20.02.19

How AV is making E-gaming mainstream

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Esports are a lot like traditional sports when it comes to AV, but there are some key differences, too. Tim Kridel explores the business opportunity.

Like over 125 million other people worldwide, Brad Weston’s son enjoys playing the online video game Fortnite. But there’s something he spends even more time on, and it’s part of a rapidly growing business opportunity for Weston and other AV pros.

“I have an 8-year-old who watches people playing Fortnite all day long when he’s not actually playing Fortnite himself,” says Weston, president of Renewed Vision, a U.S.-based firm that produces events and develops pro AV products such as media servers.

Fortnite is part of the electronic sports (esports) phenomenon, where games are increasingly played not only online, but also in physical, public venues. For example, Fortnite’s 2018 Pro-Am Tournament was held in Los Angeles’ Banc Stadium, which seats 22,000.

In its coverage of Pro-Am, the gaming publication Polygon summed up the appeal of such events: “The Pro-Am tournament is the NBA to playing basketball down by the park. It’s like seeing Michael Jordan or LeBron James in the flesh, and much like how people are willing to spend hours waiting in line or paying an exuberant amount of money on playoff tickets to watch James face off against Durant, the excitement to see Ninja face off against Myth was palpable.”
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Those eyeballs are valuable to advertisers, which means revenue in addition to sales of tickets, merchandise and everything else that comes with traditional sports. All of those numbers add up to big business. According to a 2018 Newzoo study, available for free at https://resources.newzoo.com/hubfs/Reports/Newzoo_2018_Global_Esports_Market_Report_Excerpt.pdf

  • The esports audience grew 13.5 percent between 2017 and 2018 to 380 million worldwide.
  • In 2017, there were 588 major esports events worldwide.
  • Fans spent US$95.5 million (€84 million) on tickets and merchandise, up 16 percent from 2017.
  • Global esports revenues were on track to surpass US$906 million (€797 million) in 2018, 38.2 percent more than in 2017.
  • In 2018, brands spent about US$694 (€610 million) on advertising, sponsorships and licensing in 2018. By 2021, that amount will hit US$1.4 billion (€1.23 billion).

Big Brands, Big Money and Big Productions

Although esports is a global phenomenon, some markets are bigger and more mature than others. These differences affect the types of venues where tournaments are held and thus their AV environment.

“In South Korea and China, esports is considered a full-fledged sport,” says Chase Neukam, facility director at Paradigm, an esports arena and virtual reality (VR) gaming center in the U.S. “Recently China announced they are planning infrastructure for six esports cities in their nation.

“What we are currently witnessing is the second golden age of sports. Think of the early 1900s when football, basketball and baseball were developing their own industries for sports and the impact it had on global culture. We are seeing the same thing with esports.”

Like football, boxing or cricket, esports also is developing a broadcast ecosystem—mostly online but sometimes also on TV in mature markets. Either way, these broadcasts can drive significant revenue via advertising and pay-per-view tickets.

“In China, there are four or five primary esports streaming platforms used to watch competitions,” Neukam says. “Viewing at home is usually free, unless it is a premium event. Tickets for esports competitions have a range of cost. If it is specifically for the competition, costs can range from US$20-US$40 (€18-€35). But if it is an Expo or finals, tickets can go for as much as US$150 (€133).”

More money from tickets, sponsorship and advertising can mean bigger AV budgets. But sometimes tournament organizers are willing to spend heavily in order to help attract fans and brands.

“The slicker the production, the more likely people are going to tune in and watch,” Weston says.

Many advertisers and sponsors aren’t niche brands. In fact, they’re increasingly likely to be the same ones that own the venue naming rights where major sports and esports events are held.

“Mercedes is the main sponsor of ESL,” says Michał Mrzygłocki, co-owner of ARAM, a Poland-based AV firm that does at least two to three esports events each month. “So the big brands are coming.”
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Venue Types and Sizes Vary
Esports tournaments are held in a wide variety of venue types and sizes.

“For Sony, we did the introduction of Playstation 4 in a church (Koepelkerk) in Amsterdam,” says Dave van Roon, Live Legends senior media and video specialist. “In Paris and Sidney, we did the semi-finals for FIFA in a television studio, and for PGI, they choose a stadium to host the tournament.

“Product releases of gaming consoles or games require a show and a stage. Gatherings like Gamescom need an exhibition hall. But esports requires a lot of power and a stable internet connection. You can host an event wherever you want.”

One factor is the country or region: If the esports market there is mature, then games are more likely to be played out in large venues such as arenas and stadiums simply because there’s a big fan base. Mature markets also are more likely to have purpose-built esports facilities, as is the case in countries such as South Korea and the U.S. In the next few years, Europe could be home to a lot more purpose-built venues.

“There are some initiatives in Russia, for example,” says Victor Levy, EclairGame project leader. “There are some [European] esports venues but not as big as there are in North Amercia or Asia. They’re coming. It’s simply a matter of time and the size of the audience.”

