Throughout 2023, if someone tuned into a Valorant esports stream, they may have thought the product seemed simple. Two things would usually be happening: either a game would be going on, or the broadcast talent would be discussing a game, possibly with some graphics illustrating their talking points.
But what people didn't see were the dozens of people who worked tireless, countless hours backstage to deliver that seemingly simple product.
“What I liked about Riot is the way they approached production in general was similar to TV networks and sports,” said Albert Iskander, the Executive Producer for VCT Americas. “It's not one person in the control room doing five different things. You're focused on your role, and that's why the quality is better, because you're not trying to do multiple jobs at the same time.”
Estimates put this year's Champions at a minimum cost of $35 million. (Photo by Colin Young-Wolff/Riot Games)
The broadcasts for each of the three major regions shared a host of common and required talent. Every region had a director, a live producer, segment producer, several replay operators, a technical/asset coordinator, graphic designers, an entire engineering team dedicated to creating the broadcast's support structure… the list goes on.
And these teams were tailored to what a specific region needs. In EMEA, for example, the team centered around the Berlin-based league was solely focused on broadcasting one video signal of the stream without the casters to regional partners.
The Americas production crew, meanwhile, did as much as it could to leave no one out in a region of three different languages. While the EMEA crew sent its partners a single feed all in English, the Americas crew displayed onstage graphics — be it for timeouts or walkouts — in English, Portuguese and Spanish. Talent was brought over from one show to the other to give deeper insight into the various teams in the VCT.
“The biggest thing that was pitched by, actually, our engineering team, was the observer feed,” Iskander said. “Our English observers were followed by PCs that were in Spanish and Portuguese, and when we did live gameplay, if you watch the Portuguese broadcast, the end game experience was in Portuguese. And same thing for Spanish or English.”
Iskander also described how certain things like wipes (transitions from gameplay to the desk or a replay) were flawlessly done in those same three languages, “but it's one operator doing it. He presses one button, and then you get three different feeds.”
A glimpse of the Americas backstage (Photo by Albert Iskander/LinkedIn)
Replays are also one of the various fields in which Riot went all-out. The type of equipment Riot has at their Dublin facility — EVS Broadcast Equipment — is in a price range so high that it's not featured on the EVS website, nor can you really find it second-hand or in retail stores.
One server to store all the work done using the equipment in Dublin may cost nearly $5000 USD second-hand. Devices that allow broadcast operators to receive and handle video from several cameras or computers may cost up to $4000. Just a simple converter from one input to another can be about $200. Add on dozens of other inputs, the broadcasting equipment itself (cameras, lights, microphones, etc.), and the bill becomes long. Very long.
With all the added spectacle outside the broadcast itself, Esports Engine and MLG founder Adam Apicella estimated the Valorant Champions 2023 show cost between $35 and $70 million dollars. For two weeks.
In some regions, like EMEA, that cost was split. A crew in Berlin would do half the show, and another one in Dublin, at Riot Stryker, did the other half. Stryker is Riot's global initiative that the company boasts will allow them to prove a “follow-the-sun broadcast model” to support 24/7/365 esports productions.
Riot plans to open three of these facilities in total, with one to come in Seattle soon and another one in an unannounced APAC location. While the EMEA broadcast was split up, there aren't necessarily plans for the same to happen in other regions. The Americas' production wasn't entirely done onsite due to it being a three-language broadcast, but most of the work was done backstage at the Riot Games Arena in Los Angeles.
The first of these facilities, the one in Dublin, played host to about 15 people who supported the VCT EMEA broadcast by directing the people on-site in Berlin.
“Berlin has a production company that's stationed inside that creates the stage and kind of runs the whole show there. Stryker is the control room, the broadcast control room,” Teo Karakolev, a freelance broadcast operator who has worked with Riot since 2020, explained. “The idea is that we call the show, or the camera moves, or the graphics from Dublin, and then it gets executed onsite.”
“It's [Sam Deans'] vision, and then it's my execution.”
One of the several stations at Stryker Dublin. (Photo by Bryan McNamara/GeekIreland)
Deans is the live producer for VCT EMEA and the person Karakolev directly reports to. Deans' vision is in turn empowered by Kim Panagos, the Script & Story Writer for EMEA.
Despite that title, Panagos barely did any writing. He would step in to help for pre-recorded segments, which would actually be scripted, but that work was often collaborative. His work fit better under the umbrella of segment producer.
“I would do a lot of the logistics behind the scenes. Organize and run the meetings, take notes for planning all of these segments. I'm basically overseeing a team who put together the graphics and video for all that stuff,” he explained. “Talent would present all these ideas, what they want to do, and I basically would help realize them.”
Panagos' day-to-day consisted moreso of tending to the pre-show, discussing or giving ideas to talent regarding what they want to analyze on the broadcast and then coordinating his own asset team to deliver graphics, replays, or any other type of content to back the analyst desk's points.
