Could eSports save television?
Pro video gaming is more watched than played among millennials making it TV gold
The emergence of pro video gaming, aka eSports, has been likened to that of action sports like kiteboarding and trial riding – activities that went mainstream with the oxygen of video streaming. The difference is that while not everyone has access to mountains or a surfboard, pretty much anyone can play a video game. What has made broadcasters sit up, though, is that eSports is more watched than it is played. Traditional broadcasters are astonished when they learn that some of the most popular entertainers in the world are gamers whose YouTube playthroughs get millions upon millions of views.
The phenomena had a slow burn before the metoric rise of the last few years. Online game-play ignited twenty years ago when avid gamers began showcasing their skills to gain street cred online. Amateur competitions attracted games publishers to formalise play into leagues and promote their titles. At the same time, individual gamers began posting videos of gaming-with-commentary on YouTube, exemplified by Swedish megastar PewDiePie.
Player and team profiles rose on a wave of internet streaming, sponsors have helped legitimise the activity, Amazon took game-casting mainstream by scooping gamer video community Twitch (ahead of Google), prize money rocketed accordingly, and gaming tournaments are now streamed live from packed stadiums.
“So far eSport has not needed traditional media to grow,” confirms Amisha Chauhan, research analyst, Futuresource Consulting which puts a $500m current value on eSports worldwide. “From its online base it has grown immensely due to fans that are highly tech savvy and internet fanatics.”
eSports draws comparison with top tier global sports like Champions League football in terms of the number of viewers it can attract. The 2015 UEFA Champions League final had around 180 million TV audience in 200 territories (and a total estimated reach of 400 million viewers). By comparison, last December's League of Legends world championships boasted a cumulative number of viewers online and TV of 334 million over the four-week tournament.
“eSports is fast becoming one of the most watched and passionately followed global sports categories among younger audiences,” said Jørgen Madsen Lindemann, CEO of Swedish digital media powerhouse Modern Times Group. “There are now almost as many gamers in the world as traditional sports fans.”
The fanbase is overwhelmingly the demographic which has deserted TV for online entertainment. “Gamers are ultra-consumers: early adopters of new technology, heavy users of broadband, more interested in HD and natural-born multi-screeners,” says Michiel Bakker, CEO Ginx.
“With the rise of YouTube and Twitch, games have become media themselves,” says Todd Hooper, CEO of virtual reality gaming platform VREAL. “More people are watching games than playing games. If you are a publisher or studio building a game you are also thinking about how it will be viewed as entertainment.”
Broadcasters step in
That's why broadcasters are eager to bring eSports onboard. MTG, which bought a controlling share of Cologne-based Electronic Sports League (ESL) a year ago for €78m, launched the world's first 24/7 esports TV channel in April. It calculated that the average revenue per eSports enthusiast in 2014 was over $2, compared to $56 for traditional sports fans: “This global phenomenon has tremendous potential,” declared Lindemann.
In May, Turner Broadcasting's E-league – a joint venture with talent agency WME IMG – went live on the TBS TV channel and on Twitch, scoring more than 150 million minutes of video consumption in its first week and 92,000 concurrent streams on Twitch.
In June, Sky and ITV took minority stakes in London-based Ginx eSports with the aim of launching a 24-hour TV channel. Ginx TV will air competitions such as Counter Strike: Global Offensive live from its studio in King’s Cross. It says the deal will enable it to reach 37 million households worldwide making it the world's biggest eSports TV channel.
Investment is piling in from elsewhere too. Multichannel network Machinima, in which Warner Bros and Google have stakes, is launching magazine show Inside eSports on Go90, the mobile video service of American telco Verizon. Call of Duty maker Activision Blizzard paid $46m (£30m) for eSport network Major League Gaming and plans to launch its own eSports cable channel.
So far eSport has not needed traditional media to grow
Live events such as Dota 2 and League of Legends held at major stadium venues in front of a capacity crowds are treated in much the same way as any OB.
When BBC iPlayer and BBC Three showcased the quarter finals of the League of Legends world championships last October from Wembley Arena, Trickbox TV built a temporary flyaway control room.
