Esports’ Storytelling Script Is Very Different From Traditional Sports Broadcasting’s

Producers of live coverage share the challenges and opportunities in telling the stories of their competitions

In the early days of sports television, legends like Roone Arledge, Don Ohlmeyer, and Dick Ebersol turned sports media into a juggernaut by converting athletic competition into dramatic cinema. Sports became more than just who scored the winning goal. It became who that goal scorer was, streaming tears of joy with parents celebrating in the stands.

Today, esports is emerging as the new, exciting live event content consumed worldwide, but, still in its infancy as a broadcast property, it has not concretely defined what makes for a good esports broadcast.

Blizzard Entertainment’s Frank LaSpina (right) speaks during a panel on storytelling at SVG’s Esports Production Forum in Los Angeles earlier this month as NGAGE Esports’ Corey Dunn looks on.

Sure, there’s natural strategy in telling the story of esports competitors through interviews or feature packages, but telling the real-time story of the live competition requires producers to step back a bit and consider the core goals of a sports broadcast. Whether the goal is to tell the story to an audience full of die-hards or to viewers watching for the first time, the responsibility is the same: clearly display the outcome and the important events that lead to that final outcome with graphics, announcers, and images.

For Blizzard Entertainment’s Frank LaSpina, who serves as senior producer of Overwatch broadcast for Overwatch League, a city-based franchised esports league that recently concluded its inaugural season, that task is easier said than done.

“One of the major obstacles that you have to overcome in most esports is the objective,” says LaSpina, who compares his role in the production with that of an executive producer in a traditional live sports broadcast. “How do you explain the objective to the viewer, and how do you capture the objective? A lot goes into the strategy behind basketball, but there’s a pretty simple fact: you can’t score without the ball. At a super-high level, as long as you make sure every time the ball goes in the basket, it’s on the screen, everybody is seeing all of the scoring, and it’s clear who is doing the scoring.

“In esports broadcasts,” he continues, “especially in Overwatch League, you are dealing with 12 players who have supernatural abilities on a digital map that, if it were a physical space, would be miles by miles wide, and they’re all working on a coordinated push or attack that has a different objective for each map. That’s a huge challenge to make sure that the viewer is seeing ‘the ball go in the hoop’ but also that they understand why it’s about to happen.”

A significant part of that storytelling process is remaining committed to the actual moves being made to achieve victory in the game itself while keeping the athletes in the real world as the stars of their story. According to Dave Stewart, executive producer/broadcast lead of Riot Games’ North American League Championship Series, the goal in live esports production is to blend the two worlds simultaneously and seamlessly.

“With the exception of a character who might flash a mastery or a spam taunt, a lot of the emotion of the storytelling isn’t taking place within the game,” says Stewart. “Trying to get the pro players and their stories into the game and to merge that is one of the more exciting challenges. In traditional sports, when Lebron James drunks in your face, you see him yelling. For us, when something happens within the game, we need to go to player reactions. We need to take cameras. We need to merge that real world with the digital world. It’s a hugely exciting opportunity. It’s incredibly challenging, but the better we are able to pull that off, the better we are able to tell stories.”

It’s, naturally, an obvious crutch to compare esports with all of traditional sports, which is an easy comparison. However, for Corey Dunn, executive producer, NGAGE Esports, which is opening the stunning Esports Stadium Arlington in North Texas, it helps to draw appropriate parallels when comparing the two sides. It’s not as clear-cut as one vs. the other.

“We have to look at esports as more equivalent to college sports,” explains Dunn, who has been directing and producing esports events for nearly a decade. “You can’t directly correlate esports to football. It’s more like Overwatch to football and League of Legends to soccer. Those are the types of associations that we have to think about. Treat each game differently. In baseball, you can break that 180-degree plane. You cut from all the different angles in that gameplay. In football, you always stay on that one side of the field to make it easier for the observers or the audience at home to know what they are looking at. Creating establishing shots in-game is key.”

Logistically, behind the scenes, LaSpina feels that strong esports broadcasters will ultimately be the ones that invest in the infrastructure needed to allow content creators and storytellers to react to game outcomes and not rely simply on storytelling efforts done prior to the match, hoping for an outcome that involves that team or athlete.

“I think where the opportunity lies in esports is storytelling within the match itself, because, ultimately, your game script can be completely blown up by someone having a terrific game,” says LaSpina. “If you are not prepped and prepared and have not built a workflow that’s adaptable and flexible, you are going to end up with a bunch of assets for a player that’s having a terrible game. That’s where, as producers and production folk, we have to remain agile and prepared for wherever the game takes us. That’s one of the things that’s hard, because, any time you are dealing with something that’s unpredictable, that always opens up a new set of challenges and opportunities. For us, it’s putting very dynamic people in those [front-bench] seats, people that are familiar with the game and know how to drive a broadcast forward. That’s the main thing we have to focus on in storytelling beyond just player packages.”

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