Esports has exploded onto the entertainment scene in a unique way, creating new opportunities for organisers, players and media platforms. Liam Hayter looks at how broadcasters can capitalise, and what this entails from a technology point of view
In a very short space of time, esports has become arguably the second truly global form of sport, after football. Growing at an unprecedented rate, the global esports market was valued at $700m in 2017, and is forecast to reach over $2bn by 2023.
Broadcast vendors are paying close attention, because this is a young demographic that is increasingly difficult for traditional broadcasters to reach.
Recent increases in demand have been largely prompted by the rapid adoption of services such as Twitch, where gamers and teams not only reach a dedicated audience, but also generate revenue based on user subscriptions and donations. Demand is typically driven online, through a combination of live and on-demand gaming, depending on the size or nature of the event.
Tournaments regularly offer what might seem like big prizes, but these pale in comparison to the size of the audience and the ensuing monetisation opportunities.
Revenues for esports events up to now have mainly come from sponsorship, advertising, ticket sales and merchandising. There are many levels of engagement as in traditional sports from sponsoring teams and players through to headlining an entire event. While this area of esports is going through a phase of huge growth and reach, the fastest growing source of revenue is now media rights.
Some of the biggest opportunities are in the creation and delivery of content, which is why broadcasters are excited. Esports are in many ways similar to conventional competitive sports: there are rules, drama created by rivalry, tension and release between players as they interact with the game, announcers who narrate gameplay, commentators who analyse player choices. Content directors use these elements to create narratives that capture the imagination and leave viewers eager for more.
However, while the principles of production may be the same, there are unique production challenges that are typically not part of traditional sports broadcasting. In contrast to a field or court sport, where group activity means a few cameras can capture all the action, esports competitions require coverage of each individual player at all times, which means many additional cameras are involved in the production, including POV cameras. Each players gameplay (console, computer or mobile) is also brought in as a source, with in-game headsets used for audio sources. Each player effectively becomes their own collection of sources, particularly in larger team games such as League of Legends or Rocket League.
A lot of events are traditionally driven by players streaming their own performance directly to Twitch via tools such as OBS. Marquee tournaments typically have six or more players per side, or vast numbers of players in the case of Massively Open Online events. These require a direct view of each player, along with their communications channels. This can ramp up very quickly, easily exceeding a cost/price balance of traditional broadcast approaches, and managing all these computer/console sources, along with cameras and more standard production requirements, is no small challenge.
In addition, the requirement for high-quality content is much more extreme in esports. While traditional sports broadcasting is beginning to embrace UHD and HDR content, this is already the norm for esports, since viewers often play the same game at home with equipment of the same standard. Producers also need to be able to switch live between real-world players and the actual game on a computer screen, moving between different, often non-broadcast-standard resolutions and frame rates without a break in coverage or an obvious change in quality.
Social media integration is a necessity in esports, as well as any-screen rather than second-screen/OTT production. From a viewer perspective, this is where Twitch as a platform really has things nailed; a typical viewer doesnt passively view the content, but is fully engaged in chat as the event takes place.
Broadcast organisations that can operate in a software-defined, IP-driven environment are most likely to succeed in esports, which demands agility and lower operational costs. Software-driven production is synergistic with gaming, as everything is already within a network and software environment, so the need to reskill back to traditional broadcast is minimal as opposed to traditional broadcast teams needing to reskill to computer-driven sources.
Solutions today allow esports producers to move from makeshift studio set-ups to professional broadcast equipment for every stage of production, while reducing the complexity and cost of mixing gaming PCs and consoles with professional video gear, and solving the logistical challenges of large source counts, a wide variety of venues and speed of deployment/tear-down and at the same time, meeting consumer demand for high quality.
Things are moving so rapidly in this market that its hard to say how things will develop. I think we will see more software-driven production and more big-name sports teams joining the fray. Perhaps the biggest question is whether we will see more broadcast activity on traditional sports channels, or whether esports will continue to be more weighted to online delivery.