The flashy TV productions of awards shows and sporting events always find a way to impress, and the amount of work that goes behind the production of a single football or basketball game is impressive to say the least.
The pandemic actually helped accelerate esports productions, and we are comparing esports to sports more and more. But what are we working with now, at the beginning of 2023?
Phil Englert, Global Esports Business Development Manager at video production solutions company Ross Video, sat down with The Esports Journal to answer exactly that question. Ross Video is one of the biggest in the business, with almost 50 years of experience creating production hardware and software as well as delivering production services. You can safely say that they’ve seen plenty of trends come and go.
Sports were severely interrupted by the pandemic, but esports remained largely afloat because the industry can survive on well-produced events broadcast via the internet. It was these events that were sometimes the only thing to watch (or bet on) during the pandemic. If 2020 and 2021 were the silent ‘online years’, then 2022 is the first ‘loud’ one we’ve had in a while.
Events ramped up, we saw records being broken and thousands of people watching esports in public. Things were finally better, and people started comparing esports to sports again — some even asking whether esports is better or more resilient. That is a discussion in its own right.
“There are many reasons to keep an eye on the esports industry”, Englert started. In short, the biggest advantages of esports over traditional sports are tied to the fact that esports always needs to be cutting edge and pushing the boundaries. The esports ecosystem is simply built for innovation.
“New games provide new storytelling challenges to overcome, and opportunities on which to capitalise,” Englert continued. “This constant flux and change will continue to keep the esports industry innovating and adapting. This is one of the reasons it is so exciting to work in the esports industry. We are crafting the future with our own hands.”
The second important aspect is that gaming and esports are becoming more available than ever, with the meteoric rise of mobile gaming and mobile esports. Since esports is now available to far more people, the industry has a lot more support for its longevity — good news for both broadcast producers and event organisers.
With 2022 now fully behind us, we’ve seen a rise in tournaments and opportunities focusing on mobile games. In fact, the most-watched esports event ever (per Esports Charts data) was not in League of Legends or CS:GO; it’s in mobile title FreeFire.
Over the last five years, and especially during the pandemic, the production side of esports has grown tremendously. Esports has gone from a few televisions in a basement to technical wizardry that often has as many or more sources than an NFL football broadcast.
This is supported by graphics, overlays, animations and even full-on AR experiences. League of Legends fans will likely remember the AR Elder Dragon flying around at the 2017 Worlds Grand Final — and that was more than five years ago!
One of the biggest current trends in esports broadcasting is the creation of scalable solutions for tournament organisers and esports companies. Since tournaments exist from small-scale gatherings to world championships, developing a single solution to fit the needs of different companies is extremely important in esports. The ability to create tools that work for a small, grassroots tournament, but also for a large production is vital.
“The production tools being created allow for more control and flexibility than ever, which is crucial for esports productions,” Ross Video’s Englert said. “There are so many games in the esports ecosystem and each game requires a different set of tools and production workflows. Due to this, operators and engineers need to be able to build custom bespoke workflows for each title. So having equipment that is flexible allows for this customisation and more creativity.”
One of the most innovative advancements recently, according to Englert, are virtual sets and augmented reality. Since games are created in virtual environments, production companies can use game engines to create matching virtual environments that fans, talent, and players can be inserted into. This, in turn, allows for a blend of the virtual and physical worlds. For EA Sports, Ross Video used virtual sets for its Madden 22 Championship, which ended up being a hit with the players and fans alike.
The Madden Championship Series production leaned on Ross Video’s Voyager platform, a virtual production solution powered by Unreal Engine, one of the most realistic graphics engines on the market. The system mimics real camera movements, and allowed hosts from different parts of the world to work together seamlessly. Riot Games’ League of Legends Worlds stage, too, used AR technology to great lengths to make up for the lack of crowd in 2020.
This propensity for innovation is somewhat unique to esports. In traditional sports, a large focus for big sports stadiums is still on redundancy and safety, since the stadiums have a lot to lose. Unfortunately, the bottom line for these entrenched companies is always the deciding factor, and when you are working with a 100,000 capacity stadium, there is very little wiggle room for drastic innovations, not to mention the amount of stakeholders that need to approve it.
Esports clients, on the other hand — hungry and competitive — will always find a way to push the equipment to its limit and make it work in their specific use cases. This, according to Englert, comes from the mindset of game development, since the games industry itself is fast-paced and aimed at problem solving at its core.
“Sometimes this can put the show at risk, but the innovation is worth it, and the intrepid crew somehow find a way to pull it off,” Englert concluded. “Esports customers also don’t follow standardised seasons typically. This impacts buying cycles. Esports customers buy as they need, based on shows being sold. Often in sports there will be scheduled times during the year to buy products and implement them, when the stadiums aren’t being used for events.
One of the optimistic notes making that risk worth it is advances in broadcast costs and revenue.
It is widely known that most large sporting leagues, from La Liga and the Premier League to the NBA and NFL, make much of their revenue from media rights. Esports, meanwhile, still relies overwhelmingly on sponsorships, usually attributed to the notion that esports fans would be reluctant to pay for a product that’s always been free.
The nature of esports — that publishers are the ones who own the infrastructure — reinforce that problem. “If a kid in NYC wants to play football in the street with his friends he can play that game with a ball and two soda cans. There is no server to connect to, no updates to push through, and no company to pay,” as Englert put it.
Esports production companies need to work with publishers on all events that involve their game because, at the end of the day, someone simply owns the game, and that complicates media rights.
Yet content unrelated to the tournaments themselves are easier to monetise than the broadcasts — offering a new revenue stream that teams and tournament organisers alike are leaning into, a reprise from the dire state of media rights in esports.
Interestingly, despite rapid advances in the quality and scale of esports events, costs are actually going down, according to Englert. He noted that production costs are lower than ever going into 2023.
“[Decreasing costs] is a trend that we are seeing sort itself out as esports grows globally,” Englert said. “The demand and hunger for esports events is higher than ever, so brands are focusing on content to ensure they have a platform approach to monetisation. … The trends are moving towards more monetisation, and cheaper productions.”
Englert predicted that we’ll see distributors and developers relinquish some of their rights over games in the future. This would, in turn, allow for third parties to sell content easier in what would be a boon to stakeholders up and down the ecosystem. In a world where developers have all the rights, worldwide community-driven progress is slow — but with economic pressures mounting across the industry, 2023 might see mounting pressure for change.
“There is no question that esports is here to stay,” Englert concluded. “That demand will drive the rights and monetisation models forward.”