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Round Table: Esports counter-stikes back

Posted on Mar 12, 2021 by FEED Staff

This Round Table first featured in the Spring 2021 issue of FEED magazine.

THE TECH VENDORS

Anna Lockwood, head of global sales, Telstra Broadcast Services

Cameron Reed, esports business development manager, Ross Video

Jon Samsel, VP global marketing, Verimatrix

THE ESPORTS COMPANY

Lasse Kempf, director of technology, BLASTTV

THE MEDIATOR

Neal Romanek, editor, FEED

FEED: In 2020, most sports struggled, but esports continued to boom. What has been your experience of broadcasting esports over the past year?

Lasse Kempf: All the events and people we worked with were told there would be no more productions. But BLAST TV came to us on the technology team and said: “You’ll figure this out, right? Players can just play from home.” We asked: “Can we limit the scope? Maybe make it a bit easier on ourselves?” They said: “No. We want feeds from every single player, we want all the bells and whistles. You have two months. Make it happen.”

BLASTV came to us and said: ‘We want all the bells and whistles. You have two months. Make it happen

Esport came from a background where people didn’t have money to buy real equipment. It started out very scrappy. So, we went back to that and did all the things you’re not supposed to, but did it to a standard where it was usable for production.
We used a lot of commercially available tools, and those maybe not intended for broadcast purpose. We had a room of 60-70 computers taking in feeds from all over the world – player cams, talent, everything.

We ran two shows in June, and fitted a Dota event in-between. Now that it was online, why not throw in a new event and an extra game? For those shows, we rented an OB truck, but invested in our own fly pack and built our own solution for the next shows in October. It’s been a big year for us.

FEED: Were you surprised at how much you were able to do?

Lasse Kempf: We were surprised that with new tools and new ways of thinking, we could get latency quite low. It showed us you can put together a premium experience without having all the normal studio facilities. And it showed us a model that could be interesting, post-corona.

The rest of the industry is watching esports. Other professionals are starting to use new browser-based tools like vMix. Normally, a professional broadcaster needs the biggest and best. But, suddenly, not being in the studio, they couldn’t.

FEED: Telstra works to provide infrastructure, which makes these kinds of remotely produced events happen. Anna, what has Telstra seen over the past year in terms of esports?

Anna Lockwood: Telstra is very involved in esports events, but we also provide a lot of underlying infrastructure for gaming companies and publishers. On the network side, there was a large spike in gaming. The usage requirements for publishers, gamers and streamers all went up significantly, and stayed up.

On broadcast services, we saw that esports, like other events, were affected by the pandemic because they couldn’t do those in-person mega-events. But esports has the advantage of being digital-native and cloud-native. Many people we work with were running successful online tournaments before they got into stadium events. They could pivot quite quickly back to hosting online events.

New broadcast rights money is going to shake things up and cause the industry to grow up very fast

FEED: Cameron, you were brought into Ross Video as the new esports business development manager. Was the pressure on?

Cameron Reed: A huge part of Ross Video’s business is sports and live events. Our products are used by the large venue control space, and Ross Production Services serves sports and live events.

I was like the new kid on campus and, at the beginning of 2020, people were asking, “What’s going to happen with esports?” My answer was that tournaments are going to happen one way or another – 90% are online anyway. There are the Riot Games and Blizzards of the world that will play in-person in a LAN environment, but that doesn’t represent the bulk of esports. Most is mid-size, or smaller events online for eight to ten weeks, before one large event.

We predicted ratings would go through the roof. The question was: “How are we going to get the coverage?” So, Ross worked on a solution where the way we distribute content could also be used as a way to contribute content into a workflow. They came up with the Ross Production Cloud, allowing low-latency streaming back and forth – not only contributing audio and video from talent or players, but also streaming back multiviewers, comms and control over production devices.

Our first show using the solution was in late-April. And out of our greatest moment of fear came amazing triumph.

FEED: Verimatrix has solutions for keeping content secure and helping content owners preserve revenue. What have you been noticing in esports this year?

Jon Samsel: We’ve seen a massive revenue disruption. It used to be that esports revenue rested with the people doing broadcasting or putting together multi-rights deals. What we’ve noticed this past year is esports teams, leagues and tournaments starting to look at themselves as content producers, and they want to explore new opportunities.

We have esports companies asking, “How do we do a distribution deal with a telco?” or “How do we have our own discussions about rights management deals?” And we had traditional sports broadcasters asking, “How do we pick up esports content? How much should we be investing in it? Should we be securing it like a live sporting event?”

The only real difference between esports and traditional sports today is the value of the content. I hear from esports leagues and tournaments all the time that they’re not making enough money, that they’re being shut out of big prize money or sponsorship money. And I think the new broadcast rights money is going to shake things up and cause the industry to grow up very fast.

FEED: Lasse, you’re head of technology at a company continuously producing esports events. What tools do you wish you had that would make your job easier?

Lasse Kempf: There are exciting new protocols that allow you to do point-to-point connections really effectively over the open internet, but the tools for implementation are still very young.

When you’re putting together this kind of remote production, you have video feeds going back and forth, with talkback, and all sorts of things. While getting that up and running is doable, it’s tricky. You must remember that the people who need to set these up at home are on-screen talent. When we send remote cameras to them, there’s no simple, easy way of setting them up on public internet. You have to do some VPN tunnels and use Blackmagic gear connected via HDMI. We chose small Sony DSLR cameras, just because they had a really good automatic function.

