While much of the world is experiencing some form of mandated lockdown, the number of those turning to video games as a form of light relief or escapism is rising. However, esports – the competitive side of gaming – has experienced a rocky road, with physical events and tournaments falling victim to the pandemic and players unable to travel to compete. While the pandemic has cancelled many and threatens to cancel further esports events, COVID-19 secure tournaments such as Flashpoint Season 2 provides CS:GO (Counter Strike: Global Offensive) players – albeit on camera rather than in person – as well as on-site creatives and technicians an outlet and employment amid the crisis.
Having successfully navigated a COVID-19 secure pathway through the ever-changing goalposts, legislation and legal hurdles involved in assembling a production in the COVID-19 era, Production Manager and Designer, Simon Barrington of Sibar Productions reflected on the experience. “Esports is a rapidly growing market and, over the past eight months, it has grown at an astonishing rate,” he began, speaking to TPi on Zoom. “I’ve been involved in esports shows in the UK, across Europe and the US for four years now, ever since I came off the road from touring.”
Barrington was due to embark on his busiest year of esports tournaments to date but that came crashing down with the arrival of COVID-19. “Andy [Lane, Director of Broadcast and Production at FACEIT] approached me with a view to creating a studio design for Flashpoint Season 2, with the advanced knowledge that my wife, Sarah, is involved in COVID-19 testing, thus enabling us to create a safe space for the performing artists and crew involved,” he recalled. “I then approached Eddy Grant [Director of Safety at Symphotech], who we’ve worked with for numerous years, to put together a safety plan for loading in and out the production, crew welfare and mitigating a legislation minefield.”
Barrington likened the production process of esports shows to the emergence of high-level production design for DJs. “I remember when I was first involved in a DJ show, people from the touring world scoffed and perceived it as a not very serious pursuit. Similarly, esports is a big market that, like the DJ world, is only going to get bigger as time progresses. Above all, esports event organisers are not shy of putting on a spectacle.”
Grant believes that the immersive and experiential nature of esports and gaming provides players with a sense of community during this difficult time. “It’s amazing fun to play a small part of and a pleasure to witness the future of entertainment,” he enthused. “I believe that the modern day online gig experience draws on the expertise of the esports world – that’s how you know it’s here to stay. After all, the exploration into alternative styles of live events are a logical consequence of the pandemic.”
Case in point, the core and founding product of Flashpoint Season 2 show producer, FACEIT, is a gaming platform with additional media and production arms, spawned from the platform in recent years. “The majority of employees work on or are involved in the development of a competitive matchmaking software platform for competitive gaming and a social hub, which has grown significantly amid the pandemic,” Lane explained. “Gaming is social and our esports events have become a platform for online friends to meet each other, often for the first time and connect.”
With over 25 years of experience in festivals, concert touring, esports and one-off events, Barrington is well versed in providing a 360° service for clients including design, CAD, budgeting, scheduling, advance and on-site management. His choice of vendors for Flashpoint Season 2 comprised Colour Sound Experiment for lighting, video and rigging; DFP Scenic; Brilliant Stages; JT Event for broadcast and networking trucking; DNG for local crew; Symphotech for health and safety; while COVID-19 testing was handled by Blue Skies Occupational Health with the assistance from the Covid Testing Network. FACEIT provided broadcast equipment, augmented by networking and broadcast audio specialist, QuadV.
“We kept our suppliers limited to ensure a secure bubble. Without the skill sets of each supplier, we wouldn’t have been able to bring this project to life. They were amiable in providing a lot of equipment for a very small price, given the precarious nature of the industry,” Barrington commented. “As soon as I saw the first truck full of equipment being unloaded, it brought a tear to my eye, because it was the first time that I had seen it since March.”
Grant chimed in: “The emotion on the opening of the first truck was visible on everybody’s face. It was great to be back to some semblance of normality, seeing high-grade technical equipment being put to good use.”
‘EXPLORATION IS A LOGICAL CONSEQUENCE OF COVID-19’
Work on Flashpoint Season 2 began on 3 November 2020, with a final week of broadcast held on 6 December. Twickenham Stadium was chosen to host the tournament to make use of the neighbouring Marriott Hotel and conference centre. Of paramount importance was internet connectivity between the conference centre and hotel.
“Initially, we were looking at doing a show with the teams on site, which would have meant having around 120 people in the hotel and studio,” Barrington noted. “It quickly became apparent that this was not feasible as the players were international and some were unable to leave their country of residence or obtain VISAs to travel to the UK. Instead, the players were only on camera.”
As a result, production was scaled back and kept to a maximum of 40 people on site in the hosting studio and broadcast gallery. “We had loose information on the rigging capacities of the space and CAD drawings,” Barrington revealed. “Andy and I got together online to thrash out some ideas, and I drew something up in a few days, which everyone was happy with.” Lane and Barrington put the event together with the assistance of Symphotech. “It was a collaborative effort because we’re operating in such bizarre circumstances, so trying to make anything happen feels like too much of a stretch for one person in our industry,” Lane acknowledged.
