contribution is available. It even allows the team to insert its own ads in the cloud before pushing the feed downstream to YouTube.

Going deeper on asset management, Blizzard’s MAM system takes in eight live feeds, including the full dirty broadcast feed, top-down map feeds, and the face cameras locked on all of the human competitors. Upwards of five highlight editors work within the MAM to chop up and deliver VOD and short-form content for various social and digital platforms. Emminger adds that the MAM leverages a serverless microservice architecture to ingest, transcode, and deliver assets to the CDN and digital publish points.

Observers (virtual in-game camera operators) are a huge part of the storytelling process in a live esports broadcast. In Call of Duty League, Blizzard is expanding the pool of observers from one to five. Observers for the season are (from left) Xavier LaTorre, Quintin Johnson, Ronald “Waldo” Kinne, Patrick Ard, and John Prosper.

The postproduction team, for its part, is leveraging a 10-Gbps internal network connecting the onsite trucks with the postproduction site. Sixteen EVS streams (at 1080p59.94 fps) push content in AVC-I 100 MXF format with 16-channel audio. In post, four editors work simultaneously to grab live feeds from the EVS server, other editing points, and final delivery. The workflow allows those editors to quickly turn content around to the team in the onsite A unit producing the main show.

Blizzard fills out its onsite team with some support in Irvine. A pair of external “preditors” have access to all the content feeds to churn out packaged content for social and digital.

Onsite, Blizzard supports CoD League with 200 TB of NAS storage, archiving all the EVS content, camera offloads, and work done by editors both on- and off-site. The operations team uses Signiant Media Shuttle to deliver requested clips from the broadcast center in Irvine to the onsite location. That content includes anything from animated graphics to updated hype reels and other customized obligations to partners and sponsors.

Busy Road Ahead
If all that sounds like a lot, it is. And the project gets only more challenging from here. Next stop for the Call of Duty League is London in two weeks, which coincides with the kickoff weekend of Blizzard’s other major franchise esports property Overwatch League, which will launch in both New York and Dallas simultaneously.

Activision Blizzard Esports’ Pete Emminger notes that, in esports, all workflows are connected.

With the two leagues combined, Blizzard will host 78 events just like this in the upcoming year. That’s not including many other major esports tournaments and finals throughout the months ahead.

“It’s probably the toughest thing I’ve ever done in my career,” says Vartanian. “To be a part of it and to be a part of this team: it’s the reason I come to work every day. I love Call of Duty. I love the product. I love what we are building, and that’s something great to be excited about. But I wake up and come to work every day because of the people I work with.”