Esports - A New Prescription For Broadcasting: Part 2 - To Be Agile

Esports has the big advantage of working from the ground up when delivering productions. Backwards compatibility is unheard of and legacy equipment is something for other people. But how does this lack of legacy help broadcasters?

This article was first published as part of Core Insights - Esports - A New Prescription For Broadcasting - download the complete Core Insight HERE.

If we could start television all over again, we certainly wouldn’t be using fractional frame rates and video-lines would not even appear in our vocabulary, we might not even be using frames at all and instead using lightfield cameras or visual object representation instead of pixel matrices.

Although esports may not be that advanced yet, it’s wholesale adoption of IP makes the opportunities endless. Fundamentally, IP packets have no knowledge of the data they carry, and to a large extent they don’t care. This is what makes distribution flexible for all aspects of data delivery, not just broadcasting.

Network Opportunities
With IP in mind, video and audio stream delivery becomes much more interesting. We’re not limited to the star nature of circuit switched connectivity found with SDI and AES as packet switched networks offer many more opportunities and flexibility.

Esports infrastructures ride on the back of the wave of IT innovation. The don’t need to consider backwards compatibility but instead can look forward and use the latest solutions possible. Other than signal switching and interfacing, all the signal processing will take place in software. Although the complexity of the software should not be underestimated along with the commitment and dedication needed to write it, the time to market for software solutions is orders of magnitude faster than the hardware systems we traditionally use in broadcasting.

IT might not openly speak of backwards compatibility, but it is implied. IP is a backwards compatible system as it’s been around since the 1970’s, and the fundamental operation hasn’t changed since then. What makes it so powerful is that it’s not tied to a hardware transport stream and is beautifully scalable. IP datagrams are data stored in memory, its only when we send it to another computer does it manifest itself within and ethernet or WiFi frame. Any limitation between the IP protocol and the underlying physical layer was stopped long before it started when IP was first designed.

Removing Limited Thinking
This helps esports engineers think in an entirely different manner. They’re not limited by any hardware constraints but instead abstract away workflows and ideas from the limitations of hardware thinking. As transport streams get faster, then IP datagrams are distributed through the networks with increasing bitrates leading to upwardly scalable systems.

Software solutions benefit greatly from this scalability and esports takes advantage of this to the extreme. Being adept at writing software demonstrates how problems can be solved quickly. A whole array of monitoring tools are available that are both configurable and automated to provide flexibility not normally available. Esports engineers are taking advantage of the configuration and instantiation opportunities cloud-based TAG VS monitoring systems provide for their remote production teams using the TAG API to create dynamic scalable production systems. News organizations, having seen this working in esports, are now adopting similar dynamic monitoring capabilities.

For configuration and network diagnostics, Wireshark is the go-to software for grabbing stream packets during faultfinding and system diagnosis. Scripts can be written that automate recording and analysis processes in ways that are just not possible for traditional broadcasting. Recorded streams can be exported with timestamps containing ethernet frames and IP packets allowing engineers to analyze the streams off-line. This is particularly useful when intermittent faults develop, or custom systems need to be built.

For managing live esports productions, engineers are using deep probing and analysis capabilities of systems from vendors such as TAG VS to discover and rectify problems with sources, signals and transmission paths before they affect the on-air production. These IP-centric tools give network engineers the kinds of metrics required to make live production in IP-based facilities and in the cloud possible. They even enable automatic capture of signals on error for later deep analysis and troubleshooting.

Ascending Static Systems
This does point to a more fundamental aspect of how esports and IT engineers think in general. IP networks, especially when configured with mesh topologies, rely on statistical processing for their operation. Although every IP packet is valuable and must be preserved, network engineers assume some data will be lost as it’s almost impossible to build an error free network. Furthermore, the costs are inversely proportional to the packet loss meaning that as networks guarantee more reliable delivery, their cost will increase exponentially.

This isn’t to say that esports networks are inferior in anyway, it’s just that thinking in IT terms, allowance is made for packet loss using other strategies. As in all things engineering, there is always a compromise and the strategies provided by esports include the use of compression and buffering.

Compression helps reduce bandwidths and can be tuned for specific applications. IP networks facilitate multiple types of video and audio streaming so different compression systems can be used to achieve better results. Long GOP compression provides lower bit rates at the expense of higher latency and will work for confidence monitoring. But I-Frame only encoding, while reducing latency, would require much higher data rates to deliver the higher quality images and lower latency needed for live production processing.

Agile Thinking
All this leads to multi-stream networks that facilitate the distribution of hundreds of simultaneous video and audio streams. Even SMPTEs ST2110 could be integrated into the network.

The key takeaway here is that esports simultaneously use a multitude of video and audio sources, many of which have different video formats. Esports engineers don’t necessarily try and convert every stream to the same format but work in a much more agile manner. They allow the streams to be distributed through the networks taking advantage of the agility and the flexibility of IP.

Agile development is often banded around without much thought to the true nature of the mindset processes that go with it and is instead focused on software management. But it is much more than a software development system. It’s about doing the exact amount of work required to meet the needs of the software, not over engineering a system, but taking a pragmatic approach to the realities of the system being delivered.

Esports software systems are further demonstrating how multi-format video and audio streams can be processed without having to resort to converting everything to baseband SDI or analog audio.

But just because software is extensively used doesn’t always mean a system is cheap or easy to build. Modern computing hardware has improved in speed and resource by many orders of magnitude in recent years with APIs that facilitate and encourage collaboration. It’s this collaboration and agile mindset that leads to increased integration, and esports engineers providing many more solutions to the challenges they face.

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