Esports

IP Brings the Wow Factor To Educational Esports Programs

Esports — a video game competition with a live audience either at a venue or online — has evolved from a niche event into a legitimate industry with total global revenues of more than a billion dollars annually. That is not a typo. That is billion — with a B.

Esports

Esports prize pools totaled $160 million in 2018. When all is counted at the end of 2019, those pools are expected to grow by 25 percent. The top 10 professional players earned a range between $1 million and $2 million each in 2018. It is estimated the total audience of esports will grow to 454 million viewers in 2019 with revenues of $1.1 billion, up about 22 percent from 2018.

The increasing availability of online streaming media platforms, particularly YouTube and Twitch, have become central to the growth and promotion of esports competitions. Mainstream sports organizations including ESPN now provide extensive coverage. With a rise in the number of leagues, the popularity of purpose-built venues, rising investment, viewership growth and even the potential for esports to be added to the Olympics, it is time to recognize esports is no longer a fad. Esports is all grown up — and now it is time for it to go to school.

Academia Legitimizing the Profession

Esports is a growing area of study at colleges and universities and is attracting big name partners. Degrees are being offered in gaming programming, game art, game design and esports management —for education and professional competition alike. Esports programs require a specialized and diverse group of personnel, and an esports event’s success is dependent on a combination of business and technology expertise.

On the business side, there are roles in marketing, finance, and the management of partners, logistics, events, teams and organizations. On the production side, there is website development, social media management, Twitch stream control, camera operation, audio engineering and more. Another aspect is on-camera talent for play-by-play reporting, color commentary, hosting and analysis.

But perhaps most critical to successfully preparing students for an esports career — a job market that is sure to be competitive for the foreseeable future — is offering hands-on, real-world experience in such a production. Offering students the opportunity to utilize the real technologies that exist within the esports space is critical. Providing them with a production reel of real events is key.

In this article, we will consider the technical infrastructure requirements for starting up an esports program in K-12 schools or higher education.

What workflow is required for esports curricula?

Computers and Consoles
One of the first expenses to consider will be the gaming computers, consoles, displays and peripherals. There are plenty of purpose-built gaming rigs out there. While some of this hardware might be irreplaceable — the standard for digital sports competitions is nearly all conducted on Sony and Microsoft consoles — gaming PCs can typically be built from parts at a much more affordable cost per unit.

That said, consideration must be given to the capture of video from these sources. A camera pointed toward a competitor works great for picture-in-picture production layouts, however, pointing a camera at a screen simply won’t cut it in the world of esports.

To solve this, we turn to a second consideration…

Traditional cabling is costly, but there is a better solution: IP infrastructure.
Production of esports events with video resolutions of up to 4K UHD need to be planned. Large numbers of simultaneous, high-resolution computer sources over the network have to be mixed in real time along with camera sources, graphics and audio. Special cabling was once required to achieve such a workflow — however, the world has changed! No longer are expensive cables required to send signals around a campus as IP transport permits organizations to expand and achieve new capabilities that would not be practical using a legacy approach.

To be future ready, the only answer is to incorporate Internet Protocol (IP) based transport in the production workflow.

The most common IT elements involved in media production include software processing, standard networking, common computing hardware and IP transport. IP is the established standard for connecting devices that is now being applied more pervasively to media. IP is a mature, existing technology, ubiquitous on a global basis. By its very nature, IP technology efficiently handles any and all of the data types that are of interest to media production and distribution.

NDI Empowers IP Production
Network Device Interface (NDI) is a free-to-use protocol built upon IP-based standards, enabling compatible products to share video, audio and data across a standard local area network. Using refined encoding and communication, NDI permits systems, devices, and applications to identify and communicate bi-directionally with one another over IP, and to encode, transmit and receive multiple streams of high quality, low latency, frame-accurate video and audio in real time. Furthermore, it is a standard used freely among competitors such as Sony and Panasonic. NDI is royalty free, so there are thousands of software and hardware products with NDI support, and millions of users incorporating it into their environments.

It is also familiar in the esports space: Twitch uses it to support many of their productions, and OBS Studio — one of the leaders in streaming software — utilizes NDI as an enabling technology. Simply put: it is an affordable, interoperable and simple solution to effectively transfer video over a network.

As students are the primary users, an esports production center must be quick and easy to operate. Using standard IT interfacing, gaming workstations have to be connected over the network simultaneously. Free scan converter tools can be used to make each gaming PC available as video sources. Game consoles from Nintendo, Microsoft or Sony can also be added to the network with converters, making these and other HDMI video devices NDI sources.

Bringing It All Together: Live Production Systems
Switching for all cameras, gaming PCs and consoles — along with video clips, graphics and audio — needs to be combined into an IP-capable digital media production system.

A production system needs to be simple to use and incorporate automated functions so it can be set up in a self-service mode. In this way instructors or students can produce finished content without needing technical experience. A comprehensive macro automation system will let users record, store, edit and automate their common settings and typical command sequences. Macros can be set up to run manually from a combination of compatible control interfaces or be set to perform actions with the system automatically.

Some production systems can use a Microsoft Word document to act as the teleprompter script that is delivered to monitors, tablets or even smartphones mounted on cameras for the talent to read. Some systems can layer static and moving graphics inserted from pre-set templates for show openings, title animations, and lower third titles with timing, speed and duration control. Design of graphics can originate in popular Adobe Photoshop and After Effects applications.

Many live production systems provide software-based control panels, which can operate a production system from any compatible desktop or mobile device and from anywhere on the network. Easily accessible through any web browser or operating system, this functionality includes production-ready control panels for remote video and audio mixing, media playback and macro automation.

Another way that systems can help manage production is with PTZ camera control. There are a number of PTZ cameras available providing video, audio, control, tally and power over a single cable that simply connects to an Ethernet port on a standard IT network.

The Curriculum Is Critical

While these are the pillars for the infrastructure, it should be mentioned the curriculum for esports must be dovetailed with these technologies. This is no coursework in playing videogames — just as sports management degrees don’t help you play better golf or hit more jump shots. Look back to the core technologies we’ve considered and think about how they have educational touchpoints that will translate to valuable workplace skills in esports.

Building, repairing and upgrading computers brings in a foundational element to the technology that will be critical both in designing workflows on budget and during real-time troubleshooting.

Understanding networks to a point where they can be effectively designed, managed, troubleshot and scaled is a skill that goes beyond just esports. The network is an emerging technology for all types of AV and broadcast environments.

Understanding the technical components of directing, switching and managing a live studio and live performance is once again valuable beyond just the esports space as it touches on uses in the broadcast, streaming and live performance industries.

Finally, work in front of the camera should also be added as students take over as announcers and — yes, finally — as esports competitors. In total, the esports space requires a distinct blend of computer, network, AV and management literacy that can be accomplished through simple and affordable technologies.

The key to success is implementing IP workflows that enable esports production to be completely driven by the students. An esports center can be student friendly enough to be operated without ongoing technical staff support while still being affordable, effective and professionally competent.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2019 issue of Spaces4Learning.

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