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How OWL pivoted in the face of a global pandemic

Adam Mierzejewski, the Overwatch League’s Senior Manager of Competition Operations, was preparing for his next flight to Florida. It was his sixth consecutive weekend of travel.

That was in March of 2020. The Overwatch League had already completed the opening five weeks of its first season of weekly homestands across the globe. But that was the moment Mierzejewski got the call: the league wasn’t traveling anymore. The COVID-19 pandemic, which already forced the Overwatch League to cancel its homestands in Asia to start that season, was pervasive enough around the world that the league could no longer hold homestands anywhere.

Activision-Blizzard’s ambitious dream of hosting esports matches in a different global venue each week had been put on hold. But, while the scale of the league — its broadcast and its operations — certainly made going remote a challenge, it wasn’t impossible. After all, esports is no stranger to online competitions.

“We were fortunate in that we started the legwork on planning what a work-from-home solution could look like before shutdown orders were implemented or anything like that,” Frank LaSpina, the Overwatch League’s Senior Director of Broadcast, said. “It was an all-out engineering and product spring to sort of identify what each person needed to really do their job. And not just at the minimum level, but at a high level.”

LaSpina said the team needed to go out and order a bunch of new equipment to keep broadcast running on the remote setup at the same quality it ran while live. In just a few weeks, the Overwatch League production team began amassing ring lights and cameras for on-air talent and equipment for broadcast team members to keep the show running.

Isaac Jimenez and his work from home set up
Isaac Jimenez and his work from home set up. | Provided by Blizzard Entertainment

But the Overwatch League didn’t just need equipment for talent and production crew members. They needed to make equipment available for teams and players in the interest of fairness. The league now allows players to rent PCs when they’re signed by a team and cameras are provided to teams both for player cameras and for team cameras.

Additionally, all of this new equipment had to be put to use as part of brand new setups in places that weren’t intended to become broadcast studios.

“At the start, it was a lot of cabling and wiring. It was anything to keep the show on the air,” LaSpina said.

So much of the 2020 season became a learning process for everyone in the Overwatch League, according to Mierzejewski and LaSpina. The league and its production team experimented with what worked and what didn’t, hoping to land on the most exciting presentation possible for online matches taking the place of live events.

“We weren’t sure what was coming next with the pandemic, so we had to play everything by ear,” Mierzejewski said. “We were taking lessons learned week-by-week; from our fans, from our players, our teams…even internally.”

The teams were taking lessons learned week-by-week and applying those lessons to run matches more smoothly and create a better broadcast. However, only so much progress can be made while everyone on staff is preparing for a new slate of matches every week.

Fresh season, fresh start

So, after the season, the competition team and the broadcast team went to the drawing board to see what they needed to do to improve the remote league’s remote system.

“To make things more…let’s say streamlined,” Mierzejewski said. “Like now that we’ve ‘perfected’ this art of online match play, how can we make it better? What are areas that we can further develop our competition to hit the things that our fans and players enjoyed from last year. But, also the things that we miss from live events — such as player reactions and whatnot.”

The production team went to the drawing board to brainstorm.

“We actually went back and launched a pilot project using the footage that we had from grand finals. It was all supposed to be a very blue sky exercise into ‘what could this be?’” LaSpina said.

That blue sky exercise was the beginning of the always-on player cams the Overwatch League now uses in matches. LaSpina said that, at the time, the question on going through with it was “but can you guys actually do this?” His response back then was just “maybe.”

After a little hard work, that maybe became a reality. The cameras run on a separate computer from the game for each player to ensure there’s absolutely no way that anything could impact their play. Teams are sent Raspberry Pi computers. These are cheap, compact computers often used for things like robotics or weather monitoring. They have a web camera already in it and pre-configured.

“As soon as that plugs into the internet it calls home, so to speak,” LaSpina explained. Each player gets a unique ID associated with their camera and it’s all managed from The Cloud. When the team developed the always-on player cam setup, they linked these IDs to each player’s first-person perspective within the observer switches.

It sounds more complicated than you would expect to get a player camera on broadcast. But that’s par for the course in keeping the competition as fair as possible within the Overwatch League’s remote play environment.

The Overwatch League rents out PCs to players so that every player has a computer capable of meeting the league’s minimum requirements. Players are free to continue using their home computers, but they have to be comfortable installing the Overwatch League’s required software to do so.

That software is a major component of the league’s toolbox and in ensuring no one breaks the rules during remote play. That software allows the IT team and competition team to remote into players’ PCs. This is both to address technical issues and to double-check that everything is up to snuff in pre-match checks.

