Live From Overwatch League Grand Finals: Blizzard Entertainment Rolls Out Its Largest Esports Production Ever
Besides being live-streamed, the show will air on ESPN and Disney XD
The inaugural Overwatch League season comes to a close this weekend with the Grand Finals at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, and the Blizzard Entertainment production team is lending it the “Blizzard polish.” With a sold-out crowd at Barclays Center and hundreds of thousands more expected to tune in online and on TV, the tournament represents one of the largest live esports events in North America to date and the culmination of a whirlwind first Overwatch League season.
“From a Blizzard Entertainment perspective, this the largest standalone esports production that we’ve produced,” says Pete Emminger, senior director, global broadcast, Blizzard Entertainment. “BlizzCon as a whole project is bigger since we have actually have five of our esports finals there, but, in terms of a standalone final, this is just massive. We have an internal term ‘adding the Blizzard polish,’ which basically means all of us are constantly driving to make every single [element] better for every single show. So everything we’re doing here is based on what we learned during Overwatch League Season 1, and, every week, our goal is to make it better than the last week. Our goal this week is to make [Grand Finals] the best show of the season.”
In addition to a sold-out crowd at Barclays and millions streaming via Twitch, MLG.com, and OverwatchLeague.com, this weekend will mark one of the biggest splashes on television for esports when live coverage airs on ESPN tonight and Disney XD tomorrow (as well as recap show on ABC on Sunday) as part of a recently announced rights deal.
NEP’s EN3 and Custom Observer-Room Truck
With an operation involving more than 100 crew members, Blizzard aims to replicate its production workflow at Blizzard Arena in Burbank, CA. NEP’s EN3 mobile unit (A and B) is serving as home to the main production, with A housing the primary control room, audio, EVS replay, and camera shading while the B unit houses the edit, transmission, and IT teams.
In addition, NEP’s BT-1 auxiliary unit has been fully customized Blizzard by Blizzard to serve its observer-room needs. The show’s main control room inside EN3’s A unit handles the overall show, while the observer room produces the in-game Overwatch action, including live first-person POV, Free Cam, cinematic-style, and “bullet time” (following a bullet frame by frame) coverage.
“Similar to Blizzard Arena, we run a very customized environment here because we have so many special workflows around the esports and game environment,” Emminger explains. “We use the outboard auxiliary unit because it’s basically a truck shell, so it’s a lot more customizable and allows us to basically recreate our observer room from Burbank.”
The auxiliary unit was rolled out this week and integrated onsite to become a fully functional observer room. EN3 and the observer unit are fully integrated, with all the signal flows —a hybrid of HD-SDI broadcast feeds and DDI digital computer feeds — integrated through same router.
“We’re truly a hybrid between HD-SDI workflows and DDI workflows, which I think is definitely unique [in the industry] in terms of how integrated we are between those digital computer signals and the traditional broadcast workflow,” says Emminger. “We’ve used NEP on many of our other large events, so they definitely understand what’s needed in the truck.”
The LED Bonanza: Grand Finals Feature a Grand Video Wall
Not surprisingly, the LED video complement inside Barclays for the Grand Finals is monumentally large, headlined by a massive newly-constructed 165’x’36’ LED wall above the stage with 10x 4K resolution that weighs 23,636 pounds and required 21+ semi trucks to roll in. Blizzard Entertainment worked with NEP’s Creative Technology to deploy the main board along with the plethora of additional LED boards scattered throughout the arena.
Blizzard is also leveraging the Barclays in-house infrastructure and all its LED ribbon boards and concourse monitors (the center-hung board is not be used because of sightline constraints). Prior to the event, Barclays updated its graphics system to add the capability for live playout in order to serve Blizzards needs.
“Barclays worked with us and updated some of their signage tech in advance so that we could integrate all of their systems directly into our custom programming that we use to create some of the game highlights and our stat systems,” says Emminger. “They were really cooperative and have been great to work with.”
Blizzard uses a custom software program (similar to the platform used at Blizzard Arena) to operate its entire show. The in-venue production and the live broadcast are heavily integrated, sharing the same control room and outputting the same live-coverage feed. The in-venue LED show graphics are played out using a custom-designed TouchDesigner system, while the broadcast show relies on Vizrt graphics.