“As soon as we assessed what would work from a health and safety and operational standpoint, plans were put in place to mitigate the risk, putting us in a position to create a spectacle safely.”
The team enlisted the support of Head Rigger, Tom Armstrong to examine the roof and develop an accurate drawing of the space based on information on weight loadings. “By 15 October, we realised that we required ground support on around 50% of the rig as there simply weren’t any points where we needed them,” Barrington recalled. “A few days later, we had a full plan of what we were doing, and the scenic guys could get on with their pre-build.”
The ground support solution came in the shape of a 10-leg box system built by lifting the ‘grid’ on gene lifts and installing the legs underneath. “This negated the need to have lots of crew working in very close proximity to each other as you would when raising a conventional ground support leg,” Barrington remarked.
Lighting control was achieved by an MA Lighting grandMA3 console, controlled by Lighting Director and Media Server Operator, Dan Williams. For media servers, his weapon of choice was Resolume. To limit the numbers of people on site, Williams operated both the lighting desk and the media servers. “As soon as we were up and running, we couldn’t bring any other people into the ‘bubble’, so we needed a media server which Dan was familiar with and Resolume fit the bill,” Barrington said.
Lighting equipment featured a mixture of Chroma-Q Space Force LED fixtures and Colour Sound Experiment’s newly purchased Arri SkyPanel SC-60s for fill lights, with Robe Pointes and Spiiders selected by Barrington due to their effect capabilities. Additional Claypaky Scenius Unico Spots and 2K and 1K Fresnels were chosen for key light to accent elements of the set. A curved ROE Visual CB5 LED screen was “expertly stitched together” by Steve Grinceri. “The brief was fairly straightforward, so we provided a lot of extra kit which we wouldn’t normally put in for something like this just in case the director wanted to do something different,” Barrington said, referencing the gaps created by a lack of in-person audience at the venue. “Thankfully, everything was utilised.”
The technical requirements for esports tournaments, Barrington explained, are growing constantly. “These are extremely technical shows. Nowadays, esports events are not too dissimilar to gigs, with lights, lasers, and sometimes pyro,” he pointed out. “Not only do we run the production live, but we also experiment with ideas for the next show. It’s a fast-evolving process and the industry is adapting to cater for online audiences.”
Equally, esports has an incredibly demanding audience, according to Lane. “If we experience any technical issues, they are the first to let you know about it. We always have a real-time communication with those on the broadcast via Twitch, etc. and their feedback is integral to developing and honing the product,” he added. “We try to explore the parameters of tech and improve the production each time.”
Brilliant Stages provided LiteDeck for the stage, which was skinned and covered in black J&C Joel Joelmat Gloss by the team at DFP Scenic. “DFP Scenic built scenic elements which included an extremely long analysts’ desk, which had ROE CB5 LED panels fitted in the front and comfort monitors mounted internally,” Barrington noted.
The desk was designed to be both modular and reusable. “It was made up of four sections,” he revealed. “In a typical environment, each of these components would seat two people. However, in line with social distancing requirements, analysts were separated by 2m, harnessing the entire surface of the 8m desk.” The commentators, on the other hand, sat closer together. “Masks don’t look good on camera, and they also don’t help with audio, so their much smaller desk had an acrylic screen installed to separate them,” Barrington explained.
“Having travelled to Asia a lot on tour, I was aware of UV-C as a potential solution for sterilising the various spaces. We spoke with Signify who provided us with a webinar presentation and through Colour Sound Experiment we purchased some tubes, which were used on a nightly basis throughout the hotel and studio areas.”
‘COMMITMENT TO THE CAUSE’
Following the announcement of a second UK lockdown on 31 October, Symphotech Director of Safety, Edward Grant confirmed that, based on the latest legislation, the team could push ahead with the planned four-day build on 3 November 2020. “Most safety officers are on site for the load-in, build, and then hand it over to the operations director. However, this was an entirely different ball game,” he explained. “We had a team working around the clock with the medical information and expertise to make this project a reality. It was this attitude which allowed us to focus on the welfare of the players and the crew.”
Working in partnership with Twickenham Stadium and the Marriott Hotel, the team operated in designated COVID-19 secure ‘bubbles’, with social distancing, PPE and other COVID-19 secure measures such as one-way systems, COVID-19 testing stations and colour-coded lanyards employed on site. Local crew were used solely to unload trucks with a team of techs on site tasked with rigging the kit.
“Not only did this help with keeping our secure bubbles, but it helped give a broad range of people some much-needed work,” Barrington noted. “This was important in my mind not just for everyone’s financial benefit, but also for their mental health.”