These integrity checks take place two hours before a team is scheduled to play their match — and that’s for good reason. Officials aren’t just checking for cheats. They’re also making sure players have the correct version of the game downloaded, that their Teamspeak is ready to go, that their player cameras are working and tilted the right way, and that their team cameras are set up. They even check that their drinks meet sponsor requirements.

“We have multiple cameras for competitive integrity reasons, to make sure no foul play is happening. But also, you know, if someone is drinking something that’s not a Coke product, I can see them and so I’ll call them out,” Mierzejewski said. “I’m in their comms on Teamspeak and I’ll talk directly to the player like, ‘Oh hey Gator I see you drinking that whatever. You can’t have that.’”

The competitions team and broadcast team work in tandem to make the remote Overwatch League streams better. There is an official in every team’s Teamspeak, throughout every match, who does not just ensure integrity and quickly pause the match in case of a technical difficulty; they also can record all of the teams’ comms for the always popular “Comms Check” segments to be aired each week.



Achieving efficiency

However, regardless of how many safeguards the competition and broadcast team setup to keep the game fair, there are some things simply out of their control when working online.

One reason teams are required to have at least seven players, Mierzejewski explained, is so that a player can substitute in if a teammate has unresolvable internet issues. A similar system is set up for the observing crew.

“Yes, this has happened,” LaSpina said of observers losing their internet connection mid-match. “For almost every position on the show, we have a rotation where — should someone lose internet — it’s clear who on the show will need to flex to cover that while they get re-connected.”

Given the amount of equipment and software players need to compete in the Overwatch League’s online matches — as opposed to Overwatch Contenders’ online play— there’s somewhat of a learning curve that comes with freshly joining the league. New players enter an onboarding process to get it all setup and tested. Teams were even given guidelines on how to best give player and team cameras a clean look. This led to the universal usage of team backdrops behind every player.

But it wasn’t just visuals and equipment and systems that were improved from one year to the next. League staff made things they were already doing more efficient. And the broadcast itself was updated to fit the season.

On the efficiency side of things, the observing team steadily moved away from their messy cable salads and shifted toward virtual machines. This was in order to create a cleaner broadcast, both from the viewing perspective and for the sake of their in-home studios. Meanwhile, the competition team learned to become quicker and more efficient on some things, while learning just how much time they need to give themselves for others.

Those integrity checks two hours before the match? They happen so early because last year a player didn’t have the game’s latest build downloaded and the match was delayed five to 10 minutes as a result.

As for the broadcast itself, that blue sky exercise mentioned earlier also led to a graphical and audio overhaul.

“Because of the pivot to a work-from-home environment, we really did use the opportunity to take a step back,” LaSpina said. “This was something we didn’t plan for, but it’s the reality of where we live today. What is the show we want to be making?”

That led to a full graphical and audio refresh of the Overwatch League broadcast which included work with Overwatch’s sound design team for the remixes of the map music used during breaks.

“We approached everything with fresh eyes,” LaSpina said, “and that is what makes the show you see today.”

Much of the production for the May Melee and June Joust finals in Hawaii remained remote. However, both teams had small crews at one of or both of the events. They would do things like manage the competition space or record the teams interacting with each other on-site.

Ready for anything

That’s one of the advantages to the Overwatch League production team getting this experience running the show remotely. While both LaSpina and Mierzejewski are eager to return to live events, they now have systems in place that can work just as well for in-person events as they do online.

A remote set up for the Overwatch League broadcast. | Provided by Blizzard Entertainment

Their eagerness is evident in their readiness to return. Corey Smith, the Overwatch League’s Director of Broadcast Technology, commented on their preparation. “The majority of our time during the pandemic for our hardware team has been ensuring a constant state of readiness should the call be made for a return to venues.”

This is certainly a good thing, considering that Overwatch League teams are beginning to experiment with homestands again. There have been local events in both regions this year. The Hangzhou Spark were the first to host a homestand but the Dallas Fuel hosted fans for a match against the Houston Outlaws most recently.

“We do our best work when we’re challenged,” LaSpina said. “And so a lot of the innovations that we see today are going to carry over well to a world that has a return to live events.”

In the end, the Overwatch League production team just hopes to maintain that momentum as they move into the future.

“You could say we’re scratching the surface,” Mierzejewski said. “But I’m proud of what we’ve done so far. And there’s still many years ahead of us to kind of grow and innovate.”

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