Tim Kridel: Get your game on

Esports event staged in an arena

As esports has grown in popularity it has moved from homes to stadiums. Tim Kridel explores the business opportunities for AV presented by this new competitive spectacle.

Like over 125 million other people across the globe, 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.

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

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 exorbitant amount of money on playoff tickets to watch James face off against Durant, the excitement to see Ninja face off against Myth was palpable.”

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:

• The esports audience grew 13.5% between 2017 and 2018 to 380 million worldwide; • In 2017, there were 588 major esports events worldwide; • Fans spent USD95.5 million on tickets and merchandise, up 16% from 2017; • Global esports revenues were on track to surpass USD906 million in 2018, 38.2% more than in 2017; • In 2018, brands spent about USD694 on advertising, sponsorships and licensing in 2018. By 2021, that amount will hit USD1.4 billion.

Big brands, money and 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.

Chase Neukam, facility director at Paradigm, an esports arena and virtual reality (VR) gaming centre in the US, details: “In South Korea and China, esports is considered a full-fledged sport. 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 soccer, 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 as well as pay-per-view tickets.

Neukam says: “In China, there are four or five primary esports streaming platforms used to watch competitions. Viewing at home is usually free, unless it is a premium event. Tickets for esports competitions have a range of costs. If it is specifically for the competition, costs can range from USD20 to USD40. But if it is an expo or finals, tickets can go for as much as USD150.”

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

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

Michał Mrzygłocki, co-owner of ARAM, a Poland- based AV firm that does at least two to three esports events each month, says: “Mercedes is the main sponsor of ESL. So the big brands are coming.”

Venue types and sizes vary

Esports tournaments are held in a wide variety of venue types and a range of venue sizes.

Dave van Roon, Live Legends senior media and video specialist, says: “For Sony, we staged the introduction of Playstation 4 in a church (Koepelkerk) in the city of Amsterdam. In Paris and Sydney, 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’t host an event wherever you want,” he warns.

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 US.

In the next few years, Europe is likely to be home to a lot more purpose-built, dedicated venues.

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

The April 2018 edition of Inavate EMEA magazine explored how some movie theatres 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.

Levy says: “For us, it’s a way to do cheaper events because we have the big screen, the seats, the sound. 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 and hours on end.

To avoid that problem, esports often borrows the 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 out into esports staging.

Krzysztof Grabowski, technical solutions specialist, EMEA, at disguise, says: “[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.

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

Nick Rivero, co-founder of MEPTIK, says: “The NBA is heavily invested in broadcast. 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 to liven up the fan experience delivered.

Neukam says to outline the set up: “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.”

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 key difference between the staging of esports and concerts. Mrzygłocki says: “[Musicians] don’t mind that a hundred sharpies are making a beam next to them. 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 fans?

One such 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.

Mrzygłocki says: “You need to wash the audience with the light.” Projection, digital signage and other video displays also help build energy in the venue.

According to van Roon: “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. During the matches, the stream only showed the game feeds; nothing from the players or from 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. According to van Roon: “Audience participation actually has a lot of unused potential.”

He adds: “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 realise the possibilities are endless.”