An eSports Refresher
The popularity of electronic sports, otherwise known as eSports, has reached fever pitch status with global viewership at an all-time high and showing no signs of slowing down. In fact, estimated revenues for multiplayer, often team-based, video game competitions are expected to exceed $1 billion this year, potentially doubling by 2022. With traditional sports organizations, such as The NFL, NBA, NHL and MLS, getting in on the eSports action with leagues or competitions focused on games of these genres, eSports venues have been popping up worldwide. As a result, competitions that were once only streamed via internet-based platforms such as Twitch and YouTube are now being picked up by traditional outlets like NBC, ESPN and ABC. So, it looks as though eSports competitions, which are attracting a significant chunk of the networks’ key demographics and, by extension, money from advertisers and sponsorship, are beginning to challenge traditional sports broadcast audience figures.
Sitting right at the center of the eSport revolution and driving its advancement and growth is video game pioneer Riot Games.
The LA-based company recognized the potential of eSports early on and has been helping develop the audience, establish leagues and invest heavily in major competitions. In fact, the most-watched live eSports coverage in 2018 was Riot Games’ League of Legends (LoL), a multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game with 113 professional teams and over 850 salaried athletes. Overseen and operated by Riot Games, the full series of the tournament garnered a total audience of 347.4 million on Twitch and YouTube, and more than 23,000 fans packed into Incheon’s Munhak Stadium in South Korea for the final 2018 event, LoL Worlds.
The manner in which Riot Games typically produces and distributes its tournaments is potentially a glimpse at the future of sports television broadcasting. Headquartered on a 20-acre West L.A. campus, complete with fully equipped broadcast studio, Riot also maintains 23 other offices worldwide, including the LoL European Championship Studio in Berlin. As a result, Riot has been employing REMI or ‘at-home’ remote audio and video production workflows for several years, producing broadcasts of some of the world’s top eSports tournaments through its studios around the world.
This is to help support LoL’s free-to-play game-as-a-service (GaaS) model.
The GaaS model enables Riot Games to keep its fans engaged through constant improvements and updates, charging only for premium content. To support that cloud-based model, the company has built out a worldwide private network, the Riot Direct WAN, which interconnects its servers and offices with a broadband pipe. Part of that ISP’s bandwidth is reserved for production traffic, which is what allows Riot to remotely produce and broadcast events at venues around the world.
At the heart of the system are Calrec’s IP-enabled consoles, which, for Riot, includes the Calrec Artemis console in the broadcast audio production room in Berlin, as well as a Calrec Brio, which serves as a monitor console for the players at that facility. The company also deploys a CEDAR system, to eliminate distracting crowd noise from players’ headsets.
The Challenge for Riot Games
With all aspects of Riot’s broadcast production, the focus is on constant evolution and iteration in the service of efficiency and resilience. Just as broadcast producers have had to find unique workflows and presentation solutions for individual traditional sports, so too must video game developers looking for ways to best present their specific competitions. As has been the case thus far, the company will produce the same event 15 times per tournament and never once do it the same way. The reason being is that there’s always a way to improve, always a change that’s going to deliver more value.
Like the competitions themselves, Riot’s LoL broadcast production is a team sport, and one of the key players is the IT department. When an international event is planned, the company’s network engineers create a direct pathway between a POP (point of presence) at a nearby Riot Games office from the Los Angeles POP over the enterprise WAN. Riot’s network engineers handle all the planning, routing, switching, InfoSec data security, monitoring and management of the infrastructure for each event. They also contract with local or regional service providers to connect over the last mile to the venue.
As Riot shifted its production formation to an ‘at-home’ (aka in the studio) paradigm, the company knew it would need to begin a transition that would ultimately eliminate remote trucks from its workflow. Riot also knew that the transition would be accelerated by finding just the right solutions from a handful of recent products and systems from various manufacturers.
Riot Games Finds a Way
With Riot’s L.A. facility serving as the central station of its productions, everything from audio mixing and on-site camera control to director shot calls and video playback are routed through the site. While players are looking at their own game on their individual screens, three observers at Riot L.A. can position themselves anywhere within the game, following along and selecting action for replay in the broadcast from within the system, without disturbing the competitors, in addition to also feeding segments to EVS for replay.
Recently, an international feed of a major championship tournament in Asia was generated using a switcher and audio room in L.A., which was subsequently distributed to every international partner. In this instance, Riot’s English-language announcers even called the action from a studio in L.A. rather than from the arena.
Though the company looks to serve the future, some functions are still handled locally at the venues.
This includes redundant IFB mixes for the talent and competitors, who are on Dante-enabled wired packs from Studio Technologies, which also feed to the on-site console for fail-safe production. In addition to these tools, Riot uses Calrec’s new REMI audio products, such as the RP1 remote production unit with DSP, which allows latency-free IFBs to be generated at the remote site and subsequently controlled from a Calrec Artemis mixing console at the L.A. facility, which utilizes an in-house Riedel system for VoIP communications with the remote locations.
With 10 cameras dedicated to the two competing five-person teams, each event garners roughly 30 or more inbound live 1080p60 video and 40 audio input signals to L.A., with an additional 10-15 outbound video feeds for various purposes. During finals, which include opening ceremonies featuring live entertainment and musical performances, audio fills a 64-channel MADI stream.
Riot developed this groundbreaking at-home production infrastructure while simultaneously adopting a Haivision transport to significantly reduce bandwidth requirements. What once required 8.7Gb using JPG2000 compression over SONET lines has been reduced to 1.3Gb and now handles additional paths and encoders.
At Worlds in South Korea, the company did upwards of 40 encoders in under 1.5 gigs, which provides significantly more flexibility.
During the on-site production portions, audio is sent through a router and into a Nevion multi-format contribution codec, which encapsulates the MADI stream. In L.A., the incoming signals are routed to the Nevion decoders then into the Calrec mixing console. Video signals are converted to baseband and fed into the switcher, similar to the format of a production truck.
Working with IP transports also requires the production to carefully manage firewalls and potential IP address conflicts. When two back-to-back shows are leapfrogging, relevant production components must be on a separate address for each show. In some cases, Riot uses a 10.22 network, the class A block of IP space reserved for private networks worldwide, but the two productions can’t be tied together over the same address. So, for the second show, paths are assigned to different addresses, and the audio engineers subsequently manage their own switchovers.
The Proof is in the Pudding
Of the 18 or so eSports distribution partners, only the four with the largest audiences can de-embed the multiple stems, ISOs and other sources necessary to build their own shows. Additionally, though surround formats are supported by Twitch and YouTube, events are currently produced in stereo as most partners can only take a two-channel mix, which are pulled from the internet. People then watch the events on a variety of devices, including phones, which will require a change of mindset for any television broadcast pro who dives into eSports.
Of course, it may be that Riot’s production workflows are simply not applicable to traditional broadcast. What the company is doing is new and exciting, and perhaps even a bit unique, for the industry. And, while automation and at-home workflows will likely bring about a reduction in production personnel, it should, ultimately, result in a better final product. Riot is breaking down the walls of traditional sports broadcast workflows, which will result in more shows, games outlets and viewers.
The technical obstacles will differ between circumstances, but manufacturers like Calrec are making the necessary technologies more accessible. In the end, things that were once challenging are now a lot easier to accomplish.