With esports snowballing in popularity, the biggest production players are clearly the gaming workstations, which are based on IT and IP technologies by their very nature, says Matt Allard.
Esports has evolved to take the form of hugely popular multiplayer competitions between professional players, individually or as teams. Some of the most eminent championships harness popular titles played at home, such as Fortnite, League of Legends, Counter-Strike and Call of Duty.
According to a report by Newzoo, a market analytics company, 380m people worldwide watched esports in 2018 and it is estimated that the total audience grew to 454m viewers last year, with revenues of $1.1bn, up 22% from 2018. Prize pools for esports championships also reached a jaw-dropping $160m in 2018 and are expected to have grown by 25% to $200m in 2019.
The gaming industry has reached somewhat of a crescendo, and with such huge global popularity, professional gamers are now watched and followed by millions of fans all over the world, with viewership and video gaming growing at an exponential rate. The increasing availability of online streaming media platforms like YouTube and Twitch have become central to the growth and promotion of esports competitions, with these services allowing viewers to watch as their favourite gamers play in real time from anywhere in the world, and have become the places where popular gamers build their fan base.
With this growing popularity in mainstream culture, esports is now a developing area of study in education and is attracting big-name partners. Degrees are being offered in Gaming Programming, Game Art, Game Design and even Esports Management. Staffordshire University in the UK has created the world’s first full esports undergraduate degree, a combination of the business school curriculum and computer game design.
As to the technical enabling of esports growth, the winner is clearly IP. The biggest production players are the gaming workstations, which are based on IT and IP technologies by their very nature. Plugging these systems into a standard network is not only less complicated but contributes to reducing the overall facility cost.
For successful esports production, video with resolution up to 4K UHD has to be accounted for.
Large numbers of simultaneous high-res computer sources over the network have to be mixed in real time along with camera sources, graphics and audio.
This means the foundation of the system has to be flexible and adaptable to making changes as needed. To be future-ready, the only answer is to incorporate IP-based transport.
Moving high-bitrate live video over distances by IP can be much faster and more affordable than the alternatives. With IP connectivity, systems and devices can be plugged into a standard 1GB or 10GB Ethernet network and connected to each other, which permits every device, its inputs and outputs, to be available for use with production and distribution, without having to directly connect them, or even have them near one another. This approach provides more production options and makes the process simpler, which leads to substantial enhancement of the quality and creativity of esports productions and their delivery to viewers.
IP-based standards exist to enable compatible products to share video, audio and data across a local area network. Using refined encoding and communication systems, devices and applications can identify and communicate bi-directionally with one another over IP and can encode, transmit and receive multiple streams of high-quality, low-latency, frame-accurate video and audio in real time. Esports uses computers and devices as sources and destinations that do not always use traditional video formats. IP standards can support any combination of video aspect ratios, frame rates or resolutions along with multi-channel audio.
Esports production centres often want to develop a staff that does not have traditional television production experience, and a software-defined implementation permits all phases of operation to be quick and easy, so the operators do not need to be audiovisual engineers or media technicians. Custom applications and interfaces can be created for esports production to efficiently automate and manage such tasks as media capture, recoding, display management and media distribution.
Software routing can determine which sources go to which destinations in a single room or across facilities. Using standard IT and IP practices, it is a simple matter to write management programs with rules-based logic to simplify and automate what occurs at what time by which operator of the system.
Custom interfaces can be created that limit system functionality to what is required to create specific types of programs. Software-based control panels can operate a production system using IP from any compatible desktop or mobile device, anywhere on the network. Easily accessible through any web browser or operating system, this functionality can include production-ready control panels for remote video mixing, media playback and audio mixing, to suit unique production and workflow requirements.
A digital media production system is pivotal for esports events. A suitable system typically includes some automation to let users record, store, edit and automate common settings and typical command sequences. This helps operators produce finished content without needing technical experience. It is preferable if the system can layer static and moving graphics inserted with IP from preset templates for show openings, title animations and lower-third titles, with timing, speed and duration control.
Another way in which systems can help manage production is with PTZ camera control. There are a number of IP PTZ cameras available that provide video, audio, control, tally and power over a single cable that simply connects to an Ethernet port on a standard IT network. Cameras are assignable as external sources and operable directly from the user interface, including camera orientation, zoom, focus and iris, with position presets, speed control and preview images. Other production system features that help make operations flexible and simple include simultaneous IP monitoring of multiple video signals from external inputs, internal sources and outputs.
Studio, fixed and PTZ cameras give overviews and close-ups of the action and players. An increasing number of cameras have direct IP outputs, and IP converters are available to convert HDMI or even SDI camera sources, which can be mounted overhead and directly in front of players to capture the nuances of intense gameplay.
Using standard IT interfacing, gaming workstations can be simultaneously connected over the network as video sources. Game consoles such as Xbox, Nintendo Switch and PlayStation can also be added to the network, with IP converters making these and other HDMI video devices into production sources. Switching for all cameras, gaming PCs and consoles, along with video clips, graphics and audio, are combined into an IP-capable digital media production system.
In addition to the players, there are often presenters at desks delivering analysis and colour commentary during productions. Presenters can have their own PCs to select and view any source over IP. A separate spectator PC can display the output of any of the 12 different gaming systems, along with a separate output that provides a third-person view of the gaming. Events are almost always streamed over IP, often to several places at once, including Twitch, YouTube and Facebook.
Standard managed IT switches pull all the IP streams together, with the cameras, PCs and production system all connected so that everything communicates directly with each other straight away.
Using IP for media acquisition, processing and delivery is really the only effective way to efficiently produce esports events.
Available IP technologies are easy to deploy and solve a number of challenges for esports production. Special cabling is not needed to send signals around a facility. IP-based production allows organisations to expand and achieve new capabilities that would not be practical using a legacy approach.