For eSports, a New Production Ball Game

FaceIt’s Bembenek lays out extraordinary challenge of broadcasting competitive gaming
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Seemingly overnight, eSports has exploded into a serious moneymaking industry, with estimates putting revenues at up to $2 billion by 2018. And along with bigger brands, bigger broadcasters and bigger prize purses comes the need for a bigger production of the events themselves.

eSports platform and production company FaceIt—which lays claim to more than 4 million eSports competitors worldwide—is the creator of the Esports Championship Series (ECS), and matches gamers from all over the world in competitions for several games. Mike Bembenek, director of production for FaceIt, spoke with Next TV contributing editor—technology Chris Tribbey about how producing a competitive gaming broadcast differs from other live events. An edited transcript follows.

Next TV: What are some of the unique challenges in putting together a broadcast production for eSports competitions?

Mike Bembenek: We’ve seen the demand for eSports content grow tremendously over the past 12 months especially amongst broadcasters internationally. The inaugural finals of the ESports Championship Series was broadcast in over 35 countries; 12 months ago most tournaments would be happy with one broadcaster. Turner Sports’ entry into the market with ELeague has really raised the bar in terms of audience expectations. More and more resources are being allocated into making sure every program we produce adheres to both technical broadcast standards and audience expectations. This brings challenges such as delivering content in multiple frame rates and in both progressive and interlaced formats.

We’ve made the leap into 1080p 59.94, which comes with its own unique set of hurdles. To help alleviate some of the pressures of delivering high-quality content, we moved to IMG Studios in London at the start of the year. IMG is where they produce the English Premier League broadcasts for all international partners. I’m sure they think we are a little crazy at times but IMG have been very supportive. We now deliver both progressive and interlaced, clean and dirty feeds so we can cater to as many platforms and markets as possible.

Traditionally, the home of eSports content has been online—streamed through content platforms such as Twitch.com. Many popular tournaments take place online with the players spread out all across the globe. There are no cameras on the players and the broadcast is almost entirely in studio or gameplay. This makes creating that connection between the players and the audience a major challenge. We are very dependent on our talent and presenters to be the human connection and drive the stories that make the players real people. It’s been incredible to see some of the talent in eSports grow and get new and exciting opportunities with major broadcasters.

The other challenge is that in eSports, the idea that the audience is king is taken to all new levels. Producers in traditional broadcast may use Twitter or other social media outlets to help connect to the audience. In eSports, we are used to having Twitch chat right next to the video player. The audience discusses your content right before your eyes and provides instant feedback on what works and doesn’t work. They expect change quickly and demand entertaining content that is technically flawless; this direct link with our community helps us to steer the show accurately and effectively.

NTV: The eSports sector is extremely reliant on brands to keep it going. How do brands get integrated into broadcasts in ways that are unique compared to other sports?

MB: It really depends on the content and what a partner is looking to achieve. The ESports Championship Series (ECS) is very much like a traditional sports broadcast and draws heavy parallels to the NFL, F1 or the NBA. Teams and players have their own brands to promote while the league has it’s own key sponsors. The regular season of the league features over 20 teams across two regions with broadcasts taking place 3 days a week for up to 12 hours a day. Sponsorship is integrated into broadcast elements such as scoreboards and lower thirds. We also do sponsored segments such as Man of the Match and Play of the Game. We are seeing a lot more non-endemic brands get involved in eSports through these segments. The ECS Finals Match MVP segment was sponsored by Jason Bourne, for example. Due to the nature of our audience and its online habits we can offer fan engagement that simply was not available to brands until recently.

We work directly with our partners to make sure they are getting long-term [return on investment] and not just a single sale or download. We also try and educate our partners on what to expect from the fan base of a title. Every game has a different demographic especially when it comes to hobbies and interests, the standard viewer has a high level of education and spending but can be very hard to reach through standard advertising. eSports gives sponsors a chance to reach these viewers in an engaging and long-lasting way.

Not only are the goal posts shifting as fresh content and tournament producers enter the genre, so is our brand engagement. The push to become much more like traditional sports marketing is real and we are seeing a lot more demand for overnights and stats that are independently verified.

NTV: How are eSports broadcasts done differently when we consider online is the main platform?

MB: We rely on technology a lot in eSports. We simply do not have the resources available that traditional sports broadcasts have on a regular basis. We are broadcasting up to 12 hours a day at times, so crews need to be compact and work in shifts. We try and automate as much of our workflow as possible—graphics, audio, vision mixing are all operated by a single, multi-skilled operator. We then try and fill out remaining crew roles with a mix of broadcast professionals and those who have an eSports background. We tend to use 3Play systems over EVS as it allows for us to use operators who are specialists in the specific game, these young talented individuals learn incredibly fast and mix well with our more heavily experienced team to create a dynamic evolving group.

When it comes to content, there is a lot of time to fill. We have to try and keep our audience engaged as much as possible. Since they are watching online, it’s really easy to click away and never come back. Since the audience can see how many viewers are watching, it’s important to keep that number growing to help draw in even more audience. This makes how we view the gameplay itself of the utmost importance. We consider our in-game directors some of the best in the business.

When it comes to events, we tend to have a lot more resources available. For example, there is a much bigger crew and we tend to rely more on OB trucks and traditional broadcast professionals more. A BBC Referendum special took place in Wembley Arena the night before we began to load in for the ECS Finals so it made sense to use the same truck. We took it over and added a few pieces of specialist equipment to make it more eSports-friendly. These larger events can make for a very interesting mix of people from all kinds of broadcasting backgrounds.

NTV: What type of interactive elements come into play with eSports broadcasts?

MB: One of the unique things about online broadcasts on Twitch is the fact that there is a live chat that accompanies the main video feed. Any viewer that is logged into their Twitch account can chat live on the platform with other viewers. It’s great for instant feedback, if something is great then you feel good about it right away, but in turn it can be brutal if you make a mistake. You really need to embrace the chat if you want to succeed, but the benefits are great. We use the chat to promote our brand partners, direct the audience to our platform and websites and run giveaways. There is something pretty cool about seeing over 100K viewers all type the same thing at once to enter a giveaway or promotion. The talent also engage heavily with the audience through social media and understand the importance of eliminating any barriers between them and the fans. These guys are role models and are trusted to drive the narrative of the event.

NTV: For those who have yet to see an eSports event, what would you say to them to get them excited about catching one of these broadcasts?

MB: Start with a major event and pick a team to cheer for. Out of all the titles that are popular in eSports, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CSGO) is the easiest to understand, the scoring has similarities to tennis but instead of game, set and match you have round, map and match. There are also a lot of top players and teams filled with personality, so finding a player or team to root for is easy. You can even check out our VOD’s over on Twitch.tv/faceittv to watch all of last season just before the new season starts. There are so many games to choose from, you are bound to find one that you can get behind.

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