SVG Sit-Down: Verizon Media’s Darren Lepke on the Rise of Esports and What’s Ahead

Besides challenges, the pandemic has offered opportunities for growth

Over the past eight months, esports broadcasters have valiantly carried on despite the pandemic, shifting to online competitions that leverage remote-production workflows. With the traditional sports world in hibernation, esports helped fill the void with hundreds of hours of live content to feed hungry live-sports fans. As esports production and streaming workflows continue to evolve at breakneck pace, Verizon Media has taken an active role in helping develop next-gen workflows for esports-content creators.

With that in mind, SVG sat down with Darren Lepke, head of video product management, Verizon Media, to discuss how the company fits into the esports landscape, the opportunities it sees for growth in esports, the primary challenges esports producers face today, how 5G could play a role in the future proliferation of esports and gaming content, and where he sees the industry headed in 2021 and beyond.

What role does Verizon Media play in esports-content production/streaming?
For us, esports is an evolution of the existing broadcast ecosystem. In my opinion, it may be the biggest leap forward we’ve seen in terms of the end-user experience, and that’s going to drive the industry forward over the next 20 or 30 years.

Today, Verizon Media streams millions of hours of live content every year for many of the largest sports broadcasters. As esports starts to make its way into the world of traditional broadcasting and also carves out its own place in the world, we have a robust network infrastructure and powerful streaming platform, so we’ll look to help these esports organizations reach as many viewers as possible.

What opportunities for growth do you see for Verizon Media as the esports sector grows?
Esports is definitely bigger than ever right now. With the impact of the pandemic on sports programming, esports has helped to fill the void left by traditional live sports. The reality is, esports was growing far in advance of the pandemic because it provides a different viewing experience for younger viewers specifically. That’s making TV more interactive and driving engagement in a way that we’ve never seen before. We believe our opportunity is to continue to drive that innovation around the consumer experience and help deliver these amazing interactive experiences on any device anytime anywhere in the world.

From a technology/tech-stack standpoint, what are the biggest challenges for esports-content creators and broadcasters?
I see two different sides to it: the challenge of remote production and the challenge of creating a real-time interactive experience.

There are the production challenges that every single broadcaster is experiencing, regardless of whether it’s esports or traditional sports. In terms of traditional broadcasting and bringing people together for a true live tournament or live experience in an arena, esports is facing the same remote production challenges as everybody else. So they have to find ways to broadcast events virtually and move a lot of their production to the cloud, as opposed to having it on premises or in a broadcast center.

We’re doing everything we can to provide more remote-production assistance. We’re working more with our customers to get video out of venues and to the cloud, where it can be manipulated or produced for broadcasts. And we’re providing more tools in the cloud and in a virtualized or API-driven way than ever. But that trend was happening already. There was already a move to IP and to remote production; the pandemic just accelerated that trend.

The other interesting challenge when it comes to the tech stack is creating that interactive experience. It creates new demands for streaming infrastructure and for broadcast infrastructure that traditional television simply can’t offer. Sports and esports content has to be [delivered] in near real time. From a technology perspective, that means new infrastructure and new protocols that will push the envelope in terms of how fast you can deliver content to the viewers.

Also, esports [broadcasts] tend to be more of a two-way conversation between the fans and the broadcasters. There’s really an expectation that the viewers of the event have a voice. And they often are communicating with the players and broadcasters [via] real-time chat and messaging. The announcers are monitoring that conversation and, in some ways, letting the audience shape what they talk about and what they highlight. That two-way conversation brings in a whole host of additional technology challenges.

What are the biggest untapped opportunities you see in esports?
I think elements like wagering and gamification will allow audiences to participate even further. That just keeps layering on more and more challenges on top of the remote production, the real-time nature, and the two-way conversation pieces. That’s certainly a challenge, but, for a service provider like Verizon Media, it’s also an opportunity to facilitate that innovation and then provide it to the broadcasters so they don’t have to build it themselves.

How has the rise of gaming/esports influencers and streamers changed the streaming landscape over the past few years, and how is Verizon Media looking to serve this space?
The personalities in the esports industry are an important part of the fabric of driving promotion, increased tune-in, and getting more fans engaged. It’s certainly a positive factor as we see more and more influencers taking their content to exclusive platforms, driving investment across multiple players in the ecosystem, and drawing more attention to what many people see as a nascent industry. There’s no doubt that influencers [are] driving greater interest, and we want to play a part in that from a technology perspective.

It’s a slightly different challenge in that it’s not necessarily about a live production or about real-time feedback. But it is the same challenge in terms of reaching as many distribution outlets as possible. These personalities want to publish not only to their own apps or websites but also to social media and multiple other platforms. The need for ubiquity and reach of that influencer content helps us innovate in the ways that we can distribute the content.

How could the rise of 5G impact the esports sector long term? And how could Verizon play a role in serving its evolution?
There is no doubt 5G will have a huge impact on esports — just as it will on a variety of industries. We tend to think about 5G as having faster download speeds. When you pair that fast network with some of these new real-time protocols and some of the interactive features for the fan experience, there’s no doubt that it’s going to improve how people experience esports and live sports.

The thing you think about less with a 5G network is the upload capability, which will also be much faster. Whether you’re an influencer creating clips or you’re setting up a live stream from your home, 5G will have an impact on how well you can contribute content into the ecosystem, and 5G will ultimately help the esports ecosystem reach its full potential.

Lastly, there’s really exciting potential around what 5G could mean for edge computing. Verizon has a big initiative under way called Multi-Access Edge Computing (MEC): they’re going to be putting compute resources literally in the cell towers in neighborhoods. For rendering real-time graphics or updating leaderboards or even processing content inside a videogame, it will allow the content to move faster to the users and allow new gaming experiences. It’s also going to open up virtual reality and augmented reality to be faster, more responsive, and less laggy because it reduces the round-trip time from the device to the cloud and back. I think 5G has an opportunity to influence not only the way that gaming and esports content is consumed but also the way games are designed and how they are rendered out to the end users.

By shifting to online competitions, esports has been able to thrive despite the pandemic. How can esports-content creators capitalize on this? And what do you expect in 2021 from the esports sector?
I think many of the remote-production workflows and the fact that you won’t be able to have people inside a stadium will open up a lot of opportunities for additional players in this space. If you’re a football or baseball fan, you are constrained by the number of teams and the number of stadiums. And that constrains the amount of licensing dollars that goes into a league being created. I think, when you remove some of the physical constraints of the sporting event itself, it opens up a lot more opportunity.

For me, as an esports fan, it’s exciting to think about how the barrier to entry for creative people is being reduced. If you can create a really dynamic league with compelling personalities, your chances of success are even higher than before, because you don’t have those physical constraints.

Ultimately, I think you’re going to see a lot more personalization for fans to serve their own personal needs. Verizon Media is already actively investing in and building out real-time streaming and interactivity features that will help make all this possible, and we’ll be rolling them out to esports customers soon.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity


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