Online Matches Offer Esports a Lifeline, But Quality and Fairplay are a Challenge

Esports competitions have been postponed left and right due to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), but unlike their traditional sports counterparts, several are already back to broadcasting. Several leagues which spent years in-studio are switching to online remote play, a daunting prospect given that their players, broadcasting talent, and crew all now self-isolating. 

In order to maintain production quality, as well as professional integrity, league operations and production officials required quick-fix measures, largely unseen in esports’ short history.

Going from Hiatus to Multi-Home Broadcasting

Last Friday, the League of Legends European Championship (LEC) suspended its season just twenty minutes before show time, after a staff member entered into quarantine. The following morning, LEC broadcast producer John Depa and his team were already weighing their options.

“How can we do a show that has competitive integrity and is entertaining to the end viewer, while reducing the amount of social contact that happens with a normal show?” Depa told The Esports Observer. Playing out of a studio in the outskirts of Berlin, a typical LEC game day requires 80-100 crew members on-site, on top of all players, press, and audience. 

Prior to its postponement, the LEC had already barred public attendees from the studio. As evidenced by the number of NBA players who’ve tested positive for the coronavirus, crowdless games are no longer an option for contact sports, but aside from the occasional fist bump or post-match huddle, video gaming doesn’t require much physical contact between teams. 

Depa and his team devised a number of scenarios for the coming weeks, such as operating a skeleton crew out of the studio, or accessing the broadcasting systems remotely; an option ruled out given the catastrophic possibility of hardware failure. 

“Instead, we decided to leverage systems and workflows based on the desktop computers that we have in everyone’s homes,” he said. The engineering and IT teams sent a fleet of desktop computers to every caster, observer, and member of the broadcast team. Everyone gets a backup computer, and all are sending each piece of the broadcast—game footage, graphics, and commentary—to a central PC. 

“We still have the ability to chrono break if bugs occur,” said Depa. “We are still keeping, for the most part, the same rules and decision-making process. Theoretically, we can still pause the game and our referees can start speaking to the teams about what’s going on.”

Maintaining Integrity in Isolation

Internet connectivity in the 1990s turned competitive gaming from arcade amusement to a career option for gamers. Today, hundreds of online tournaments are held daily in the amateur ranks, and cheating is sadly not uncommon. The LEC may not have millions in prize money up for grabs, but that’s because its star players earn well upward of six figures, and victory in Europe means qualification to international events, and big business potential.

“There are a lot of things that you can’t control when you have competitions played online,” said Avi Bhuiyan, VP of product development for esports services company Popdog. Bhuiyan previously ran league operations for the LEC’s North American counterpart, the League of Legends Championship Series (LCS) until 2016. 

“At the LEC and LCS and other major leagues, typically there’s factory sealed peripherals, to try and avoid essentially people having tampered gear. There’s actually tons of things people can do with their peripherals to manipulate the outcome of a game, or there’s risk to the servers.”

Live esports events feature multiple methods of rule enforcement, from on-stage referees to multiple spectators backstage. Since league officials cannot safely travel to the bases and homes of players, for the time being, the LEC is introducing other measures, such as additional cameras in players homes, voice monitoring, screen recording, and the ability to take remote control. 

“I don’t think it’s controversial to say that if these were ideal measures, we’d already be playing tournaments online,” said Bhuiyan adding that everything depends on the audience’s appetite for quality. It’s likely we will see lag, someone might disconnect, or even get DDOS’d, but as long as everyone understands these are the risks of online play, it won’t be that shocking.

“I think given these unique circumstances, it’s worth taking the risk, but I would also hope that if there’s an abuse case that’s looked at incredibly seriously. Because what an incredible time to be messing with stuff like that.”

The Impact on Viewership and Sponsors

With so many moving parts, the other major consideration is how to produce an esports product close to the quality fans, and sponsors, would expect. Like sports, pro gaming broadcasts feature pre- and post-game analysis, plus interviews with the freshly victorious players. The LEC intends to keep these segments, but aside from the gameplay footage and onscreen graphics, everything will be audio only. 

“For other elements of our show it’s the same. We’re being very cautious with what we’re doing in this first setup, first run, and then iterating from there,” said Depa.

“We’re very flexible in a studio environment to change our graphics, update them, animate them, make adjustments on the fly,”he added. “The interesting exercise that we’ve been going through is to what extent can we still do that in our current setup.” 

The LEC and LCS only had a week to establish a system for online play, having both grown from studio setups since their launch in 2013. The Overwatch League, which expected its players to travel more than any other esports competitors this year, is also transitioning to an online-only schedule, but will have to build its own remote setup, due in part to California’s statewide “stay at home” order.

The largest league currently running remotely is the ESL Pro League (EPL), a professional Counter-Strike: Global Offensive circuit that had already been playing everything but its finals online until 2019. The EPL is currently hosted out of ESL’s offices in Cologne, with players providing interviews via webcam. 

The EPL has signaled how much the sequestered gaming population will boost esports viewership in the coming months. While ESL declined to speak about its operations at this time, the company reported its Wednesday EPL broadcasts reached over 190K concurrent English broadcast viewers, and 366K overall concurrents (up 66%); making it the single most-watched broadcast day of an EPL season in its five-year history.

Complexity Gaming is one of thirteen teams partnered with the league. CEO Jason Lake explained that due to recent whirlwind travel, three of his players are now playing from a Copenhagen base, two others from their own homes. “It’s not the best case scenario for competition but the health, mental health, and wellbeing of our player is priority number one,” he said.

“As far as integrity measures, teams are expected to play under the same rules and regulations as normally used during online play.”

It’s definitely a challenging time for millions (and many industries) right now, as everyone is aware,” said Lake. “One thing that’s fantastic about esports is the fact we can provide our partners value even if in-person touchpoints and activations are limited for the time being. Most traditional sports are on hiatus, but in esports its full steam ahead.”

Likewise, the LEC Spring finals would’ve taken the league to Budapest (and the growing Visegrád Four market) for the first time. While that event may have to wait till next year, it’s not 100% impossible that some aspects of LEC production may return to its Berlin studio, as was the case for the long-delayed Chinese league, which finally resumed broadcasts this week.

The German government is currently cautioning its citizens to undergo social distancing, and Riot Games is making every decision with the safety of its players, crew, and audience in mind. But nothing is off the table, said Depa.

Whether that’s remote in the setup that we have now, or if this just a temporary solution and we do end up using aspects of our studio in the near future we’ll assess and determine how to use those as the days progress.” 

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