The global eSports economy is on track to reach $905.6 million in 2018,1 and, according to NewZoo data, an estimated 167 million people will tune into eSports tournament coverage per month this year.2 With eSports viewership across cable, OTT and social platforms like Twitch and Facebook Live set to surpass that of traditional sports content, and massive eSports arenas popping up around world, the competitive sport is opening up new revenue opportunities while drawing the attention of broadcast, live production and post professionals. eSports captures a younger demographic, one traditional TV has been losing over the last few years, and its active fanbase demands high quality content that’s consumable across a range of platforms; requirements that appropriately-equipped live production and post professionals can readily deliver.
Step into any eSports arena, and an extensive in-house production setup is the norm, including everything from massive LED displays to state-of-the-art cameras, video recorders, switchers, conversion tools, frame syncs, edit suites and more. In many ways, eSports continues the trend of high-end production and post gear being tapped for deployments in fixed install AV setups outside the traditional broadcast environment. Professionals from live production and post backgrounds are well positioned to serve this booming market because they’re accustomed to delivering stellar visual content and have worked around the same issues that plague eSports production workflows – from latency to loss of signal, timing needs between video and audio sync, and more. In particular, pros that have worked in broadcast and OTT are familiar with and accustomed to implementing the latest streaming and IP technology, which is crucial to bringing tournament coverage to local and remote audiences. Technological advancements, both new and proven from traditional broadcast and streaming scenarios, are setting the stage for eSports production to scale.
Technology Driving eSports Production Forward
As eSports production evolves, technology from the world of video games will increasingly collide with broadcast and streaming equipment. This summer, for instance, Epic Games released Unreal Engine 4.2 with support for AJA’s KONA 4 and Corvid 44 video cards with a plug-in for HD-SDI video and audio input and output. This advancement allows eSports productions to more easily use an incoming SDI signal from a broadcast, live camera feed, or stream and composite it inside a virtual set in real time for play out. It can also be used to capture multiple video sources for streaming through desktop I/O technology like KONA and bring in multiple SDI feeds that can be live switched to in-venue displays.
Readily accessible streaming technology, such as available with AJA’s HELO standalone streaming and recording device or AJA’s KONA 4 desktop I/O card or portable Io 4K Plus I/O in combination with applicable software, is also quickly becoming a crucial part of eSports production, supporting delivery of live gameplay locally to audiences via WiFi with HLS support, or to remote viewers via Content Delivery Networks (CDNs). A number of eSports arenas also record tournament footage and streams for use in marketing materials, highlight reels or for backup recording; this requires reliable playback and recording with a range of connectivity that can be achieved with solutions like AJA’s Ki Pro Ultra Plus. Another broadcast tool working its way into eSports productions is the frame synchronizer. AJA’s FS4, for instance, supports multiple channels of HD in and out, synchronizing signals from various inputs to sync playback out to on-set monitors.
Furthermore, eSports productions are benefiting from longer cable runs, which facilitate computer playout or signal distribution to various touchpoints throughout the arena. Companies like AJA offer a range of conversion solutions with support for Fiber to support this need. Scan converters, like AJA’s ROI, are becoming staples as well, allowing professionals to capture broadcast quality video off of a computer screen or a game station and correctly format for the appropriate frame rate and resolution sizes for monitors. The expectation for high quality content among the eSports community is also prompting productions to embrace technology with built-in support for 4K/UltraHD and HDR like KONA HDMI, which enables simultaneous capture of two 4K sources or four HD sources, and HDR gameplay from consoles like the PS4™ Pro.
While each production requires its own unique workflow involving a variety of tools to fit the job, companies like CBT Systems and GQC Entertainment have designed and built dedicated workflows that show what’s possible.
CBT Systems (CBTS)
CBTS began as a concept authored on a napkin more than 20 years ago, and quickly evolved into a design and engineering powerhouse serving high profile clients in broadcast and production, sports and ProAV. With the recent rise of eSports as a spectator event, CBTS has been increasingly called upon to architect broadcast quality workflows supporting large-scale live productions. In preparing to launch a new 30,000 square-foot eSports arena in Las Vegas, Allied Esports called upon CBTS to design and build a live production workflow for the expansive facility. Tapping AJA solutions and a host of other equipment, CBTS delivered an extensive setup that supports weekly 1080p 59.94 eSports tournament live streams to in-house displays and streamed via Twitch. Earlier in the arena this year, Allied held a “Fortnite” eSports tournament hosted by professional gamer Ninja, which broke Twitch’s all-time concurrent viewer record at the time of more than 667,000 viewers.
Fans tune into the live stream each week to watch gamers play a range of video games such as “Fortnite,” “Smite,” “Dragonball,”and “Rocket League,” and are quick to comment on everything from lighting to camera angles and sound – making reliable, high quality tools a necessity. “There’s a tremendous amount of pressure to get everything right when streaming live to hundreds of thousands of fans worldwide. Even the smallest technical glitch floods the stream with real-time complaints, which is why we rely on AJA gear,” said CBTS President Darrell Wendhardt. “The company develops quality solutions with unmatched longevity. I’ve tested other gear on the market, but you simply just can’t beat the performance, reliability and quality of signal that AJA tools provide.”
Allied’s sprawling facility includes a front of house (FOH) and back of house (BOH) control room. The FOH control room sits on a second-floor balcony overlooking the arena where audio and lighting are closely monitored, while the BOH space houses broadcast quality production switchers, graphics systems and more. More that 50 sources throughout the facility provide audiences with comprehensive tournament coverage; sources include four studio cameras; 12 robotic cameras; 3 POV cameras; 12 ISO cameras to capture individual players; 12 computer screens; two robotic cameras and one polecam in an insert studio where Sports Center-style interviews are held.
