There is no doubt that esports is here to stay. The scene, while very fluid, is absolutely in the mainstream now. It’s not easy to find absolute consensus among the various reported numbers, but if you had to put a pin in the map, it looks like esports is set for around 500 million viewers worldwide this year.
Over a year of Covid restrictions and lockdowns have no doubt accelerated and surpassed most predicted growths though, and even more traditional sports broadcasters have recognised its potential value. The BBC has been streaming the League of Legends 2021 Spring Season, the Blast Premier CS:GO Global Finals and in the US networks like ESPN and Fox News are also already in on the action. There is even an Olympic Virtual Series of events organised by the International Olympic Committee this year.
Of course, the difficulty with numbers here is defining what constitutes Esports in the first place. Pretty much anyone can organise a game and stream it via Twitch or YouTube, or any of the various streaming services, and there are huge numbers of smaller tournaments and ‘Battle Royale’-style competitions being held everywhere. However, to find scale, there are still a relatively small number of very popular games with bi- money tournaments and the clout to command exceptional live audiences.
The big three are still CS:GO (Counter-Strike: Global Offensive) - a team-based first-person shooter; League of Legends - a multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) team game in isometric perspective; and DOTA 2 - another team MOBA developed by Valve. Other popular games in that mix include Fortnite, Rainbow 6: Siege, Overwatch, Hearthstone, Rocket League, and Valorant. And of course, the more traditional sports simulations figure too, with titles such as FIFA, Madden NFL and Formula 1 definitely in the running.
The bigger tournaments are mostly dominated by players from the growing number of professional teams, taking advantage of the large winners’ cheques, corporate sponsorship, and merchandising opportunities. Ranked by earnings, the top teams of 2020 seem to be Team Liquid, OG, Evil Geniuses, and Fnatic, though some estimates put even the 100th ranked team earnings at over one million dollars. Team Liquid earnings have been estimated at around $35 million. Esports teams field players and teams in various games under a single brand, so Fnatic’s current roster includes League of Legends, CS:GO, DOTA 2, Rainbow Six, Valorant, and FIFA representatives, as well as a roster of ‘Creatives’ - individual sponsored streamers, influencers, and analysts.
The large live world championship events - obviously with the Covid exceptions - have become grand affairs, with international stadium sell-outs and incredible opening ceremonies featuring Augmented Reality additions for the streaming audiences. As a broadcast event, a top Esports event is every bit as complex, critical, and multifaceted as a traditional sports broadcast. In fact, if you count the sheer number of video and audio sources, and comms channels, often they outstrip traditional sports broadcasts by some margin.
A typical game might have video feeds from all player perspectives and other spectator views, they will have conventional feeds from player-cams as well as additional fixed and roving event cameras, audience sources, technical overlays, graphics and effects, and so on. Audio feeds will include in-game team talk, commentary, coach, and so on.
In the case of Riot Games (League of Legends, Valorant, Legends of Runeterra), the developer does its own broadcast production. In March 2020 it was reported that Riot games is moving to an almost completely Cloud-based model on the Amazon AWS platform using vMix virtual video switchers and VoIP-based comms.
In any case, it seems that esports has the jump on traditional sports broadcast, whether it’s from ready acceptance of entirely IP-based infrastructure or even the emerging Cloud platforms. This possibly has a lot to do with esports being unencumbered by legacy technologies but is probably also rooted in the resources available to large games developers, the outlook of those charged with delivering the services.
Edward Dowdall is the Sales Manager at UK-based Gravity Media, a broadcast solutions company that has a wide portfolio of services, including ongoing involvement in the delivery of live Esports events. “There is definitely a young culture in the esports community. They want to do it their own way, they want to build from the bottom up and don’t want a top layer of traditional broadcast. They deserve some respect for that. In terms of how you approach it, you’ve got to be on their level and in their mindset.
“They want to see how far they can go. That might be on the API-side, using the game itself to automate and provide control, or any other kind of automation that can help create a better production or something more entertaining for their viewers - like an in-game head-shot that might automatically generate a replay, for example.”
In terms of difference, Dowdall sees a number of factors that esports has either originated, adapted, or demands more of: “There are, of course, a far larger number of inputs and outputs. Some games might have the potential for a hundred players on a map, all with individual video and audio.
“Another interesting element is the Observer role. This is a virtual camera operator – essentially a game player without the on-screen player avatar itself that can create the virtual camera shots for the production in real-time.
“In terms of the production, it’s certainly longer days. You’re talking eight or nine-hour days on a regular three-day meet-up.
“On-site connectivity has to be very resilient, with plenty of redundancy. And frame synch from the PCs is particularly important - linking them all up with the whole, along with all the other camera inputs. There can’t be any lags or you damage the integrity of the game - you could have certain players behind, which for governance and is super-critical.”
Integrated live production systems are further enriched with outboard software components such as intercom, instant replay, advanced graphics, transport components and additional monitoring from vendors such as TAG VS.
For many people, Esports is a fast-flowing underground river. There’s a lot of water there, and is only getting faster, but it’s below ground. Unless you go out of your way to take a look, you won’t necessarily appreciate just how close it is to breaking out and flooding the landscape. If esports has already taken a hold on your consciousness, then much of this will not be news to you, but if you’ve managed to ignore it up until now, it really is worth taking a look. You wouldn’t want someone running a football broadcast without at least understanding the rules of the game, would you?
Esports developers are already booking stadiums around the world for an ambitious program of events as the world emerges from the Covid disaster, and it’s possible that those events will be defining the technology of broadcast, free of legacy thinking, for some time to come.
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