Esports production shares many qualities with live sports, but sound engineering is a whole new game. IBC365 explores the complexities of controlling who hears what in a crucible of noise.

Sound has always played a major part in the gaming experience. Gunshots, revving engines and screeching tyres are the obvious aural signatures of shoot-’em-ups and auto-based games but supporting these are subtler backgrounds and atmospheres that help create the various environments in which players find themselves. All this carries over to the large-scale, multi-player, arena-based world of esports, but the live, professional nature of this increasingly popular form of game-playing calls for specific audio techniques that set it apart from its home counterpart.

Glensound GTM interface moody lighting shot

Glensound GTM interface

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The main difference is the scale, with the games taking place in an arena and involving a large number of people, all of whom need to hear what is going on. Cameron O’Neill, Country Manager for broadcast facilities company NEP Japan, divides those involved into three categories: the sports group, comprising the competitors and their support teams (coaches and backup players) plus the referees ensuring everyone plays by the rules; the audience, live production teams and the announcers/commentators, known in esports as ‘shoutcasters’; and the broadcast and streaming crews producing coverage of the events.

“Esports audio should be considered in the same way as a football player’s studs: it is an integral part of the athlete’s performance,” he says. “With home gaming, you only have your own audio to deal with. You need to hear your in-game environment as it contains a lot of cues for you and maybe you have some team communications. On an esports stage, the importance of those two is greater, but there is also the consideration of the PA and crowd noise, both of which could contain cues for a player. The communications are also more important, as you have referees and coaches who also need to communicate with players but not in a way that impacts the game.”

O’Neill further breaks down esports sound into three areas: clear game audio, which provides cues to guide a player in a real-time strategy (RTS) or first-person shooter (FPS) game; managed communications, allowing contestants to speak and receive instructions; and systems to exclude external sounds.

“Audio cues are built into a game like Valorant as part of a weapon’s profile, using silencers so a player remains hidden,” he explains. “And most casual players will be familiar with voice chat but esports takes it to the next level. Because there is no time to have push-to-talk systems, mics are live all the time. Depending on the game, coaches may or may not be able to speak during the competition and referees need to inform players of things like a time out.”

Running interference

The third element of esports audio - sound masking - is the most unique to this form of gaming. As O’Neill points out, a player could be put off by the crowd reacting to a move or might get an unfair advantage from a fan yelling instructions. “That’s all before you have a shoutcaster explaining every move over the PA,” he says. “There are various technologies to block these sounds out, including the Riedel Communications Max E2 headset, which was designed to be used in F1 pit lanes, and the Glensound GTM intercom/game audio system. In-ear monitors are often worn under headsets to feed sound directly into a contestant’s ears, blocking out extraneous noises. But often white noise is played into the outer headset to mask sounds, which is irritating. Players would love it if this went away.”


 Esports audio has multiple elements, including clear game audio and managed communications

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For the time being white noise remains a common means of blocking the sounds of the outside world. The Glensound GTM was developed to combine the three main audio feeds in esports (Game, Team and Me, hence GTM) into a single interface unit. Glensound is a long-established manufacturer of broadcast equipment, including codecs and commentary systems, but in recent years has moved into esports, working with Riot Games on events featuring League of Legends and Valorant.

Marc Wilson, Managing Director of Glensound, explains that the GTM features two headphone amplifiers, one to provide the game sound and the other for masking. “The use of white noise differs for each tournament but it is used under the game sound so the players cannot hear what is happening around them, particularly between games,” he says. “Because spill from the PA into the live mics is a critically important issue we added a new feature, Background Audio Guard, to the GTM to prevent any low-level yells being shared on team talk.”

Broadcast-quality production

As in conventional sports broadcast coverage, the mixing console is a key element in the esports audio production chain. Calrec Audio, a specialist in live TV sound, is seeing its desks being used in arena gaming events for companies including Riot, South Korean broadcaster OGN and Tencent in China. “These have been different scales of events,” comments Anthony Harrison, International Sales Manager at Calrec. “Some of the larger events need the fader real estate for immediate access to the controls. But others are much smaller, so you can scale that down to smaller consoles.”


White noise is often pumped into player headphones to mask sounds from the arena and presenters

Harrison cites Riot Games’ facility in Dublin as an example of this. With the capability to host six different events simultaneously, it features both the smaller Type-R modular system and the larger Artemis control surface with the ImPulse processing core. While Calrec’s mixing systems are most associated with broadcasting, when it comes to esports, some, notably the Brio, are also used for front-of-house mixing of the PA sound as well as for the broadcast/streaming output or feeding a main broadcast desk.

“Some of the larger events might have a dedicated live sound desk, such as a DiGiCo, but the broadcast aspect has moved on from the early days of esports when it was quite low-quality audio,” he says. “There were problems with lag, so the idea of stepping up to more broadcast-grade technology into professional broadcast mixers was something of an ‘a-ha’ moment.”

As the demand for higher-quality sound continues to grow, more professional audio companies have begun to target the esports market. Shanghai-based systems integrator TechSound was founded in 2017 and that same year started providing audio operation services for the League of Legends Pro League. Founder and Managing Director Patrick McGowan describes audio as “a critical part of esports”, particularly the sound to and from the players, coaches and referees on stage, known as ‘player-comms’.

“From the perspective of the audio mixing engineer, players are treated as something of a hybrid between a commentator panel and an artist monitor mix,” McGowan comments. “Both they and the system designers should be prepared to take high sound pressure levels (SPL) into the mics as well as having ways to minimise crowd noise and other potential distractions. A good esports stage audio design will take into account stage bleed from the PA and crowd noise bleed into player microphones, using typical tools and technologies available to the engineers.”

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The right stage for immersive audio and AI?

A major element in home gaming now is immersive audio, which delivers an all-encompassing aural experience similar to that of cinema blockbusters. But, as McGowan points out, gaming and esports are “not the same thing”, despite one existing because of the other. “Esports is professional competition and pro players have a deep, technical understanding of the mechanics of a game,” he says. “Frame rates and audio latency matter. When it comes to immersive audio for competition, it comes down to whether a player has a choice between that and stereo and which they perform better in.”


TechSound provided audio operation services for the League of Legends Pro League

Michael Kelly, Vice President of Engineering at immersive audio developer DTS, observes that most high-end, big-budget ‘AAA games’ - the ones mostly commonly used in esports - now “largely support” what is also known as spatial sound. “However, the arena mix is not always from the player perspective because the headphone mix the player hears does not convey ‘immersivity’ well in the arena,” he says. “Games use bespoke spatial audio or common rendering engines, such as middleware (Unreal or Wwise) or DTS:X Ultra on gaming PCs, which exist within the Microsoft spatial framework. These engines are available in esports, unless there are specific rules prohibiting their use.”

As for the future, Kelly comments that representation of sound in the arena “would benefit from progress in immersion in any live sound environment.” Advanced spatial formats, including wave field synthesis, DTS:X, Ambisonics and mass headphone-wearing, have all been tried, although he concludes there is still work to be done. On the hot issue of sound masking, he says AI-based noise cancellation obviates the need for white noise, delivering better control of isolation and player comfort.

Audio not only gives esports an extra dimension in creating its on-screen environments but also provides necessary communications and isolation for its players. Sound for this very particular area of gaming has come a long way in a relatively short time and it is clear it will continue to develop and evolve.

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