Top 5 Tournament Broadcast Breakthroughs
The year 2011 is about to wrap up, and it has been quite a remarkable one for eSports. Millions of fans have tuned in to watch throughout the year. Think about that for a moment. The amount of people that have been exposed to high level competitive gaming in one form or another has grown substantially during the year and is still increasing. As an example, lets take DreamHack Summer '11, which came and went in the middle of the year many months ago, yet still reached over three million unique viewers through partnerships, community streams and being featured on Swedish TV. Three million!
The vast majority of those who have caught a glimpse of eSports this year have done so via online streaming, a technology that has been improving rapidly from both a service and production standpoint. Streams are becoming more stable and routinely handle exceptionally high traffic, while the event organizers themselves are becoming better at using this technology to impress viewers. And although the live crowds add an invaluable atmosphere to any event, most eyes still arrive via the internet. This growing online audience has not gone unnoticed, and advances in online broadcasted content have been made throughout the year specifically with those eyes in mind.
Earlier this year, StarCraft II overtook Halo to be featured on the MLG main stage, and has continued to be provided with more resources to improve production quality ever since. As a result the most evident advances in broadcasting have been made on that front. Some skills had to be relearned, some ideas borrowed from other games, but towards the end of the year we were beginning to see StarCraft II broadcasting forge its own path. So let's review some of these breakthroughs and speculate what additional advances the year 2012 may bring.
5 - Active Overlays.
Active Overlays are perhaps the most underused and least explored technology available to improve the viewer experience. Some of you might remember the DreamHack overlay guy who coined the phrase "DreamHuk" using images that quickly faded in and out on the stream while said player proceeded to defeat Moon in the tournament finals. Having active overlays allows for additional information to reach the viewer, and although the phrase "OMG" might be considered excessive, it does not deter from the potential of the technology. We could be presenting tournament statistics such as Protoss win rate against Zerg, or a particular player’s win percentage of matches longer than 15 minutes, or publishing a scrolling tweet made by a prominent player in between matches. All of this could be done with active overlays while the players are building their first supply depots, giving the casters some additional obscure information to riff off of as the game gets underway. When, how, and what to present to the viewers using overlays is open for tournaments to experiment with. Obviously we don't want obscuring overlays with unwanted information in the middle of an important battle, so there is a lot to take into consideration when utilizing the technology, but all it takes is someone to keep track of statistics and some overlay editing.
4 - In-Between Match Coverage.
The fact that I can hum the MLG background music used between matches from memory is both a testament to the unquestionable success of the tournament and the need for more content. I have seen every edition of the "Dr.Pepper Ultimate Gaming House" more times than I care to admit, and although it is well-executed and a wonderfully generous gesture to the lucky ones getting a makeover, the charm usually fades after the 5th or 6th time I've seen it. On the other hand, IPL3 did an amazing job with their roving cameras who went behind the scenes of its tournament to show our favorite players in relaxed social settings while waiting for the tournament to resume. It was an excellent solution to keep its viewers entertained while resolving the technical issues of a truck killing its main internet connection. There is still a lot that can be done on this front; shooting more pre-recorded content to trigger when needed is potentially quite expensive but it gives ground crews a set number of minutes to find players or spectators for interviews or similar.
3 - The Heartbeat Monitor.
This feature was displayed both at the RedBull LAN and during the final few matches of DreamHack Winter '11. It to some extent blends with the earlier point of active overlays, but is still unique enough to warrant its own place on the list. To see Hero vs Puma in the finals and be able to gauge the tension of a player with a quick glance is very important for an audience since eSports doesn't easily lend itself to displaying the human aspect of competition as well as conventional sports do. Without the camera shots of the players getting ready in their booths and especially the victory celebration at the end we would lose the human competitive nature of the match and thus most (if not all) of the punch the match carries. Players rarely show emotion while actively playing the game, and when they do it becomes legend, like the frustration showed as HuK realizes he accidentally cancelled his Warpgate research. But these scenes are rare, so this is where the heartbeat monitor comes in to allow us, the viewers, to get a better feel for the mental state of the player. To see Hero at a steady 160 heartbeats per minute not only lends gravitas to the amount of pressure he's under, but is also a good argument for the sports aspect of the match since 160 beats per minute is equivalent to heavy physical exercise.
2 - The Red Carpet Entrance.
The NASL planted a firm flag in the ground and established a player entrance that was enjoyed by both players and spectators. Any possible way of promoting player personalities is a good thing for eSports, so to watch IdrA walk down the dead center of the carpet while denying high fives every step of the way is brilliant entertainment just as it was watching an unusually quick ThorZain defy his "Spoon Terran" nickname and run down the thing full speed. I'm already anxiously waiting for a chance to see MC bounce down the carpet in a murloc suit and White-Ra try to high-five every hand in the crowd in accordance with his good manners.
1 - The On-Stage Caster Couch.
The equivalent of the "back to the studio" half time break found in so many other sports saw its first proper use at DreamHack Winter '11. This not only gives the viewer a welcomed swap to additional personalities during a game, but also gives the in-game casters a break to refresh themselves before the next match. The couched casters can sit and enjoy the game while preparing their thoughts and remarks as it progresses, and once the game is over, the in-game casters get to pass the torch and take a deep breath without worrying about entertaining the audience. After having had both their minds and mouths racing, it is unnecessarily difficult for our in-game casters to try and maintain meaningful banter while at the same time set up hosting and invites for the next game. Most of the time the result is a reflex "thank you to our sponsors and follow us on Twitter" spiel, but all these problems are solved with a couch and some additional microphones while also increasing the overall quality of both casting and analysis. It's a win for everyone involved and must return in 2012.
Overall there can be no doubt that the year 2011 has been a resounding success. Word has spread. eSports has risen anew like a phoenix and burns brighter than what it has done for many years. With 2012 holding the releases of new major eSport focused titles, we still have a lot to look forward to. Bring on the new year!