The technology exists, and you can do a lot of great things, but having tools available for end users that are simple to use is probably the thinking most lacking currently.

Cameron Reed: Lasse brings up an important point. It’s not just that the talent are not technical people – they shouldn’t be. It would drive me crazy, even as a director, if I had too much technical stuff to set up at home. In esports, it’s even more important there’s no extra work for the players on our behalf. Before a match, a player has things he or she needs to be doing – focusing on strategies and mentally preparing. They can’t be plugging in cameras.

Anna Lockwood: I would be interested to hear from Lasse how BLAST TV produces different kinds of games, and what you do differently based on each specific esport?

Lasse Kempf: We’ve done Counter Strike, Dota and Valorant. Fortunately, those are all five-on-five, PC-based games, which makes it a little simpler. From a tech perspective, there’s not usually a big difference. What it comes down to is getting access to the game world. We rely on clients from the game developers to let us observe the action, get the feed, data and statistics all out for broadcast. CS: GO, for example, is a heavily community-driven game, so we get a lot of access to feeds and can make our own graphics and overlays. But there are console titles where it’s difficult to get that data out, which affects how much extra we can do.

It’s also really important that the people doing the show also love the particular sport they’re producing. We might have different people doing Counter Strike than Dota. We want people who know and love the game and will be able to give the viewer
the experience they really want.

Cameron Reed: How do we see these techniques, developed over the last year as crisis management, becoming permanent?

Lasse Kempf: It’s always more fun to have players on-site and be able to use super-slow cameras and cool effects. But I think, especially for a qualifier or smaller shows, you’ll see higher-quality production, because now it’s been proven it can be done.
There’s a track record for being able to do this, and that’s not going back. We’ve been using a lot of these tricks for a long time, but the industry as a whole will definitely follow. If we find that the best observer for a certain game is based far away, they can just remote in. The observer could be in LA and the production is here in Denmark. It’s opened our eyes. Previously, you had a sentiment of, if they’re not here, it’s not gonna work.

FEED: To shift gears, can we talk about the ‘elephant in the room’ for esports? The lack of women athletes on teams and in tournaments. There are lots of women gamers out there, but there is less female participation in esports than in many physical sports. As technologists, do we have any responsibilities that we should address?

Anna Lockwood: It’s definitely something we think and talk about at Telstra. There are a lot of women who love games and play games. On the gaming side, it’s not quite 50/50, men to women, but it’s close. There is also parity on the streamer and influencer side of things. But there’s definitely a gender gap at the upper echelon of the esports ecosystem – and it’s not just with the players. It’s the whole environment of CEOs and companies working in front of house and back of house.

One group I’m involved in is the EGAA (Esports Games Associaton Australia – egaa.com.au). Like many esports groups around the world, it has an active diversity and inclusion group, and it’s not just about women. It’s about making sure that gaming and esports is fun and accessible for people with different abilities, backgrounds and socio-economic levels. How can everyone afford and play in a safe environment that allows talent to rise? Esports is one of the few sports where there isn’t any physical difference that we can attribute to success. But the reality is that most esports champions have been male. For us, it’s about looking at what we can do as a company and community to make sure the top talents in esports rise, no matter their gender or other abilities.

A lot of female fames are masking identities because they want to fit in

Cameron Reed: We need to address this thing from a cultural standpoint as well. There is a great organisation called AnyKey (anykey.org) trying to increase visibility and accessibility.

We can do better, as gamers. There’s no need for the toxicity. The beautiful thing about gaming is that it started as a home for nerds like me, who weren’t the cool kids in high school. It is supposed to be an inclusive society. So, how did we become that which we sought to destroy?

Jon Samsel: I’ve done a bit of research into this topic and was kind of shocked at what I found. A lot of female gamers are masking identities or muting mics because they want to fit in and play the game without being called out by male players using toxic names and words. Maybe it’s the immaturity of young males who don’t have the world experience to understand how hurtful and offensive these terms are. But I think it’s also about how the media tends to treat men and women differently.

You can even see this in interviews of esports athletes. I was watching one recently and the interviewer was talking about the female player’s cute outfit and there was some questionable innuendo. But when they talked to a male player, they discussed his mental prowess and the preparation that went into it. They treated the male more as an athlete.

I also think revenue is the great democratiser. And perhaps sponsors also need to take a hard look at this and make sure there’s universal enforcement of anti-harassment rules and things like that. Many tournaments have these in place, but I don’t know if that enforcement is really there. And how do you enforce it? It’s a little bit iffy. So, I think that education and sponsorships sort of saying, hey, these are the rules of gameplay that we want to be proud of, and want to be advocates of, and then I think it will change over time in the right way.

Lasse Kempf: It’s difficult. On one hand, the great thing about esport is that anyone can compete, no matter where they’re from, or their gender or anything else. On the other hand, we also have a community right now where you see this difference in participation.

Valorant, for instance, is a newer game with a less entrenched community and is a new opportunity. Evil Geniuses just did a mixed-gender roster led by “potter” (Christine Chi), who was one of our analysts at BLAST. And Cloud9 has just announced an all-women Valorant roster. These things are actively being promoted and actually happening.

This Round Table first featured in the Spring 2021 issue of FEED magazine.

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