The Switch. Spreading the feed of esports.
We spoke to Charles Conroy, VP Gaming at The Switch, to ask him what a company like theirs has to offer in the eSports landscape. The Switch is dedicated to the infrastructure behind the transmissions. As specialists in the esports arena they have collaborated with major international competitions such as The Overwatch League, the Call of Duty League or BLAST Pro Series. Their job is to bring the excitement of competition to any place in the world, whatever its characteristics. The esports audience has grown significantly during the pandemic and international interest has only grown. A curious fact is that betting on esports grew during these times. This statistic is always indicative that a particular sport is on the rise. Those who contribute to the distribution of the signals know a lot about bringing these disciplines to their current level of audiences.
What is The Switch? What kind of services does it offer?
The Switch is one of the world’s largest transmission provider. Our company has two arms. One is transmission. We work some of the world’s largest events including the Academy Awards, the Super Bowl, the entire PGA Tour, and the NBA. We send that signal to wherever it needs to go. We’ve been doing this for 34 years. On the production side, our other arm, we produce events such as the Latin Grammys, red carpets, award shows and, of course, esports events. We have done these events for the last five years. We worked on The Game Awards, we worked on E3. We support In-gaming, The Overwatch League, the Call of Duty League, BLAST Pro Series, WePlay, and ESL.
What is your bond with esports? How did you get that connection?
This is a crazy story. I’ve been in esports for 17 years. I started as a Counter-Strike player when I was in high school and quickly realized I was not going to be a world champion. But I also realized that there was no many organization on the space. I put together one of North America’s first professional teams and we travelled around the world representing the United States at various world cup events.
DirecTV decided to come out with a TV show called “The Championship Gaming Series”. This was in 2007, so quite early. This was the first-ever global league that was fundamentally a esports league that existed on three different continents. I ran the Dallas team there. They burned through cash too quickly, and frankly, 2007 was probably too early for esports to be on linear television, so that league folded.
From that league, my good friend and then business partner, Jason Lake, reformed Complexity Gaming. Jason and I ran Complexity together for nine years until eventually selling it to the Dallas Cowboys. At that point, I exited the company. I didn’t know what my next move was, and I got a call from The Switch. They said, “Look, we happen to produce an esports event. We don’t know a ton about this market but it’s something we want to be in.”
That was three and a half years ago, The Switch launched the gaming vertical. I am in charge of the gaming business unit there. In those three and a half years, we grew The Switch from nothing in the gaming space to this great company in transmission.
What kind of technical infrastructure do you have to produce your own esports events? Do you rent or own it?
It’s a mix. Just because we do global events, we rent a lot of fiber, but because of our scale and the events we broadcast, we can get fiber at a very preferential rate. Also, our hardware, such as our encoders or decoders, and our studios and control rooms are owned by us. Most of the hardware we own, in terms of fiber lines, we have partners around the world.
Could you explain to us what difference in broadcasting you have found between these esports and regular sports such as the NBA or NFL?
Broadcasting esports compared to the NFL or NBA is entirely different. I think the biggest difference is there are no physical limitations within a video game. Obviously, in the NFL, you can’t capture a variety of angles due to ball interference and just physics, whereas in esports, you can capture everything.
I truly believe esports and gaming is going to evolve broadcast technology because we can do more with it. All the other things that are new in the mainstream broadcast world like all these OTT solutions have been around in esports for 10 years. Esports is by far the most cutting-edge factor in broadcast technology right now.
Is there a possibility to transfer all these capabilities that you have mentioned and that give this essence to esports broadcasts to the traditional sports ground?
Yes. If you take the example of, say, European football, it would require every player to wear a camera and it would require for that camera to remain steady all game. If you take the example of American football, you put the camera in the helmets, but just by sheer impact, those cameras break. It’s been tried before. Is there a possibility for on-player cameras to be developed? 100%, but every attempt so far of capturing player angles has not been successful.
What do you think about offering another kind of experience relying in new technology such as virtual reality?
There are a lot of opportunities to take. The only thing that’ll be hard to capture are going to be the player views, the first person views. Right now, putting a camera on a player is just too hard. However, you can capture about 90% of it through drones and other techniques like that.
Then to your point, I think virtual reality is a natural next step for viewing both traditional and electronic sports. Let’s say you’re courtside at the Knicks. That ticket, it’s a $5,000 ticket. For $5 you can put on a headset and be courtside at the Knicks, and look to your left and look to your right and have a courtside experience. I think for sure virtual reality is the next step in broadcast viewership, and esports is taking it to the next level. You’re not just courtside at a Knicks game, you’re in the game. You have full control to basically fly around like Superman, for lack of a better term.
What is your particular broadcast pipeline in a specific event?
That totally depends on what takers have bought the rights to the event. For example, let’s take our relationship with BLAST Pro Series. They send the event signal out to 32 different takers that are both linear and digital channels around the world. Our job there is to take the video signal and send it out. It may be ingested differently on a German TV channel than it is on Twitch. It’s a completely different signal. Our job is to encode and decode that signal in real time.
For example, if you’re watching an event on linear TV in Spain and someone is watching it on the internet in Germany, we need you to get that video signal within milliseconds of each other just for integrity purposes. That’s a big part of our job as far as delivering video signal. On site, bringing in private internet lines to carry the signal in and out is incredibly important. A lot of the venues, even major stadiums, have really poor internet and it’s not strong enough to guarantee 100% uptime on a video signal.