“Our [in-venue] and [broadcast] shows are completely integrated. The same director calls the entire show for both and we share the same cameras,” says Emminger. “On the [LED wall], we’ll have the main game play in the center and then hero panels on both sides, which come directly from the Overwatch game engine.
In addition to constructing a new stage and LED wall, Blizzard is debuting a new three-person studio set that is located in the back of house right – just a few feet away from the shoutcaster commentary area. ESPN has also rolled out a small set, where it is hosting a pre-game shows on Twitter using a small flypack.
The production is using 10 hard cameras, four robos, one RF camera, and 12 Blackmagic Micro Cinema POV player cameras (six for each team).
On the audio side, the operations team has replicated customized tournament audio system deployed at Blizzard Arena, with well over 100 audio inputs.
“For those not in the [esports] business, it hard to understand just how complex the audio environment is,” says Emminger. “Audio from a player talking into his mic might go in the live broadcast, and it might go in a post package. But, most important, his teammates have to hear him, and all the team members have to be able to hear their own game computers, which is really critical. So we have a very big matrix and a customized workflow to support that system here.”
Blizzard is also live-streaming press conferences from Barclays and Overwatch League All-Access Pass subscribers on Twitch will have the opportunity to ask players and coaches questions.
The Edit Operation: From Barclays to Blizzard Arena
Blizzard Entertainment has approximately 20 producers, editors, graphics producers in EN3 and a dedicated edit space delivering a cavalcade of post-produced content at Grand Finals — highlights packages, social content, additional promos and marketing elements — to its distribution partners.
In addition, the operation at Barclays Center is fully connected to Blizzard Arena via multiple diverse fiber paths for redundancy. Back home, editors and media managers are on hand to help produce content and exchange files.
“Obviously, in today’s world of big data, it’s hard to bring all your content with you,” says Emminger. “We generally leave some editors behind in Burbank to provide easier data access for anything that we’re not going to bring with us onsite.”
Broadcast and IT: A Match Made in Blizzard Heaven
As is the case at Blizzard Arena, the broadcast portion of the Overwatch show is heavily integrated with the onsite IT and gaming infrastructure. Blizzard’s global internal fiber network – based out of its 24/7/365-staffed Blizzard Operations Center in Irvine, CA, – has a 100 Tbps capacity and experiences a whopping 3 exabytes of data traffic per month.
A member of the Blizzard Operations Center team is on-site in Brooklyn to allow for instant response time, as well as assist with the high-powered game servers on-site. The IT team spun up a highly complex isolated game network prior to the Grand Finals and worked closely with Emminger and company on connecting that network to the production. Then the two worked together to test failures, workflow processes, and so on.
“We’re heavily integrated with IT, not just on show day or for setup but through the entire rehearsal and programming process,” says Emminger. “Since we have a very substantial IT infrastructure, we wind up having to install a lot of temporary infrastructure for these [one-off] shows because IT is so critical. We don’t look at IT as separate from production; we are completely integrated as a unit. I think that is pretty rare [in the industry] right now.”
Inside the arena, the Blizzard IT and broadcast team also provide all the networking and hardware for the player support facilities created inside Barclays, including bot teams’ training rooms and “Dugouts”.
Looking Back on Season 1: Stats System Hits Its Groove
With the inaugural season of the Overwatch League nearly in the books, Blizzard Entertainment is already looking toward next season with expansion reportedly on the horizon. From a production-operations perspective, Emminger sees the Overwatch League stats engine as one of the greatest leaps forward.
“Looking back,” he says, “I think one of the things we’re most proud of is the development of our customized stats engine. We’ve really built that out, and it has enabled us to drive contextual stats, which obviously helps tremendously with storyline content. Going into this season. I think all of us felt like we were in a really strong place on the core technical mechanics of gameplay, signal flows, etc. So we focused on things like stats and storytelling and really brought that forward.”
And, with Overwatch League now appearing on linear television and reaching mainstream audiences via ESPN and Disney XD, the stats system is playing a vital role in telling the story to viewers who may not be as familiar with Overwatch.
“Obviously,” notes Emminger, “now that we have the partnerships with ESPN and Disney, that’s been really great, with the broader audience able to use those storytelling components. I think that is only going to get better next year.”