SPORT1: Esports get to traditional sports broadcasters to stay
With 25+ years of history, Sport1 (formerly known as DSF) has undergone a marked evolution as one of Germany’s most relevant sports channels. Five years ago, this broadcaster decided to promote its esports division by broadcasting some of Europe’s main competitions and received positive feedback from both fans and advertisers.
Nowadays this commitment has been strengthened by means of an exclusive esports channel featuring technical performance in keeping with the spectacular nature required for these broadcasts. Daniel von Busse, COO TV and Member of the Board of Sport1 GmbH, and Hardy Steinweg, COO of PLAZAMEDIA GmbH; the company on which this broadcaster relies for this content’s technical production gave us a detailed view on this exciting commitment towards electronic sports.
When did Sport1 realize that they should focus their attention on esports?
Daniel von Busse, COO TV and Member of the Board of Sport1 GmbH: This has of course been a long process. We even had a magazine format dedicated to FIFA back in 2006. Since 2015, we have further intensified our efforts and extended our coverage in various forms on our platform. In November 2015, the coverage was bundled into a separate esports channel on SPORT1.de and in June 2016 we launched the SPORT1 esports App. Also in June 2016, SPORT1 broadcast the ESL One in Frankfurt. It was the first time that an international esports event was broadcasted according to today’s standards for several hours during prime time live on German free-TV.
With its wide-reaching content, a predominantly young target group and an above-average active community, esports offers enormous potential for SPORT1. Over the past four years, we have positioned SPORT1 as the leading medium in the field of esports. The numbers have been very satisfying and we see the market as a major part of the future, so the launch of our own esports TV channel was the next logical step. With eSPORTS1, we are underlining our pioneering role in the esports sector and further expanding our commitment.
What kind of esports programming has Sport1 been preparing?
Daniel von Busse: eSPORTS1 shows the bestknown esports titles such as League of Legends, Dota 2, Counter-Strike, Overwatch or FIFA 20 live. This year, all ESL One events for Dota 2, both European Masters in League of Legends, the FIFA 19 Global Series, the Overwatch League, the DreamHack Masters, the Hearthstone Grandmasters, the highlights of the TAG Heuer Virtual Bundesliga (VBL) and the eFootball. Pro League (Pro Evolution Soccer) were shown live and in highlights. The magazine Bwin Inside eSports also provides a compact overview of all known esports titles and competitions and provides viewers with the latest news and background reports. We broadcast this magazine not only on eSPORTS1 but also on free-TV. We also show selected esports events live on free-TV, including this year’s FIFA eWorld Cup Grand Final and ESL One Hamburg. In doing so, we pay particular attention to selecting games such as FIFA 20, which are also understandable for nonesports fans, as the audience on free-TV is more heterogeneous.
How do you prepare a classic sports TV channel like Sport1 for esports programming?
Daniel von Busse: Since 2017, we’ve had our own esports unit, headed by Florian Merz, which takes care of all SPORT1’s esports activities. In addition to their specialist skills, the editors have a high level of enthusiasm for the sport itself and are also gamers. Sport and esports editors always work closely together, of course. It has also proved wise to get our presenters and commentators out of the middle of the esports community by casting them. The technical competence as well as the technical basics to present esports on our platforms were of course available from the very beginning.
We have a digital department that is responsible for the development of the SPORT1 app and the esports app. In addition, as a TV station we have studios which we can also use for esports broadcasts and are also experienced in this area through our other pay-TV station SPORT1+. In the meantime, the topic of esports has permeated the entire Group and every one of our employees has been involved in it.
What are the main technical challenges you must face when preparing esports content?
Hardy Steinweg, COO of PLAZAMEDIA GmbH: From a technical point of view, the high variety of different standards is the most challenging part of an esports production. Most In-Game sources are delivered via consumer technology and, depending on the players preferences or the ruleset of the tournament, rarely match the production standard in terms of resolution, fps and color space.”
What are the differences between a classical sport broadcast and an esports one?
Daniel von Busse: In our approach to esports broadcasting, there are basically no differences compared to classical sports. Although the forms of sporting competition shown here are still unusual for some viewers – the elements of our programs are the same. In esports, too, we show as many match sequences live as possible and use breaks to include editorial contributions as well as well-founded analyses and assessments. Our experts use analysis tools similar to those used for other sports. Our esports editorial team and our renowned on-air team with their own experts for the respective titles offer comprehensive pre- and post-event reporting as well as analyses from our own esports studio with augmented reality elements at the events.
What types of esports programming are you producing?
Daniel von Busse: eSPORTS1’s 24/7 program includes at least 1,200 live hours of top-class international and national esports events as well as highlight broadcasts and in-house magazines. The program content is curated, edited and presented to the target group in Germany, Austria and Switzerland by our own esports editorial team together with experts and influencers from the German-speaking esports community. Numerous major esports events are commented on in German and presented from our own esports studio.
You even decided to launch an esports focused channel, eSports1. How has the experience been so far?