An arsenal of displays and other live production equipment round out the space. AJA ROI converters power robotic camera and computer interfaces while KONA cards support desktop I/O on two Mac edit suites running Adobe® Premiere Pro. 60 monitors in various locations are plugged into AJA Hi5-Plus 3G-SDI to HDMI Mini-Converters, which follow the broadcast monitors in the back of house production spaces; all source monitors running off a multiviewer pass through a Hi5-Plus. AJA HA5-Plus and HDP3 Mini-Converters also power HDMI to HD/SD and 3G-SDI to DVI-D conversion, and eight FS4s are tapped for audio embedding and disembedding of individual channels. “The FS4 is an awesome swiss army knife for this industry. It’s so cost effective considering all of the functionality you can get out of one box,” Wendhardt noted.
With each new eSports project that CBTS takes on, Wendhardt approaches the design from the perspective of a broadcaster. “eSports productions are growing more sophisticated, and fans won’t accept anything less than the quality of productions they’re used to seeing on TV. Embracing broadcast quality gear from companies like AJA from the start is smart and saves facilities money in the long run, giving them the ability to scale with growth,” he concluded.
Step into the Caesars Event Space in Las Vegas, and it has all of the conventional trappings of a major sports production. Cameras and a host of broadcast equipment surround an elaborate set dressed with stadium-style bleacher seating, a commentator desk and interview stage, in addition to 75 gaming stations in the round and a decagon of overhead displays. 75 pro gamers gather in the space each week for an “H1Z1” Pro League eSports competition, which pits teams of gamers against one another as they play Daybreak Games’ battle royale hit “H1Z1.” The event draws up to 800 spectators to the venue, but its reach extends far beyond Twin Galaxies’ doors via a Facebook Live stream. Boutique equipment rental and services shop GQC, owned and operated by DP Steve Garrett, oversees each live stream, providing technical supervision, crew and gear, including AJA Ki Pro Ultra Plus recorders/players.
Hosted by sports reporter Kristine Leahy (“American Ninja Warrior”), the show features a combination of gameplay, player reactions, play-by-play analysis by sportscasters Jason Burns and Rich Campbell, player and team interviews and more. With so many elements to capture and integrate into a cohesive program, GQC Technical Supervisor Marty Meyer teamed with Michael Little, COO of design, develop and deployment group Artistic Resources Corporation (ARC), ahead of the production to architect and implement a broadcast-grade workflow.
“Our approach to a Facebook Live stream like this is no different than if we were broadcasting to a major sports network. At the end of the day, we know we’ll be firing up an arsenal of broadcast equipment, so a smart crew and reliable tools with great functionality are must-haves,” Meyer shared. “When it comes to hiring a good production crew, they often expect top of the line equipment – from the cameras to the switcher. We knew we’d need a bullet-proof recorder like Ki Pro Ultra that professionals respect.”
GQC’s workflow includes eight Panasonic cameras, which capture footage of the host, commentators and players; five of the cameras are handheld, one is a front of house camera on a platform, and two are mounted on jibs, including one Jimmy Jib. Ki Pro Ultras connected to each Panasonic camera are tapped for ISO records and used as primary and backup line records. A media server separately records live gameplay from each of the 75 gaming computers in real-time, while 76 genlocked POV cameras mounted above each computer monitor capture player reactions. A multi-channel AJA FS4 synchronizes three additional computers as graphics sources. Computer sources are fed to FS4 over HD-SDI and using the ROI controls (Region of Interest), an extraction of the computer desktops is scaled to 1080p baseband video with the same frame rate as the rest of the camera sources to seamlessly switch to as part of the streaming feed.
As the Director and TD determine which content goes live, it’s run through a 192×192 router as a 1080p 3G-SDI signal and sent through a switcher. Footage is then composited with graphics from a dual-channel graphics system and output in real-time to Facebook Live at 1080p. “We don’t currently see a lot of 1080p streaming because of data and bandwidth concerns, but to stay true to the gaming experience, no other frame rate or resolution was an option for us. 1080p is the standard for gaming because there’s less compression, and even though Facebook Live compresses the signal, working with 1080p throughout still gives us a better-quality picture,” shared Meyer.
Each week, the Ki Pro Ultras each record more than three and a half hours of ProRes 422 footage to bullet-proof AJA Pak Media SSDs. The Paks are passed off to the client’s in-house editorial team, who then cut the videos for a rebroadcast, marketing materials and team use. Having used other recorders on the market, GQC and ARC chose Ki Pro Ultras because they knew it wouldn’t fail in the field or produce footage with errors. “The simplest way to put it is that you don’t get fired for choosing AJA gear like Ki Pro Ultra or FS4; it’s that dependable,” Meyer explained. “With the Ki Pro Ultras, our program records are now problem free, and even though we have one for backup record, we haven’t had to use it.”
Little added, “Looking at an eSports broadcast for Facebook Live versus a traditional sports production, the demands are similar, which is why we went with Ki Pro Ultra Plus. It’s the universal go-to for confident recording because it’s been heavily vetted and ruggedized, and by that, I mean it’s been proven to perform consistently, even in rough environments.”
The Next Evolution of eSports Production
As eSports popularity continues to grow, so does the demand for expertise from broadcast, production and post professionals to service this market. They’ll find many of their go-to tools are aptly suited for eSports applications and will drive continued innovation as technology and techniques evolve.