“It was of the same standard and using the same kit which we would deliver to any live broadcast,” explains Trickbox MD Liam Laminman. “With three incoming host feeds, our location facilities were augmented coverage with Sony HDC-1500 cameras, an EVS and other equipment including a Trilogy Messenger talkback system.”
For production of E-league, Turner built a 10,000 sq ft arena including 25,000 sq ft of LED lighting in Atlanta. The facility is fitted with 26 cameras, including 12 devoted to capturing POVs for each player and one trained on the collective team. A camera suspended from the ceiling offers 360-degree angles of the event floor. In addition, Turner Studios has built custom eSports training facilities and 75 post production suites.
Red Bull runs its own eSports studio in Santa Monica. One format produced from there pits two video gaming teams of five players against one another. As they play, Reidel MediorNet Modular frames ingest twenty HDMI POV video signals from the gaming consoles, convert them into HD-SDI, and carry them to the control room. The POV cameras focus on the faces and hands of all ten players, with additional HD-SDI cameras positioned on the game commentators. These inputs are combined with the primary gameplay feeds to produce the eSports broadcast.
Many eSport companies run production on BlackMagic Design and/or Ross Video hardware. Romanian-based sports producer PGL has several Atem 2M/E 4K mixer, Teranex converters and Decklink capture cards. Rival streamers ESL and Hitbox deploy Ross Video Carbonite switchers and Xpression or casperCG graphics gear.
“We surpass [TV] in some aspects,” claims Vlad Petrescu, head of broadcast, PGL. “While TV has the edge in overall professionalism and broadcast consistency…an eSport production looks and feels more complex.”
eSports tends to be highly connected to viewers via social media. During PLG's production of The Manila Major, it showed a custom Battleview for Dota 2 and received “tonnes of valuable feedback from people that know how they want to watch an eSports match,” reveals Petrescu. “The next day we coded these features and presented a new version, which was way better received by both viewers who saw it for the first time and those that didn't like it very much the first time around.”
During an event, PGL will scan social media for questions or remarks from viewers. “If we find something interesting, we have ways of showing it during different segments of the show. For example, we'll have a Q&A segment at the end of a match where our analysts answers questions from various social media channels.”
According to Adam Simmons, director of content for game streaming platform Dingit.TV, latency is crucial for streaming where audience interaction is vital to platform success.
“Using social with the live stream is vital,” he says. “Players can type in a chat room to respond to fans or to explain move. If that delay is more than a few seconds the game will have moved on, and you will have lost your audience.” Both Dingit.tv and Hitbox claim their latency is the net's best. “We can deliver in milliseconds which is no different to Skype,” says Jason Atkins, eSports player turned Hitbox events manager.
Hitbox also claims to be first to market with 4K video by trialing game Heroes of the Storm in 4K in February. “4K will be standard in a couple of years,” says Atkins. “People are beginning to get kit which won't break the budget, like Nvidia GTX 1070 graphics cards, to power 4K.”
4K will be standard in a couple of years
The marriage with TV should help legitimise eSports in the public consciousness. “This level of recognition will help propel eSports towards mainstream audiences rather than mainly millennials,” says Futuresource's Chauhan. “The integration of eSport in the 2020 Olympics would potentially help overcome the stigma against it.”
Chauhan also points to cheating and drug abuse as issues impacting player performance. “The other road bump would be the lifecycle of the actual games and how long they (eSports producers) can sustain viewership for.”
There are obvious differences in an eSports athlete verses an action sports athlete in that they aren’t propelling their bodies during their sport. However, argues Kimberly Popp, eSports performance manager at Red Bull, eSports players are using skills and mechanics such as hand-eye coordination. “Their physiology impacts performance,” she says. “Players train for hours to perfect their craft. Just playing the game is no longer enough to remain competitive.”
eSports could be given another boost with the sale of virtual reality (VR) displays. eSports players use a mouse and keyboard to play making it hard for the general public to see them as athletes or accept eSports as a real sport, observes Petrescu. “When VR arrives this prejudice will disappear for good. One will need to be a true athlete to be a successful in VR eSports.”
“It was of the same standard and using the same kit which we would deliver to any live broadcast” “The next day we coded these features and presented a new version, which was way better received”