The April 2018 InAVatev explored how some movie theaters are catering to esports as a way to reduce their reliance on fickle moviegoers. Those venues are attractive because they already have a lot of the necessary infrastructure.  

“For us, it’s a way to do cheaper events because we have the big screen, the seats, the sound,” Levy says. “The hype [of the gameplay] can be big because it’s small and in the dark. But it’s not optimal. It’s a step.”

A Mix of Old and New

With any venue type, another consideration is how to make the gameplay exciting for fans there and at home. After all, few people want to watch—let alone pay to watch—a dozen or two players just sitting in front of displays for hours on end.

To avoid that problem, esports often borrows production technologies and practices from traditional sports. The similarities also are a major reason why some AV vendors and integrators are leveraging their expertise with sports—as well as concerts, road shows and other live events—to expand into esports.

“[It is] everything that is used for regular TV and broadcast: i.e., vision mixers, lighting consoles, cranes, media servers, dedicated outside broadcast vehicles, internet streams and more,” says Krzysztof Grabowski, technical solutions specialist, EMEA, at disguise. “Sometimes there is also an addition of some custom-prepared elements, such as apps extracting information from the game and using it for triggering control in regular media server applications.”

Traditional sports are increasingly expanding into esports. When they do, they often extend their AV systems to the new domain. One example is the National Basketball Association’s NBA 2K League.

U.S.-based MEPTIK designed production elements such as LCD display clusters and LED video walls for the NBA 2K League’s inaugural season, which began in May 2018 and ran through September.

“The NBA is heavily invested in broadcast,” says Nick Rivero, MEPTIK co-founder of MEPTIK. “Its esports studios are already leveraging the platform that they’re already used to, which is the broadcast side.”

Some traditional sports are relatively sedate, such as poker and chess tournaments, which have been televised for decades despite having their contestants sitting practically motionless all of the time. Esports can learn from those productions, too. For example, replays, commentator analysis and switching between camera feeds all help liven up the fan experience.  

“In terms of professional design, the usual standard is a broadcaster table, an analyst desk, a stage equipped with computers and webcams for the competitors, seating for the viewers and screens for the viewers to watch on,” Neukam says.

The AV systems can help excite players, too. That’s important because some are reluctant to be in the spotlight, while others feed off of it. In fact, this is one difference between esports and concerts.

“[Musicians] don’t mind that a hundred sharpies are making a beam next to them,” Mrzygłocki says. “Sometimes they want a hundred sharpies pointed on them. Here it’s the opposite because the main stars are the gamers, and they would prefer to sit at home, but [they] have to go to win a million dollars. [Others] want to have the feeling that they’re entering the stage and 20,000 people are screaming.”

A Bigger Role for AR, VR and Fans?

A related production consideration is that the players and fans at home need to be able to see the audience going crazy so they can feel the excitement.

“You need to wash the audience with the light,” Mrzygłocki says.

Projection, digital signage and other video displays also help build energy in the venue.

“For PGI, we used big LED screens above the players, just like a boxing match, so the local audience could see the game spectator feed,” van Roon says. “During the matches, the stream only showed the game feeds; nothing from the players or the venue.

“Surely a person staring at a screen is not that interesting. Try making a six-hour documentary about a rock. But if someone dies in game, it would be cool to see the real-life reaction.”  

Another possibility is enabling fans in the audience or at home to play a role in the games.

“Audience participation actually has a lot of unused potential,” van Roon says. “It would get interesting if we could give the audience an active role, use the comments to alter the course of the tournament or let people vote which map to play next for instance. What would happen if the audience could join the game, using their phones to roam the map as zombies, haunting the players? If you start thinking in that direction, you realize the possibilities are endless.”

Augmented and virtual reality are other possibilities.

“I think what’s going to be a big differentiator—that we personally have seen a lot of investment in—is AR, where you’re bridging the live event space into the virtual world,” Rivero says. “The thing about VR is that it’s a singular experience. You need multiple people and multiple headsets all playing in the same world, whereas AR can be a shared experience with many people.”

Traditional sports already uses AR to a limited extent, such as when TV viewers see a virtual down line on the field. But esports could take AR to the next level, although exactly how remains to be seen.

“We’re asking the question, what does that [shared AR experience] look like?” Rivero says. “You’re taking a virtual world—esports—into a physical world. AR has a lot of applications in that, particularly in the broadcast side. That’s really big.”

VR, meanwhile, would require a bigger departure from traditional broadcast sports production techniques and workflows.

“The hard thing there is to be able to curate the experience for those users who aren’t in the VR world,” Weston says. “From a director’s standpoint, if you’re looking at different camera shots, you’re trying to figure out the best angle to show your audience.

“In a VR gaming experience, it becomes far more challenging to create what your non-participating viewers are seeing. So you’d have some observers therein who have their own VR headsets at different areas of the playing field and then feeding those shots to a master switcher. It certainly presents a unique challenge.”