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

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Taking a Toll on Tournaments

The esports industry hasn’t proven entirely immune to the impact of the ongoing crisis. One way the COVID-19 shutdown has affected the esports world in a similar manner to other businesses—as well as “real-world” sports—as mentioned earlier, has been the cancellation of large, in-person gaming tournaments and events, with no real expectation of seeing them return in the foreseeable future.

“Up to a few years ago, most esports gaming was a stay-at-home activity with, of course, some tournaments being the exception,” says Felix LaHaye. “2020 was going to be a pivotal year where a lot of emphasis was placed on an increased cultivation of the in-person elements of esports.”

For DreamHack, a leading esports production studio based in Stockholm, hosting in-person, international “mass gathering” tournaments and “lifestyle festivals” is the company’s “unique value proposition,” according to Chief Product Officer Mike VanDriel (Figure 8, below). The global response to the pandemic has challenged their business more directly than it has some of their counterparts. “Obviously, not being able to host the big events has forced us to adapt to the new reality,” VanDriel says. “But every business is going through that, right?”

Figure 8. Massive in-person events are DreamHack's stock-in-trade

Like event producers in other fields that have been compelled to fashion virtual reconfigurations of their in-person gatherings, DreamHack is trying new approaches. “On the esports side, we take an event that’s been designed to be a global competition and played over a weekend or over a couple of days,” VanDriel says, “and then we retool that and figure out, ‘How do we do that in an online atmosphere instead?’”

One consequence has been to force DreamHack to deal with latency issues that aren’t a factor in onsite events. “Take, for example, Counter-Strike [Figure 9, below], which is probably our main title,” VanDriel says. “If you have a player sitting in Europe playing against a player sitting in North America, there are ping issues where it will take longer for the game to react because of latency. So we redesigned the competitions to take place more regionally," he explains, with separate European and North American divisions.

Figure 9. Gamers at a DreamHack Counter-Strike event

Although VanDriel says players have accepted the necessity of DreamHack’s shift to online competition and generally responded well to it, “people would love to be able to do the live events again. But I think the community and the audience are very patient, and would rather see all the different companies involved do the right thing and not rush back to doing live events,” he says. “There's actually a pretty big movement called Gamers vs. COVID-19 where a whole bunch of different companies, influencers, and so on, pushed out and supported the calls for social distancing. I think the community is just happy that the content can still be there.”

Like OS Studios, Torque Esports, and others, DreamHack has seen its production and delivery processes shift in recent months. “We have a studio facility in Stockholm that we already use between events to produce different content,” VanDriel says, “and we’ve effectively retooled this studio to serve as the central point by which we are producing a number of online tournaments. And within those online tournaments, usually we need to have one to four people at the central location. Then you’ve got the casters, and we’re creating a show with webcams. Everybody is as remote as possible and still trying to keep the broadcast as high quality as we can.”

Following the shift to in-studio and remote production, according to DreamHack Head of Broadcast Tech Bob Bruinekool, the company is currently pulling in anywhere from 2 to 24 sources for a typical broadcast, including “5 in-game sources, 3 studio cameras, 3 stage cameras, 10 player cameras composited into a single source, CG Fill+Key sources, and a VT source.” The crew is relying on Blackmagic Design’s ATEM 2 M/E Production Studio 4K, ATEM 2 M/E Broadcast Panel, and the ATEM 4 M/E Broadcast Studio 4K for live switching, AJA’s HELO and Intinor Direct link for encoding and streaming, and Blackmagic Design’s HyperDeck Studio Mini and HyperDeck Studio Pro for live recording. Their primary streaming platform is Twitch.

Even if quality remains consistent, and latency issues mostly neutralized by keeping competition regional, DreamHack’s new distanced production approach can affect the content of the broadcasts in some cases with a shift away from video of the players. “We’re leaning a little bit more on in-game features and statistics as opposed to player interviews,” VanDriel says. “But with some of the more professional teams, the players are in isolation together at team facilities, and those team facilities are actually equipped with lighting and backdrop to do remote interviews. Even though we’re not all physically together at a live event after a match, you can still set up a call, and the teams have a nice facility with lighting and backdrop. So, you can still include features that capture the players and aren’t strictly just showing gameplay.”

A Bubble or a New Normal?

As many commentators have remarked, streaming’s “moment” has arrived, in nearly all sectors of the industry except on-location events, as a socially distanced world has come to rely on it as a replacement for in-person interaction in verticals ranging from business to education to government to worship to entertainment. In some of those areas, it’s almost inevitable that such a moment will pass, or at least subside, when the world returns to “normal,” whatever that will look like when restrictions are eased and the threat of the virus suppressed or largely eradicated. This has led many to speculate whether the esports bubble will burst as active gamers return to work and live sports resume—or, conversely, whether new gamers will catch the bug and remain in the fold, keeping esports on a faster-than-anticipated growth trajectory.

Darcy Lorincz likens the current esports awakening to the dawn of the action-sports-as-entertainment era. “We’re learning, and we’re growing. When you grow, you learn, and when you learn, you grow,” he says. “Back in the early action sports days, when people couldn’t imagine how you could get a video of somebody on a mountaintop or underneath the water or jumping out of a helicopter, we figured it out. We put cameras on people, we figured out how to connect to those cameras and create awesome experiences, and people watched them. I think that’s going to happen here,” he continues. “People are going to see stuff in gaming, and they may never go back and watch a boring game in the real world. And of course, with sim racing, nobody gets killed in rollovers with gasoline and burning tires. Some of the experience [with real-world racing] is when you go to the track and you get the feel and the smells and the sensory stuff. But other than that, these experiences are awesome. And you don’t just get one a day or one a week and that’s it. As a fanatic, you get as many as you want."

Felix LaHaye sees the industry’s successful pivot to remote production and all-online experiences as a harbinger of future success as well. “From an industry standpoint,” he says, “what you’re seeing is the that the tech guys and the broadcasters are managing to bring a complete reshift in the structure of esports, and I’m quite impressed at the speed at which many have managed to do it. I also think esports communities have been very positive, and made it a priority to raise money for people in need.”

LaHaye believes the esports community has responded admirably to the sudden, massive influx of new players. “Of course, there are always exceptions, but overall, they’ve been welcoming to outside viewership,” he says. “Anything that contributes to exposing the positivity of the esports community to the outside world is always welcome. It’s a silver lining. We would all prefer to be outside and for everyone to be healthy. But the positive exposure that the industry is receiving is good. When we get deserved recognition, we’re very happy about it.”

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