Esports Venues: The Next Generation of Stadiums

By Dan Daley, Special to AVIXA

Esports Arena Las VegasEsports revenues have come a long way in a short period of time, from $130 million in 2012 to over a half-billion dollars last year, and are expected to grow to $1.5 billion by 2020, according to market analysis by Newzoo. Some of that substantial pool of revenue will be put into expanding the venue infrastructure for live competitive e-gaming, in the process creating a new category for the AV integration industry. And while AV systems integrators and consultants involved in this emerging sector say it’s still early days, there are some key considerations and best practices beginning to take shape.


The Tools Are Already Here

Broadly speaking, venue design is taking two main paths: One is adaptations of existing live-event venues for esports, such as the Envision Cinema Bar & Grill in suburban Cincinnati, site of a live video game tournament that spectators can follow on the theater’s movie screen. The other main path is being taken by a growing handful of new purpose-built venues, such as the multilevel Esports Arena Las Vegas, which sprawls over 30,000 square feet at the Luxor Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip.

Craig Janssen, Managing Director of Idibri, an AV consultancy and design group in Dallas, believes that the esports industry will initially occupy more of the former than the latter.

“Adapting existing venues makes much more sense economically at this stage, and in many cases some of the AV technology needed is already in place,” he says.

Adaptations and ground-up designs will in some cases need to accommodate specific genres of gaming, taking their cues from the leading brands in the gaming market, including Valve, Activision Blizzard, Nintendo, and Tencent, which affect the number of players in matches and thus dictate stage dimensions. Thus, venues will need to be flexible, able to reconfigure staging and seating to accommodate different game and player configurations.

Much of what goes into these venues will be AV elements already found in other live-event environments. These include video displays, for both the contestants and the spectators. Screen dimensions will be dictated by venue sizes and architecture, but the base standard will be LED screens of very high resolution, with pitches of at least 2.5 mm or tighter.

“Spectators at these events are younger and are used to high-resolution video, so they won’t accept anything less,” says Janssen. “The audience here is used to playing at home the same games they’ll be watching in the venue, but on a 24-inch HD screen, two feet from their face.” Thus, in larger venues, multiple audience-viewing screens may have to be deployed, to adequately cover rear seating areas, placement that will utilize the AVIXA standard Display Image Size for 2D Content in Audiovisual Systems.

One challenge is that many, if not most, of those fans in the stands will also be watching the matches simultaneously on their personal devices, using mobile platforms such as Twitch, as the games are streamed from the venue to the internet. Latency can become an issue in this case, and game producers and streaming producers may have to address adding delay into the venue AV.


Sound Takes a Back Seat?

Audio will play a major role in esports venues, just as it does as part of the experience around conventional sports for fans in the stands.

“With football or baseball, sound and video amplify and supplement the experience of being at the game; with esports, audio and video are a part of the game,” explains Max Snyder, Director of Sponsorship at the Association of Luxury Suite Directors, which focuses on the premium seat industry in stadiums and arenas throughout North America.

However, audio seems to be less of a concern for the integrators looking at the sector. Jeffrey Volk, Vice President of the Sports & Entertainment Group at Alpha Video, in Minneapolis, says sound systems will need to be full range to handle music and be tuned for speech intelligibility to allow in-venue color and play-by-play announcers to be heard clearly, but they won’t require concert-touring-level systems.

“Most brand-name sound systems will be fine for this application,” Volk says. “What integrators are going to have to be aware of and have expertise in is the audio workflow used by both broadcasters and live productions. Esports will have characteristics of both, such as intercoms and control rooms to manage and direct the narrative of the play action over the internet and over the screens in the venue. Esports will have to be directed, just as an NFL or NHL game is.”

Thus, he adds, integrators will be deploying the same equipment and platforms they do in those more conventional verticals. “The equipment will be what we are using now, especially for sports and live-event production,” he says. “It will just have to be adapted to video gaming.”

(However, it’s worth noting that most popular video games, such as Overwatch, Battlefield 1, and Grand Theft Auto V, now have integrated 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound. Both Janssen and Volk acknowledge that audio will likely incorporate surround and even immersive sound reproduction systems in the future.)


Familiar Territory

Janssen says venue infrastructure will also need to be considered, with video taking a front seat on that count, too.

“Rigging capacity and power availability are important here,” he says. “Esports requires a lot of screens, onstage and elsewhere in the venue, that will need sufficient support and power. Also, the backstage areas need to be larger than you’d normally find in theaters or [conventional] sports venues, because the players and teams will need to practice in those spaces. In that way, it’s more like an awards show, where you have a lot of people prepping to go onstage at any time.”

Therefore, esports AV venue design will incorporate elements from a variety of traditional AV verticals, including conventional sports venue and broadcasting, live-event production, and even hospitality and retail, as these venues integrate restaurant and shopping offerings. For instance, digital signage and distributed-audio systems will provide content to back-of-house areas while line arrays and video walls are the main elements in the performance and seating areas.


A Work in Progress

Best practices around audio and video for live esports venues are going to be a work in progress for the foreseeable future, if only because the category is barely in its adolescence. Venue architectural design will more closely follow the digital architecture of the games, with LED screens able to reconfigure entire venues thanks to new technologies, such as flexible displays that can bend and fold as needed, migrating from tablets and smartphones to entire video walls. “The amount of development that can still take place is enormous,” says Snyder.

Venue systems integrators and designers will also have to keep an eye on developments further afield than usual to stay at the cutting edge. “Korea is the granddaddy of live esports,” Janssen points out. “They’re leading the pack in a number of ways.”

As esports and its live venues evolve, it could also make for some tectonic shifts in the AV industry. There are only a relative handful of systems integrators that thrive at the upper echelons of sports-venue integration, says Volk. “Those same integrators will have some advantage when it comes to esports venues,” he asserts, “but it’s also a completely new area where anything can happen.”