The third season of the Overwatch League was always going to be a production challenge. After spending two years in the comfy confines of the Blizzard Arena in Los Angeles, where the league could perfect its broadcasts, OWL then shifted to a home-and-away format in 2020 with teams based in 19 cities spread across three continents. But that structure didn’t last long: just five weeks into the season, the league was forced to shift to an online format due to the pandemic.
That meant figuring a way for everyone — from the actual players and coaches to the broadcast team — to work from home. In the case of the production team, the solution was to create a new cloud-based software system that allowed producers, casters, and other personnel to do their jobs from virtually any computer. “Our truck is now in the cloud,” says Blizzard live operations director Corey Smith.
According to Pete Emminger, global broadcast VP at Blizzard, these tools were actually in the works already — but for a very different reason. OWL’s shift to a global structure meant that there would be teams in multiple cities every weekend. On opening day, for instance, there were games in New York and Dallas as well as a panel show in Los Angeles. The team wanted to create a “master control” solution that staff could utilize wherever they were. To build it, Blizzard partnered with TV production firm Grass Valley to create a cloud software platform called AMPP (short for agile media processing platform). The idea was to take all of the tools you’d find in a traditional broadcast booth but replicate them digitally. Once the league was forced to shift online, production on the software really ramped up. “We had to accelerate that timeline,” says Smith.
During last Thursday’s match between the Atlanta Reign and the Washington Justice, I had the chance to check out a stream of the tool in action as well as listen in to the OWL production team while they worked remotely. The AMPP tool essentially looks like a virtual version of what you’d see in a broadcast studio: a big black machine with an intimidating array of sliders and buttons. In place of a bank of TV monitors are smaller windows displaying various elements of the production. You can see the live feeds for the casters and gameplay, and queued-up videos for upcoming interviews, commercials, or anything else. The tool is also customizable, so depending on their focus, staff can move panels around to better suit their needs.
Outside of the new cloud software, the broadcast team also uses other more standard tools to keep the show running. Chief among these is VoIP app TeamSpeak. This allows people to talk to each other individually but also set up rooms where different departments can talk. During last week’s game, I was able to listen in to a room full of “observers,” which are essentially the Overwatch League’s in-game camera operators. Five observers watched the game from different angles — some from the view of specific players, others from a more bird’s-eye perspective — and a single director chose which feed to show viewers at any given moment. Their TeamSpeak room was full of people shouting about what they were seeing, while the AMPP view showed me each viewpoint the director had to choose from. In other rooms, I heard producers queuing up commercials and graphic overlays or preparing for the half-time show to go live.
There was, of course, some adjustment to the new systems. The lack of physical production gear with all of its buttons and sliders was a big change for some staff, for instance. “They’re used to creature comforts,” says Emminger. “It’s those little tactile things that are a change for them.” Much of the staff also needed to be trained on the new tools, which, according to Blizzard, is one of the reasons there was a gap between when the in-person games stopped and online play began. “We had to really train them on workflows,” says Ryan Cole, a senior tech manager at Blizzard.
One thing that wasn’t a big issue was hardware. According to Emminger, “most people already had pretty good home setups,” and so they were able to use their home computers for broadcasts. But there were some exceptions. To give the casting talent a more professional setup, Blizzard shipped out a number of streaming kits — which were originally meant for BlizzCon — and included things like ring lights, 4K cameras, and OWL-themed backdrops. This gave all of the commentators a uniform look during shows. Similarly, some of the observers required new desktop PCs because their work is so GPU-intensive.
For the most part, OWL broadcasts look largely the same as they always have. Viewers can watch the games live, hear commentary from casters, and watch a panel discuss the latest developments. The one thing missing, however, has been the players themselves. Outside of a few post-game interviews, Overwatch pros haven’t been visible in the actual games. According to Emminger, there’s a very good reason for that: just like the rest of us, Blizzard has had a hard time finding webcams. Facecams are expected to roll out soon, though, and it’s one of the features fans have requested the most. “People really missed the view of the players,” Emminger says.
Like other esports leagues, OWL has been forced to be agile during the current crisis, developing new tools and processes just to keep the competition going. “It’s definitely been different,” says Emminger. In the absence of other live events, competitive gaming has proved to be a compelling option — even if the action behind the scenes has had to change dramatically.