Esports has a long and successful history of producing online leagues and tournaments. In fact, it was — alongside LAN events — the very heart of esports for many years. More recently, we have seen esports competitions sell out stadiums all over the world. While the online elements remained important, they also remained less visible. However, times change. As the world was struck by the Covid-19 global pandemic in early 2020, events everywhere were forced to shutter.
With our strong, online history, both esports and ESL Gaming were poised to quickly adapt to this new reality by transitioning to an engaging online environment, while simultaneously working on innovations to bring part of the arena experience to audiences around the world in a safe way. Enter remote productions.
Prior to 2020, about 10% of studio hours were remote productions, meaning players, talent and members of the production staff work from home or other remote locations. The global pandemic forced everything to be done remotely, online — including DreamHack Open, ESL One Cologne 2020, DreamLeague, IEM Katowice 2021 — but also added successful new initiatives such as the monthly, online tournament, DreamHack Open Featuring Fortnite. The Stockholm studio, alone, broadcasted over 15 times more remote productions in 2020 than the year before.
With every source that is moved remote, there is also the addition of several potential failure points, meaning the chances of something going wrong become higher. Additionally, we are more dependent on external services and infrastructure that is out of our control, which means every single player and talent will have their own ISP issues rather than just having the single ISP in the studio where everyone would otherwise be.
The biggest challenge is centered around the balance of latency, quality and stability — this can be a major concern because we always want the talent to be able to react to the game (and show) in near real-time — transmitting video feeds over the internet in near real-time often introduces instabilities and quality reductions.
In order to achieve this, we opted to utilize tools with as low as possible latency that are also as easy to use as possible, including common hardware and software such as Google Meet (for capturing remote talent), Discord (for distributing program feeds to remote talent), and Teamspeak (for allowing remote staff to communicate in real time). For remote video capturing, having a low latency comes at the potential cost of lower quality and/or lower stability. Fortunately, these tools prioritize audio over video, so audio rarely has any problems — which is important since audio “dropping out” would be a serious hit to the quality of the broadcast.
Naturally, taking the work of the Virtual Studio and Remote Broadcasting team online makes for a more environmentally friendly production; and the lack of required travel around the world is much easier on the staff, players and broadcasters. In general, the players and/or (some) talent are all together at a separate location; the production team is all together at another location; and the cameras from the remote location(s) are transmitted to the production team where a final show is composed and broadcast for all to enjoy.
In the end, the resulting broadcasts look nearly identical to the online viewer — a great feat given the sheer magnitude of this pandemic and its effect on live events globally. Overall, the workflows and experience is the same for both the teams and the broadcasters, and the fans are continuing to watch these competitions despite challenges put forth by Covid-19. Nearly 5900 hours of content was produced in 2020, with more than 328 million hours watched (excluding China) — a 58% increase from 2019.
For players, the shift to playing remotely was not a big adjustment as they were already used to playing online and from home. Most talent/broadcasters are also already outfitted for online streaming, as many have their own content channels and have therefore already invested in minor equipment needed for this to be successful.
A live example of our virtual studio from ESL Pro Tour XIII.
Another advantage is this online format allows for a more impressive/feature-rich studio that’s not bound by the limits of reality. Through the creation of a virtual stage, the fan experience is naturally enhanced through an augmented reality — it feels like they are watching in an arena, which results in more of a community environment for the viewers. There are also more commercial opportunities due to the moldable nature of the virtual environment.
When the world allows, we will again see our fans and connect with our community as we bring these competitions to them live, and in person. The learnings gathered over this period of time have created a better and more dynamic experience for all involved. We will continue to grow and innovate in an effective manner. The ante has been upped, and we are excited to see what the future of this technology allows us to do next.