When working with his own team, Panagos managed Chris Karampikas — who nearly single-handedly implemented the creative vision for VCT EMEA and developed over 600 graphics — and Harrison Barber-Scargill — who joined midway through the season as the Technical Coordinator, in charge of overseeing that every requested creative asset (graphics, videos, etc.) actually got done in time for the broadcast — but he also coordinated with the replay team in Dublin.
This is Panagos' vision during a VCT EMEA broadcast. (Photo by Kim Panagos/Twitter)
The Stryker Dublin replay team, which operated on a system called EVS, would usually have one operator for gameplay, one for player reactions, and sometimes an isolated person for coach reactions. Sometimes, one operator would do two replays at the same time. This work was fairly routine: something (a kill) happened, you clicked a few buttons and you made a replay.
The complicated stuff happened outside of actually making a replay. Jakub Szmyt, one of the several operators in Dublin, would often spend time reviewing his own work, coming up with ways to improve his replays' quality, building chemistry with the other operators to ensure replays were shown with linearity and logic (a kill happens, and it's followed by the reactions to that). During shows, he would also communicate with the director to guarantee whose replay showed and when.
Szmyt regularly publishes clips of his own work, giving a rare insight into how EVS replays are done in esports and even showing examples of how he tries to build up his work's quality (like the utility bar zoom shown in the video below).
And just like Panagos or Karakolev reported to Sam Deans, so did a number of people report to Iskander.
And similarly to Deans, Iskander was a very hands-on producer in 2023. As the region's Executive Producer, he began shaping the Americas stream back in September. In the months following, he also acted as the creative director, worked with the engineering team, sat in the control room with the producers and director, graphics, EVS crew, and so many others. In other words, Iskander tried to act as the point person for the entire broadcast operation.
One of the reasons Iskander had to act like this was his own goal, common to several broadcast operators, which was to provide a unique experience and push the boundaries of quality content in a broadcast.
“There's stuff you don't see on broadcasts that we do behind the scenes,” he explained. Iskander singled out how teams often sold merch outside the venue, how the screens interacted with the action in-game, and even how close the audience was to the players in game and during the interviews.
“I would say for anybody to just come check out the show. It's always a good time,” Iskander went on. “It's the vibe of Valorant, right? It's not just a game. It's the lifestyle, it's the music, it's the entertainment. Once we get into the game that's like, let's get down to business, but I think America is unique.”
He also said the team was focused on delivering a varied product that wouldn't quickly stale over, and that would cater to Valorant's young audience with very specific tastes. Part of that was constant research and reading comments about the broadcast live, in order to improve or fix issues overnight instead of letting them carry on throughout the season.
These four screens would feature in at least three languages. (Photo by Colin Young-Wolff/Riot Games)
All in all, the consensus seems to be that working the VCT broadcast was incredibly tiring, and at the same time incredibly fulfilling. Long nights, early mornings. Work would often only be finished a few hours before the cameras were rolling. Parts of the EMEA team had several six-day workweeks throughout the season.
Barber-Scargill noted that “[Panagos] was not sleeping” for the first six weeks of broadcast — before the former joined — as the latter developed the entire content system and was basically doing the work of two by himself.
Building a broadcast like this is a job that needs the right amount of people. Not too many, not too few, and Riot knows that. That's why the list of people hired to put this together was already so extensive in year one, and why everyone who worked the 2023 broadcast is a big advocate of synergy, teamwork, and of building a better brand.
“We don't get comfortable is where I want to get that. We're always ‘how can we improve this? How can we tweak this?' And we're willing to try,” Iskander said. “If it doesn't work out, great, move on. We'll get ‘cringe at NA production' and that's fine. We want to try different things and see what works and what doesn't.”
Karakolev echoed that vision. Two of his self-imposed questions are “what new ideas can we come up with? How can we elevate the [experience]?
“All of this is always a factor,” Karakolev said. “How to direct the audience, to [give them] a better experience of what they see, so they almost feel like they're onsite.”
And all of this work, all this creative input, these long and rough hours — they all get channeled into one thing:
A broadcast. A few hours of on-the-air esports action and analysis, fueled by the adrenaline of people finally tuning into this product.
“A lot of work went into the launch of a league for the first time. I was very proud of everybody,” Iskander said of the VCT Americas kickoff. “The launch of the league, of day one, was the highlight. We've been working on this for so long, just to see it being executed in three different languages was kind of like a blessing and a relief as well. It was a lot of work.”
“I hope, actually, they will keep doing this year,” Karakolev said. “I don't know what's going to happen next year, I'm sure there will be more. I just don't know.”
“I don't want to give away too much of what we're doing for next year, but I hope people tune in,” Iskander finished.