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Red Bull Media Readies Its Esports Studio for Prime Time

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“This is our Bristol,” Rob Simpson, Red Bull Esports program manager, says about the energy drink giant’s newly finished Esports Studio in the company’s sprawling and airy headquarters in Santa Monica, Calif., invoking ESPN’s only slightly less-new technical operations center in Connecticut. Both facilities heralded significant new infrastructural commitments to sports media, but by comparison, ESPN’s massive investment seems like new turbines on a grand ocean liner, while Red Bull’s looks a lot like those damned jet packs we were promised so long ago.

Simpson, thin and carefully scruffy—like many of the employees working in a huge circle around the office’s centerpiece, a massive skateboard ramp that rises above a drum kit and guitar amps that come noisily alive some days after work—is hardly dismissive of what he and his colleagues Scott Gillies, global head of production engineering and technology for Red Bull Media House, and Hogan Carter, the company’s supervising producer for Esports, casually refer to as “legacy” media. They all acknowledge the cable network’s X Games franchise as an inflection point in the media history of sports, when alternative events, such as skateboarding and BMX, were taken into the mainstream alongside baseball and the NFL.

That’s also been the mission Red Bull Media House has taken on, only for video games, which are quickly moving from gamers’ suburban dungeons into arenas of their own. An event last year drew 11,000 spectators to KeyArena in Seattle to watch online as five-person teams played each other on video game Dota 2 for a piece of $11 million in total prize money—the largest sum to date for a video games tournament.

Games market research company NewZoo forecasts the number of Esports enthusiasts worldwide will grow from 89 million in 2014 to 145 million in 2017. With the global video game industry expected to blow past the $100 billion mark in 2015, according to market researcher Gartner, Inc., after just broaching that number last year, the industry is primed to move into the mainstream of sports consciousness, and do so at a milestone of another kind: a modest decline in revenues from Disney’s ESPN.

No one’s expecting a sports broadcasting Armageddon anytime soon, but as cable in general watches its subscriber counts decline and over-the-air broadcasters feel increasing kinship with the music business, the online world of spectator video sports is ready to break a barrier or two.

A Simple Infrastructure: IP and 4K

When looking at video games as a mass market webcast sports proposition, Gillies immediately points out its greatest advantage: the fact that only a fraction of the infrastructure needed by conventional broadcasting is required to get an exciting show to millions of viewers. “We don’t need the transmitters and the towers on the hill,” he says, referring to broadcast’s most basic tropes. “That’s a huge barrier to the broadcaster. Our only real restrictions are, what does the consumer have at home in terms of broadband?”

The new Red Bull eSports Studio in the company’s Santa Monica, Calif., headquarters. Program manager Rob Simpson says, “This is our Bristol,” comparing it to the famed ESPN studios in Bristol, Conn. 

That’s a situation that’s only getting better as more households get access to faster internet connections and 4G casts a wider net for mobile platforms. But while Red Bull’s Esports ventures don’t need banks of cameras and microphones, they do have some fairly specific needs. For starters, the main audio and video feeds are coming from within the PC game itself. Carter says the intent is always to extract the highest quality video image possible after the ingest from the game is scan-converted from DVI to SDI to fit the Esports Studio’s workflow.

“We extract the video at the highest frame rate possible, so that our production maintains the same fidelity that the home viewer would see if they were to play the game at home,” he says. “We stream 1280x720 HD at 60 fps. Our viewers on Twitch TV can watch the stream in the full 60 fps, as opposed to TV or regular streams that are only at 30 fps. The 60 fps rate provides a near-native viewing experience for video game content.”Gillies adds that Red Bull’s other alt-sports events, including Flugtag, which consists of pushing oddly un-aerodynamic contraptions off of piers to see how far they might glide, are already being captured at 4K resolution.

“We’ve been closely watching the progression of 4K, and our all-IP workflows are being developed with it in mind,” he says. “We’ll be there with it as soon as there’s a viable path for consumers to use it, something we’re hoping happens in the next 12 months. But we also have to be sensitive to the bandwidth concerns of home viewers. Not everyone has the same high-speed connections. We want everyone to be able to watch without overtaxing their internet.”

The Esports Studio’s main infrastructure is composed of Panasonic three-chip AG-HPX170 cameras to present wide shots and talent/ announce shots on screen, and Replay XD cameras for POV shots. Since most of the visuals come from within the game itself, POV shots tend to focus on the gamers themselves, and mostly on the actions of their hands, chronicling the “actions per minute,” or APM, the number of keyboard and mouse clicks a person can make in 60 seconds. This metric is critical in StarCraft II, one of the staple platforms of competitive video gaming. (The best players tend to average about 200 to 400 APM.)

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