Daniel von Busse: We are very happy and proud that the channel exists in this form. The public and media feedback to the launch in January 2019 was very strong – and above all almost entirely positive. Interest from the market – be it potential content, platform or marketing partners – was also huge after we announced the channel‘s launch at the end of November 2018. The channel would not exist – and this must be emphasized quite clearly – if we had not entered into excellent partnerships. We are therefore very grateful to our partners, both those on the distribution side and those on the content side. We have always seen ourselves as a bit of a joint venture. In principle as the “enabler” that is the interface between the distribution page and the content page. That was certainly our main achievement: to bring the different interests and ideas together.
Does eSports1 broadcast from Sport1 facilities?
Hardy Steinweg: Both eSport1 and Sport1 utilize roughly the same broadcast infrastructure at PLAZAMEDIA, the company’s technical service provider. However, some workflows and systems needed to be modified or upgraded to meet the specific demands of an esports production
Which manufacturers do you trust to help you with the technical difficulties of broadcasting these types of TV formats?
Hardy Steinweg: We want to cover as many events as possible, so we’ve been opting for cost efficient equipment. As I mentioned before, a lot of the grown traditional production structures are used for the esports formats. Within those, we use best practice broadcast hardware like Sony, Grass Valley, Stagetec, Lawo, EVS and Imagine Communications. For the esports specific part, mainly the standard conversion, we discovered the Blackmagic Teranex Series Converters to be our weapon of choice.
Is specific broadcast equipment ready for esports? Do you currently use traditional broadcast equipment adapted to esports workflows?
Hardy Steinweg: The traditional equipment is mainly designed to work within the given standards of the broadcasting ecosystem. The established production workflows are part of the DNA of each operator and mainly rely on the use of industry standard hardware. For an esports production to be successful, I believe it is key to bring the standardized usability of the well-known systems and the flexible technical demands of an esports production together.
In addition to the classic classical roles as TV director, mixer and so on, esports has its own particular profiles. Could you tell our readers more about this?
Daniel von Busse: We have our own esports editorial staff and a renowned on-air team with our own experts for the respective titles offer. In addition, last December we launched a major esports casting to look for moderators and – in cooperation with commentator – also commentator talents for our new esports offering. Six candidates out of more than one hundred applicants have prevailed. They work for us as moderators or classically as casters. During the last years, the broadcast industry is transitioning between classical broadcast environments to an IT environment. IP infrastructures and cloud based systems, for example, are part of this new context.
Do esports push towards the transformation of the broadcast industry?
Hardy Steinweg: I personally think esports plays the role of a catalyst in the transition that we are currently undergoing. The big steps towards IT/IP based production in smallest units and the slim workflows enabled by certain hardware create a vast amount of content mainly distributed via the internet. This is driving the online community experience in general and made the entire growth of esports possible in the first place. When the audience became bigger and bigger, the increasing size of esports events and tournaments required an appropriate coverage. Given the huge number of online spectators of the major events spread all around the globe, IP workflows easily enable a hybrid local and offsite/ cloud-based production to satisfy the unilateral demands for each country’s community in terms of language and local commentary for example. eSports1 is part of this unilateral coverage and also uses IP based production in its facilities. The benefits of IP workflows on both sides result in new end-user experiences – for example numerous different OTT services.
Esports broadcasters depend on esports developers to provide them with tools that help the game director make the broadcast. How has the conversation been so far? Are the development tools sufficient for your transmission standards?
Hardy Steinweg: Most of the data that would be interesting to the viewer is generated and inserted into the incoming feed, which puts our focus on the final processing of the signal. Most developers will happily provide all sorts of assets, ranging from style guides to 3D objects to help us present their creations in the best possible ways.
Which system do you use to generate and insert graphics?
Hardy Steinweg: For all things live graphics with dynamic content, as well as the augmented reality components in the studio, we rely on the Viz Engine, which comes with great flexibility in the 2D, as well as the 3D sector. For different occasions, we use different external controlling solutions to send commands to the Viz Engines.
What’s the future of esports broadcasting? What technological solutions do you think that will help you in the future?
Hardy Steinweg: I think the ongoing growth of the esports community and the increasing number of games that attract audience attention will require a higher granularity and simultaneity in content creation. To maintain the quality of the end product without exploding costs, powerful all-in-one production solutions are key – NewTek’s Tricaster family or SimplyLive’s ViBox systems for example. I don’t expect the major events to become larger unless they end up covering multiple different games and tournaments at the same time. We are very excited to watch the development of the Unreal Engine. It has come a very long way and we definitely see it as a major player in the future. We’re really looking forward to experimenting a lot more with the crisp augmented reality possibilities it comes with.
In your opinion, will esports someday meet the traditional sports success in Europe / America?
Daniel von Busse: For me, esports is a mass phenomenon that will not just exist for three, four, five years and then disappear again. I believe that we have already seen great growth rates in the past and that the topic will continue to develop positively. If you look at Asia, you can deduce a bit about the sustainability of this issue. In South Korea, for example, there has been an esports channel for almost 20 years. Therefore, I think we will keep seeing esports as a media event in the next 10, 15 years.