HOSTING the Grand Final of a major sportsball event is a huge undertaking. From finding an appropriate venue to getting the lighting set up to ensuring people know the competition is on, hundreds or even thousands of people are involved.
The same is true of e-sports — and while to the casual observer a World Championship final for something like StarCraft or World of Tanks might look like two teams of people sitting at computers, there’s far, far more involved.
One of the best-known e-sports finals are held at the annual BlizzCon event in Los Angeles, hosted by games developer Blizzard Entertainment — publisher of titles including StarCraft II, Overwatch, Hearthstone and World of WarCraft.
A Blizzard spokesman said the company started the planning and budgeting for programs about 13 to 14 months prior to BlizzCon, but for something very ambitious, work could start up to two years ahead of the event.
Each final has its own stage, with about 100—200 people per stage plus another 40 or so people who work across multiple stages at BlizzCon.
Wargaming.net are another publisher of popular e-sports titles, notably World of Tanks, and senior league operations manager Stephen Neale said preparations for their championships began between six to nine months ahead of time, depending on the title.
“The number of people (involved) heavily depends on the location, the stage and the activities provided on site. The Wargaming League Final Battle (on December 12-13) will have more than 100 people involved from multiple regions,” he said.
The Blizzard spokesman said besides the logistical challenges of trying getting 200 competitors from all over the world to Anaheim for the event and supporting them, getting aligned across multiple game teams, departments, and disciplines was quite an undertaking too.
“There are literally thousands of employees involved in the process (and thousands more from our vendors) but there are only about three or four people that are dedicated to BlizzCon,” he said.
“The rest have to balance their everyday job, programs, and assignments while helping to lead and support this massive event. Luckily our people treat it almost like a major holiday where they are excited to participate, work, and help it be a success.”
Mr Neale said Wargaming first established a concept for their major e-sports event, which determined the goals and achievements, before budgets were allocated and then the planning and execution of all sub-projects began.
“A lot of hard work and manpower goes into the logistics of a WGL Grand Finals event to ensure everything runs as smoothly as possible, as well as to be able to offer our audiences an exciting experience,” he said.
“The most difficult part is synchronising between all regions and departments.; each region and department have their opinions and needs and it is important that all voices are heard and considered in the planning of such an event.
“Getting the right synch is also vital to the logistical element of these events.”
Most BlizzCon finals team matches are six players vs. six players, so there are typically 12 gaming PCs — supplied by partners HP and Intel — on the stage with six “ready to go” backups present in case of a hardware failure.
“We run tests to ensure game builds work properly with hardware profiles; we normally do this before we go on-site,” Blizzard’s spokesman said.
“For the Overwatch stage we use PC racks for each side of the stage; we have a few redundant hot spares per team so in the event there is a failure we are able to switch to the backup in a timely manner.”
Mr Neale said Wargaming grand final PCs were built from scratch to ensure a premium playing set up and backups were also available in case something went wrong.
“We have a highly qualified IT team responsible for imaging all PCs, who provide a clean system for our events and help ensure they’re running well,” he said
One of the key elements of an e-sport final is in the broadcast component, allowing people around the world to watch the action, and the set up for something like that is quite impressive too, with the spokesman saying about 12 truckloads worth of equipment were involved for the BlizzCon finals alone.
“Some of the production equipment is similar to equipment you would find on any other major sports production. However, we also have custom-developed hardware and software tailored specifically to our needs in e-sports and we fully integrate the equipment together,” he said.
“For example, we have custom stats and graphic systems that we use to provide the data you see on screen in our broadcasts. We also have custom video servers that we use to provide interactive video on both the physical scenery onstage as well as for the broadcast audience.”
Mr Neale said Wargaming’s TV production team required special streaming equipment to allow them to broadcast all games to its community in the highest possible quality.
“This equipment can range from sophisticated studio broadcasting equipment to fully equipped TV trucks used in traditional sports broadcasts,” he said.
The stages themselves are a key part of the event for a major e-sports final and the Blizzard spokesman said.
“For the Overwatch World Cup we had four 19.6ft (6m) by 36ft (11m) screens that weighed just over four tons,” he said.
“For StarCraft II, we outfitted the entire stage with customisable LED video strips to create individual walk-in and victory moments for our competitors and for Hearthstone, we added two 43in (1.1m) touchscreens that weigh 40kg each for teams to engage with during the competition.”
No major sports match is complete without commentators, which are known in the gaming world as “casters”, and they require the same in-depth understanding of the game as a traditional commentator, along with the
“Commentators usually prepare way in advance for an event, digging through historical data and past gameplay to create a storyline,” Mr Neale said.
“Once a match starts, they can follow the match with special observer software and preview screens, where they can apply this storyline as they see fit.”
The Blizzard spokesman said providing commentators with a clear, real-time snapshot of an esports match was not an easy task, as there was often a lot happening simultaneously in different places on the map.
“In most traditional sports the action is centred around singular items (i.e. a ball) with only ancillary action away from that. However, in e-sports the action impacting gameplay happens across a large — and virtual — field of play,” he said.
“For Overwatch specifically, we developed some custom features to help our viewers follow the action better, including team colours, instant replay, and the top-down map view.
“We also took a step further and developed some commentator-specific features including a special stats dashboard that provides commentators with a layout tailored to provide easy-to-access information.
“This information is updated in real time, allowing the commentators access to a great tool for following off-screen action. The commentators also have real-time access to the top-down view, allowing them (and our match observers) to watch for important off-screen action.”
With e-sports moving into the mainstream, it’s likely these events are only going to get bigger as audiences grow.
Whether or not they rival traditional sports any time soon is still a matter for debate, but with a passionate fanbase, talented players and plenty of support, the work involved in getting it all up on stage and screen is clearly paying off.
Royce Wilson travelled to BlizzCon as a guest of Blizzard Entertainment.