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Audio Production Keeps Up as Esports Explodes

The second Esports Production Summit in Los Angeles presented a broad agenda that offered insights about the role of audio in esports broadcasting.

Speaking at the Esports Production Summit were (l-r): Matt Donovan, broadcast and technology manager, Riot Games; Simon Eicher, executive producer and director, broadcast, esports services, ESL Gaming; Andrew Lane, director of broadcast, Faceit; Mitch Rosenthal, director, esports production operations, Twitch; Scott Smith, co-founder/managing director, Do Not Peek Entertainment; Andrew Wagnitz, director of broadcast and technology, Next Generation Esports; and Jason Dachman, chief editor, SVG.

Universal City, CA—Industry analysts predict there will be 84 million esports viewers in the United States by 2021, compared to just 79 million MLB viewers and 63 million NBA viewers. As the juggernaut that is esports continues to gain momentum, Sports Video Group hosted its second annual Esports Production Summit in Los Angeles, presenting a broad agenda that offered insights about the role of audio in esports broadcasting.

Since esports championships, tournaments and games are hosted around the world, broadcast productions have quickly come to rely on REMI (REMote Integration) or at-home workflows, for much the same reasons as traditional sports broadcasts. Not only does the REMI model reduce costs such as hotels and flights for a production that typically requires anywhere from 50 to 80 people, it also enables producers, directors, camera operators, audio engineers and others to sleep in their own beds every night.

“I got tired of being on the road,” said Scott Smith, co-founder/managing director of Do Not Peek Entertainment, speaking on a panel offering attendees a look behind the scenes of today’s esports productions. Smith started the company with Jason Baker, a fellow traveler in the gaming industry since the turn of the millennium. “We did REMI before it was called REMI. We’ve been pioneers in this space since before it was called esports,” said Smith.

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“Riot leans pretty hard on the REMI workflow model,” said Matt Donovan, Riot Games’ broadcast and technology manager. Riot’s League of Legends World Championships, held in three European cities in late 2019, reportedly attracted more than 30 million viewers over 30 days. According to data from industry analyst Esports Charts, the tournament set a record, with four million viewers at its peak.

The tournament included 20 broadcast days, whose production was handled from Riot’s Southern California facility. “We’ve integrated with the Calrec RP1 and utilized remote IFB control from our EU facility,” he said. The RP1 remote production engine acts as an extension of the at-home audio mixing console while also managing local IFBs and remote monitor mixes.

During the competition, “We had upwards of 40 transmission feeds all coming back to different studios around the world,” said Donovan. The signal flow was typical of past tournaments. “We transport those to our flagship studio in Santa Monica and make a world clean feed that is distributed to the rest of the regions,” enabling staff in each of Riot’s 14 broadcast regions to localize the program with their own language, graphics and productions.

Next Generation Esports, a white-label production company based in Burbank, CA, helped produce the Fortnite World Cup in New York in 2019. The company has two studios, one of which has been built out with six new soundstages “to help partner with publishers and vendors that want to produce content,” said Andrew Wagnitz, director of broadcast and technology. “And we’ve partnered with third-party vendors—Game Creek, Bexel, NEP—trying to help publishers get things they wouldn’t normally be able to achieve.”

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Panel moderator Jason Dachman, SVG’s chief editor, noted that the biggest difference between broadcast production for traditional sports and esports is that in esports, there is no separation between venue and broadcast production, which share a control room. “When you’re casting in a remote model, that complicates the workflows,” said Donovan, “especially on the audio side, just adding technology.” It’s a challenge to keep track of local and remote feeds and cues, he said.

That lack of separation has increasingly become a challenge to the integrity of esports competitions as big money flows into the business. Esports games can attract tens of thousands of spectators who expect to follow the play with the help of in-venue commentary and multiple screens. But what if an in-house caster describes some action currently taking place out of sight of a player to fans and the player overhears, or can see events unfolding on one of the displays? How do you prevent cheating with so much money on the line?

To take one example, Fortnite finals winners shared a prize pool of $30 million, and one 16 year old took home $3 million. “When you have a prize pool of multi-millions of dollars, there’s a security aspect,” said Wagnitz.

“As money and fame go up, you have to be careful of these things,” said Smith. To prevent players from hearing what is going on elsewhere in the game while still delivering the expected experience to fans in the venue, “you isolate the players’ headsets,” he said. “They usually wear earbuds and a headset with white noise. Or, at the big events, they put them in a soundproof booth.”

That said, players might still be able to turn and see the action on the screens. “All those things are an extra worry when you’re building the stage and planning the audio,” Smith said.

ESL Gaming’s Simon Eicher, executive producer and director, broadcast, esports services, spoke about opening esports to an even wider audience. “We recently announced, with Intel, the Intel World Open, leading into the Tokyo 2020 Games, tying into OBS [Olympic Broadcast Services, the permanent host broadcaster] and working with the IOC [International Olympic Committee].” It was a thrill to walk around the IBC [International Broadcast Centre], he said: “All the broadcasters getting ready for the Olympic Games were watching our feeds.”

Intel and ESL previously hosted IEM Pyeongchang around the time of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in South Korea. Esports has been lobbying for inclusion in the Olympic Games for some time. The Tokyo tie-in will likely help increase awareness of esports among traditional sports fans.

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As esports’ popularity grows, developers have started to establish dedicated venues, either as conversions or ground-up constructions. A separate panel focused on what is expected to be an explosion in the number of venues over the next few years.

“With Overwatch heading into its third year, this is the first time that matches will be played in home markets around the world,” said Kristin Connelly, Overwatch League, senior director, marketing. “All 20 teams will be playing at arenas, stadiums and concert halls that aren’t their own—yet.”

But in Philadelphia, ground was recently broken on what will be a purpose-built 3,500-seat esports venue for the Overwatch League’s Fusion team, due for completion in 2021. A $50 million joint venture between Comcast Spectacor and the Cordish Companies, Fusion Arena is in the heart of the city’s sports complex. “We’re looking forward to that trend continuing,” said Connelly.