Esports have hit the big time, and nowhere is that more evident than the venues where the games are played. Not so long ago, tournaments were held in cheap hotel conference rooms, broadcast to a few thousand people over the Internet. Today, they're held in some of the world's most famous arenas. The semifinals of this year's League of Legends World Championship, for instance, will be held at New York's Madison Square Garden. The finals will be held at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. The live attendance alone dwarfs those old streaming numbers, while millions will be watching around the world. Those are numbers that rival traditional sports broadcasts, full stop.
Production demands have risen accordingly. It's not just a matter of pumping out the video from the players' computers to big screens in the arenas and to the home audience. There's a lot more to take into consideration, and there are a surprising number of differences between putting on an esports presentation compared to one from traditional sports.
To find out how to put on the best esports show possible, VICE Sports went behind the scenes at London's Wembley Arena during the Esports Championship Series Counter-Strike Finals. The ECS was formed earlier this year by competitive gaming platform FACEIT in partnership with streaming platform Twitch, and this was the inaugural event. At Wembley, eight of the best Counter-Strike: Global Offensive teams from around the world were competing for the top prize of $250,000.
The most notable, and immediately obvious, difference between an eSports and traditional sports broadcast is how audiences consume the action. Most sports have one place where viewers are focusing their attention on at any one time. In esports, there can be important flashpoints happening all over the map simultaneously. When there's so much going on, the audience needs a good way of seeing how the overall game is going. In Counter-Strike, this is done by having a large minimap - not as oxymoronic as it sounds - displaying where members of each team are in relation to each other.
For the ECS finals at Wembley, there were two giant screens above the stage, with the minimap separating them. "We could have one massive screen but we wanted to have a large minimap as well," said former player James Bardolph, now the Vice President of FACEIT Media and current CS:GO shoutcaster, the esports equivalent of a commentator. "So when commentators are talking about what teams are trying to achieve, you can look at the minimap and see it playing out there, and on the side screens as well. We can draw on the map as well, and we can blow it up if we're talking about something in great detail."
Underneath the large screens in the arena are the portraits of each player. These portraits display the player's health, armor, what equipment they have, and how much money they have - all crucial pieces of game information. These screens will change dynamically throughout the game to feed that information to the spectators.
Below the screens are the players themselves, and there are important things to consider here, too. While crowd noise is ubiquitous in traditional sports, pro gamers are mostly shielded from outside distraction. They often wear both in-ear headphones so they can hear the game and communicate with teammates, as well as helicopter headsets over the top of those to pump out white noise. In Counter-Strike, and other esports games, competitors rely on audio cues from the game in order to perform at their peak ability. The players are also housed in soundproof booths to further dampen outside noise.
The impact goes well beyond divided attention spans. A shout of "man on" from fans at a soccer game will alert the player to someone running up behind them, but this sort of thing is unwanted at an esport event. What amounts to a peripheral distraction in traditional sports can, in esports, determine an entire game.
"Competitive integrity is always number one," Bardolph said, before referencing an example from that very tournament. There was an instance early when a small monitor was on a camera jib. The players could barely see the monitor, let alone what was on it, but it was showing the game they were currently playing, so it had to be removed immediately. "Removing things like that will be just in case, to eliminate any kind of possibility the players could see it."
On the other end of the spectrum are shoutcasters, who are mic'd up and exposed to the audience. "We did one event where the commentators were basically in a locker room," said Bardolph. "The problem with that is you can't hear the crowd. It's important to rise with the crowd when something exciting is going on. You can also have a nice shot framing the casters within the arena so you can get a better feel of the atmosphere. It's always good to have your casters in the live environment."
In esports, the casters are encouraged to exude more personality and get involved in the community. There is no journalistic detachment here. Bardolph recalled a time he was casting in the United States where a fan was carrying a giant cardboard cut-out of his face around the arena. "We're allowed creative freedom and that allows us to put more of our personality into it," he says I've never been asked not to do something while casting."
Then there are the complications that can arise from how the game is played. When teams come onto the stage for a match, it's not just a case of sitting down at the computer and playing. Players will bring their own hardware such as mice and keyboards, and these each have their own software associated with them. Each player will use their own configurations for their hardware for the game, customized to individual taste. Instead of spending time downloading all of them, the teams bring their own hard drives to slot into the computers provided. This raises yet another issue for the organizers.
"People will hotswap hard drives," said Bardolph, referring to hard drives that are swapped out while the computer's power is still on, "but one issue with that is, let's say you get 40 computers from a manufacturer. More often than not, even though they're the same model, sometimes they'll have different graphics cards in them, different motherboards, different chipsets. All the ones that don't match, you have to take them away, otherwise it's going to mess things up when you hotswap hard drives."
Unsurprisingly, there are multiple people on hand at events to take care of things that most people would take for granted. "One thing people forget is to make sure the tables have enough space for the mouse and keyboards," said Bardolph. "You can go into more detail like rounding the edge of the table because people's arms will be resting on them. If not, people will have to rest their mouse mats on the edge. There's a lot of small details people often forget." There have certainly been instances of this in the past. "When they first started doing CS:GO events [where there are teams of five]," Bardolph recounted, "they used a setup for a game which had four players instead of five. So they had to squeeze everyone onto the table and there was considerably less space. These are all things you have to take into account."
Technical personnel are essential, as well. "In the last match we had four pauses because someone's PC kept crashing," Bardolph added. "Luckily we have backups and that sort of thing so we can swap them out."
What's remarkable is how quickly esports event production have caught up to their real life counterparts. Live streams look slick and professional, and any early teething problems for big arena presentations are now a thing of the past. TV trucks are ubiquitous here, just like everywhere else. Backstage accoutrements are similar, as well. The players retreat to their own dressing rooms and there's a large practice area where every player at the event has his own computer - a virtual batting cage, essentially.
The esports wave of the future is gradually crashing onto shore. Many of the particulars are, and will remain, uniquely theirs. But the endgame is what we've come to know from traditional sports for decades. It's different, but the same.