Pandemic isn’t the end of live sports, but it has created the perfect storm for esports

Throughout the Covid-19 lockdown, many citizens have found themselves stuck indoors as governments attempt to limit the spread of the pandemic. And while stuck indoors and looking for ways to entertain ourselves, we’ve turned to our TV sets, streaming services and digital platforms in numbers almost never seen before. In fact, 87 per cent of US consumers and 80 per cent of UK consumers revealed that they’re consuming more content than ever before, according to a recent report from Global Web Index.

However, one form of entertainment has been noticeably absent: live sports. Beyond empty stadiums, there are significant issues for live sports. For instance, while Premier League football recently returned to the UK, there are still significant logistical challenges – relying on a crew of hundreds, as well as a live audience at times, these conditions make social distancing measures hard to cope with.

But it isn’t all doom and gloom for live sports; esports has quietly grown in both prominence and accessibility during Covid-19. Data from Streamlabs shows that platforms like Twitch, YouTube Gaming, and Facebook Gaming have experienced a surge in growth, with around a 20 per cent increase in usage hours reported across services.

The esports market is forecast to grow to just over $1 billion in 2020. Business models in esports closely follow professional sports – though competitions are far more fragmented and aren’t limited by the same challenges facing traditional live sports – with the majority of revenue coming from advertising and broadcasting.

Instead, exposure to esports in the last few months has opened doors for additional revenue streams and increased fan engagement for sports organisations as well as broadcasters.

So, what are the limitations facing the media and entertainment (M&E) industry, and what lessons can be learned from esports as the industry looks to revolutionise its approach to customer experience management, demand planning and revenue generation.

As with most modern business challenges, digital transformation with an ecosystem of agile, secure and fast technologies is the answer.

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Socially distant production

With lockdown creating so much demand for content, the M&E industry has been doing its best to continue delivering high-quality content to viewers while working from home. A key part of this has been embracing a remote production model.

For instance, in the sports arena, football bodies such as the Premier League and Bundesliga gained mass attention as they resumed closed-door games. Although even with no audience and smaller crews, players and crews still have to be cautious, and are subjected to numerous Covid-19 tests.

And although this might look simple enough, there’s significantly more work going into remote production than meets the eye. Live footage must be captured perfectly, before being quickly and seamlessly transmitted to a central studio to be broadcasted to viewers. That’s where the rest of the team and equipment are present to edit the raw content and send it for production.

But by virtualising the entire environment and using media orchestration on the cloud, teams can create cloud-based content workflows that allow content creators and stakeholders to manage the video production chain end-to-end, remotely.

By migrating to cloud, remote teams can integrate and automate their usual workflows tasks such as file delivery, transcoding videos for OTT platforms and frame-accurate editing seamlessly in virtual environments – without having to transfer feeds between physical workstations.

And this focus on remote production has gone hand in hand with esports, a live event which is far more easily captured and hosted remotely due to its digital nature. In fact, esports may actually be growing in prominence as a result of Covid-19.

Sports leagues around the world have turned to esports to find new ways of engaging with fans. Several esports competitions are being shown on live TV, as broadcasters look to fill hours of scheduled sports content that were cancelled in the wake of the pandemic.

In April, the NBA (one of the first high-profile organisations to suspend activity due to Covid-19) hosted a players-only virtual basketball tournament. Huge stars such as Kevin Durant and Spencer Dinwiddie played ‘NBA 2K’ against each other live on ESPN. Not only did the tournament keep sponsors, broadcasters and fans happy, the winner received $100,000 for a Covid-19 related charity of their choice.

Similarly, NASCAR has been one of the most successful sports to augment cancelled events with its iRacing Series, with one event attracting a peak of 1.3 million viewers.

However, just because esports are social distancing-friendly, doesn’t mean there aren’t many factors to consider for M&E organisations. The tournament still required multiple cameras, cutaways, reactions and commentary that needed to be captured and edited in real time.

So, esports on broadcast television require robust digital broadcast infrastructure and connectivity capabilities – something not all M&E firms are equipped for.

When it comes to esports, organisers need to focus on:

  • Low latency streaming solutions: This is especially important when you’re hosting live competitions with players in different geographies
  • Decentralised cloud gaming: This allows you to host games in multiple locations without needing to install expensive hardware in each spot
  • Delivery at the Edge: With latency sensitive applications like esports, edge infrastructure is becoming increasingly crucial for optimum user experience

Innovating into the future

esports have a significant advantage over traditional live sports broadcasting, owing to their digital-first nature. However, the ideas and innovations that broadcasters are developing during Covid-19 will benefit not only esports but live sports more broadly into the future.

I believe around 75 per cent of broadcasters will look at adopting remote production post-coronavirus. The benefits of less travel will become both a money saving strategy for firms and a perk for employees, all while also being good for the environment. And the money firms save can then be reinvested back into their digital transformation journey.

However, regardless of a focus on traditional live sports or esports, every M&E firm’s first priority must be migrating their workflows to cloud – this will ensure they are able to make their content accessible anywhere. Not only this, some modern cloud services also give companies access to AI-enhanced metadata that will improve their customers’ experiences through features like personalised and multilingual content. Ultimately, it’s this investment in technology that will future-proof live sports, and ensure that viewers receive the same high-quality experiences, regardless of circumstances.

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