Another thing with The Switch, I think is incredibly good at, is we can create internet lines and build internet lines pretty much anywhere. With enough lead time, if you pick a warehouse in the middle of nowhere in England, we can get a proper video feed out of that. We just have to build the fiber.
Apart from the fiber provider do you provide other technological infrastructure into these events?
We can. We actually produced the entire Latin Grammys in the cloud instead of in a physical control room, through our MIMiC product. MIMiC, is a control room in the cloud, so you can cut a TV show without everyone needing to be in one place. For example, your director can be in Sweden and your graphics guy can be in Ecuador and your audio guy can be in Miami.
I did the cloud-based production, obviously, especially during COVID, it was a huge selling point for us. Then being able to remote produce things from our control rooms, like what we did for the PGA Tour was also very advantageous because the PGA Tour, you travel all around the country, and you don’t want the producers getting COVID. Being able to work out of our control room and produce the entire thing from Burbank was crucial to getting the PGA Tour done last year.
From an esports perspective, we offer the same full suite of services. Some people choose to use us just for internet, whereas other people chooses to use us for the entire production, in which case we would staff directors, camera guys, audio people, an entire production from start to finish.
What about advanced graphics creation in your events? How do you implement techniques such as augmented reality? Does it have a place in e-sports?
Yes. I think one company that is very good with augmented reality is a company called WePlay, from Ukraine. They’ve done a great job introducing augmented reality into their events. It’s worth noting that that’s not what we do at The Switch, but if a client has augmented reality capabilities, obviously, we can support that.
I think on a virtual reality signal, because it’s typically 360 cameras getting images, it takes a lot more bandwidth on the Internet to send that signal. We have that bandwidth. We can put up to 10 gigs redundant, that’s 10 gigs by 10 gigs, in one place to get all those camera signals out. That wasn’t possible 10 years ago. The way we support AR and VR is by providing enough bandwidth so that that signal can get out of the venue and get to its destination.
Has e-sports broadcast grown at the same time and in the same way as esports?
Yes, I think the numbers and the audience numbers of e-sports speak for themselves. They’re bigger than professional basketball, they’re bigger than Major League Baseball. They continue to grow every day. The viewership is better than many major sports leagues and is only trending upward.
Yes, as far as what you’re saying, the audience for e-sports is growing and people are trying to figure out how to capture those eyeballs, because young people don’t read newspapers, they don’t watch traditional TV. It’s a very difficult audience to capture from a consumer perspective. They’re also a desirable audience, because if you look at the average revenue for an e-sports event, it’s higher than most other sports.
These are people you want to engage at a young age to build brand loyalty, but how do you reach them? You don’t reach them through a radio ad, you don’t reach them through a magazine article. This is where their eyeballs are and this is what people are trying to reach, and that’s what makes the viewer demographic incredibly attractive to many advertisers.
How can you get their attention?
Interactivity is what esports fans want. They want to be able to interact as much as possible. Twitch has given them the ability to do that by being able to live chat during games. You can’t really do that during an NBA game, or an NFL game. The more interactive they make broadcasts, the larger the esports fan base will respond.
How can broadcast evolve into this interactivity, apart from a platform like Twitch?
There’s a lot of ways to make broadcasts more interactive. The easiest way, for example, is that they’re opening up esports stadiums and some of the seats are going to have screens in front of them. You’ll be able to choose which angle you want to watch that game from.
You can’t do that at an NFL game. If you watch an NFL game on TV, you’re looking at the camera angle they’re offering you. The camera angle and broadcasts in e-sports break all those boundaries. You can see the players in first person to see what they are experiencing as they are making plays.
I think what sets esports apart is the ability to interact with that level of control for people who are naturally fans of interactivity and who, frankly, have a shorter attention span or demand higher technological standards. It’s something you can’t do in traditional sports.
We assume that eSports production, as you mentioned, always relies on remote production workflows, but has the pandemic changed all these workflows in any way?
I think the pandemic changed workflows for both traditional and esports. In fact, here were no traditional sports on for over a year, and in that time, esports viewership exploded because it was quite literally the only thing to watch.
When sports were gone, esports were there, and that’s because it can exist in a virtual environment where people don’t have to be in the same room. I think that the pandemic forced a lot of companies to examine their workflows and explore remote workflows.
Does the traditional sports broadcasting industry have the opportunity to look at and learn from eSports production workflows?
Yes, absolutely. I think traditional sports broadcasting can learn a lot from esports. I also think, frankly, esports can learn a lot from traditional sports broadcasting. The two worlds don’t talk to each other enough. What’s been really interesting over the past few years is seeing people that produce things like NASCAR and the NFL coming over to esports and realizing how difficult it is, because you have so many more camera feeds to deal with. You’re not talking about three to six stationary cameras. You’re talking about 32 cameras. It’s a harder show to direct. With that said, there’s a level of storytelling in, let’s say the NFL, that esports still needs to learn from.
How can this collaboration take place?
I think it’s already happening. Games like Madden use NFL producers that are now running shows with esports producers. The more collaboration there is between the two worlds, I think the stronger they’ll both become. People are already collaborating. I encourage way more of it. I don’t think there should be a barrier between the two worlds.
What will be the esports-related future of The Switch?
I think we’ve shown that we’re here to stay. I think we’ve made a pretty big impact in the space by bringing in the skills we’ve had from 34 years in traditional sports, in an authentic way into esports and not trying to change workflows but trying to enhance them. We’re going to grow, to specifically answer your question, by continuing to be adaptable and supportive to our clients. We’re going to be able to fix difficult problems that very smart people may have, and that’s something we’re very good at.