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Game On! With Traditional Live Sports on Hiatus, Will Esports Fill the Void?

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Hoop Streams

One esports outfit deeply invested in initiatives closely aligned with traditional sports leagues is New York City-based OS Studios, whose high-profile projects include producing the NBA 2K League Draft (Figure 5, below) and myteam Finals, and supplying content to the NBA’s Twitch channel that has generated millions of views. OS Studios CEO Sam Asfahani, a key player in the launch and strategic growth of the NBA 2K League over the last four years with a background in traditional broadcast sports, says he sees the surge in esports engagement coming from two directions. One, of course, is “overdemand” generated by a homebound population with time to kill and the lack of live, real-world spectator sports.

Figure 5. The 2020 NBA 2K League Draft

The other, equally important contributing factor, he says, is a “huge oversupply of talent—athletes, influencers, all of these people that live really busy lives, and they’re sitting at home with nothing to do. One of the key hobbies they have is gaming. So, they’re all trying to figure out, ‘How do I make gaming into part of my persona? How do I live stream? How do I create gaming content?’ You have this huge oversupply of talent that are trying to figure out how to produce and distribute content, and then you’ve got a huge demand for content. It’s created a perfect storm for gaming and esports right now, which the industry is just reveling in, and really enjoying that growth.”

Describing the NBA as one of the first sports leagues to engage seriously with esports and gaming, he says the league continues to innovate in the area and program “hours upon hours of content” for its various distribution channels, which include Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Twitch, apps, mobile, and regional networks. OS Studios’ role is to produce and tailor content for different channels and fill different elements of their content pipeline. “We’ve been doing that for years for brands like the NBA,” he says, “and now the demand on our services has gone up because people are replacing other live content that they cannot produce anymore with gaming content, which is easy and safe to produce remotely. And it doesn't change the quality of the broadcast too much.”

Pivot to Remote Production

That shift to remote production is a consistent theme across the streaming world today, no less in esports than in any other segment, although the demand for production quality consistent with what viewers have come to expect is particularly high, as is the absolute necessity of low latency in live gaming. For most major gaming studios, the shift to remote, home-based production has meant temporarily abandoning the familiar confines of state-of-the-art studios and working without the massive video walls we associate with high-profile esports production.

Darcy Lorincz says that shifting operations—particularly as production and consumption have rapidly revved up—has posed a challenge for Torque Esports, but that sort of agility has been built into esports production for years, largely out of necessity. What’s more, it’s simply forced the company to accelerate the adoption of processes they had planned to implement over a two-year roadmap. “We’ve always used remote [production] and let automation and machines do people’s work,” he says. “So all the theories about scale are coming true, and we haven't missed a beat. We were going to do all this stuff in the next couple of years. We were ready to launch our new Las Vegas studio and all these augmented reality tools. If you’re familiar with UMG Gaming at all, you’ll see what the transformation was. We went from people behind desks to this awesome AR-greenscreen-backdrop streaming experience. The backdrops are better than I could have ever imagined. I’m actually now wondering, why do we always have all these people in the studios? Stay at home, and work from home.”

According to Sam Asfahani, the shift to home-based production away from OS Studios’ Manhattan office has proven quite manageable. “Our agency has two teams,” he says. “We have a postproduction team and we have a live team. We have a cloud-based server, so we moved our postproduction team straight home as soon as we could to make sure they were safe. We have a bunch of editors and designers and animators, and they all work from their homes on our usual content pipeline. Live, on the other hand, had a few more things to work through. We have a couple of live producers. The first thing we did was set up basic control rooms at their apartments. Blackmagic has a bunch of kit there, and they helped us create some of these remote control rooms. We use a lot of custom cloud-based servers, and ultimately we provide custom RTMP endpoints to a lot of remote users, and then they upload their content and we take them as remote sources into a local control room. We still have our broadcast studio in New York. That control room is still there. But we’ve basically replicated smaller control rooms that have a slightly more limited number of sources they can take.”

The move to remote production has reduced the amount of simultaneous ingest sources by a factor of three, but because of the way OS Studios takes feeds from streamers—who were always streaming from their own remote locations—the decrease isn’t much of an issue. “We created our control room in our broadcast studio using a combination of NewTek NDI and Blackmagic systems. We can take up to 100 sources into our VMC1 systems via NDI in our control room. We can take up to 32 sources into a home production. It’s still a sizable amount for a broadcast. It becomes extremely hard. though, because you don’t have a giant video wall like you do in a traditional control room in your home” (Figure 6, below).

Figure 6. OS Studios’ video wall in their Manhattan facility

With remote productions, Asfahani says, OS Studios will typically “cap it at 16 to keep quality and production capability up. For a lot of these shows that we’re doing, we’re taking in up to 16 individuals’ gameplay. We’re doing the overlay at the talent’s end using software like OBS. We’re creating a template graphic, and they then layer their webcam onto their gameplay, and they send it as a single mixed source. When we say ‘16 sources,’ it can be 16 people with both their gameplay and their cameras. The whole thing is requiring us to think a little bit differently than how we were traditionally trained or traditionally worked. But the joy of gaming is, there’s a lot of flexibility in how we do that” (Figure 7, below).

Figure 7. An OS Studios remote production setup

Despite the recent changes social distancing has imposed on OS Studios’ in-house production processes, Asfahani emphasizes that essential components of esports streaming were always essentially remote operations. “A lot of our gaming processes aren’t different,” he insists. “When you look at a streamer or a pro gamer, they make a lot of their money sitting at home creating live content. Historically, they were opposed to traveling for productions because it meant two or three days away from their setup and two or three days away from making their daily revenue. Gaming has always been about keeping talent at home. They have amazing setups already. They’ve invested in cameras, gaming equipment, and encoding. In gaming, there’s always been a desire to figure out solutions to help people produce remotely and generate wonderful content from home. For that reason, we were slightly ahead of the curve already.”

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