QuadV networked everything in case anyone tested positive and had to isolate. “The expertise of [QuadV Technical Producer] Oliver Aldridge gave us the ability to broadcast with people isolating. There were only two members of the team who wouldn’t have been able to do their job from their hotel room should the worst have happened,” Barrington noted. “It was a complicated process but the most interesting thing, from our perspective, was the flexibility of the crew to be able to move across or share roles if required.”
Symphotech worked through four alternative excerpts of legislation governing live events, which changed frequently to complicate the process even more. The crew and presenters were tested before the tournament kicked off on 6 November. Once tested, they were required to isolate in their hotel rooms until the results were in.
FACEIT designed a bespoke app for the crew to order food and beverages, aptly titled FaceEat, which was used throughout the event. “This meant that not only were we able to limit contact with the hotel and stadium staff who were not in our tested ‘bubble’, but there was very little food waste as everything was cooked to order,” Barrington commented.
Grant added: “A lot of thought was put into the COVID-19 safety plan which, in the end, had nine different iterations to change and respond to how the world and legislation changed over the five-week period. This was about making the production happen as safely and efficiently as possible.”
During the opening week of the event, the team received news of a positive case, which resulted in four close contacts. “From the start, we had to utilise the facilities we had in place during the load-in. Both the broadcast sound and the cameras were operated from hotel rooms as the crew had to self-isolate for a few weeks. Thankfully, the cameras were remote pan and tilt systems, which required fewer people in the studio, so it wasn’t too much of a challenge.”
Testing was performed by Blue Skies Occupational Health with the assistance from the Covid Testing Network on a weekly basis. After positive tests in the first week, the team experienced a run of negative tests until the final day of testing, which returned six positive cases, meaning the vast majority of the crew and presenters had to be isolated in their hotel rooms. “The infrastructure that was installed during load-in came into play,” Barrington said. “The few remaining members of the team quickly assembled the necessary bits of kit to enable a full broadcast to happen, but with everyone working from their hotel rooms.”
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The requirement for people to isolate brought on a separate challenge. Firstly, the team could not de-rig everything as the crew who had put the gallery elements of the show together were unable to work. Secondly, international presenters were unable to fly home, forced instead to complete their isolation periods in their hotel rooms.
“Our tenancy at Twickenham Stadium and the Marriott Hotel was due to end two days after the show came down. Thankfully, FACEIT negotiated with the hotel, which was due to close after we had left, to keep the rooms, along with the team at Twickenham Stadium, who dealt with the catering,” Barrington recalled. Symphotech put in place a support team to look after the safety, mental health and medical needs of everyone while participants completed their isolation, staying abreast of the ever-changing legal guidelines and health and safety requirements of COVID-19.
“FACEIT was extraordinary. The commitment to the cause, the processes and support put in place for those isolating, bringing in a welfare team to take care of safety and wellbeing throughout the entire five-week period,” Grant recollected. “It was amazing to see the level of support and welfare afforded to keep the morale of the team high.”
Reflecting on the project, Barrington was pleased with the outcome. “This was my first job since March last year, when we built a studio in LA for Flashpoint Season 1, which was heavily affected by the early stages of the pandemic. Flashpoint Season 2 was, without a doubt, the longest time I’d spent away from home. Five-weeks away amid a global pandemic is a challenge, mentally,” he admitted. “However, the success of the event is tribute to the entire crew – especially those who had to be isolated in their hotel rooms. It was such a collaborative effort all round.”
The challenge the sector now faces is a date to return to normality. “This was the biggest live project Symphotech worked on in 2020,” commented Grant. “We have since collaborated with the Association of Festival Organisers, using the knowledge we garnered from this experience and other COVID-19 safe events to examine forward planning.”
Despite the pandemic, Flashpoint Season 2 rounded off one of FACEIT’s busiest years yet, with the company firmly embodying the ‘baptism of fire’ conventions of COVID-19 era live events. “Esports has adapted to the virtual world fairly seamlessly. All that players require is a gaming PC and a fast internet connection, but it’s a little different for us” Lane reviewed. “However, while we’ve had to take a step back with very few physical events, thankfully, we’ve been fortunate enough to run studio operations in the US and the UK throughout this difficult period.”
The Flashpoint Season 2 team comprised Production Manager and Designer, Simon Barrington of Sibar Productions; Director of Broadcast and Production at FACEIT, Andrew Lane; Director, Sam Deans; Executive Content Producer, Mike Bembenek; Producer, Reece Fowler; Technical Producer, Oliver Aldridge of QuadV; Assistant Event Manager, Amira Malek; Operations Manager, Federica Parise; Lighting and Video Crew Chief and Show Tech, James Hind; Lead Set Builder, Lee Barton; Health & Safety Managers, Eddy Grant and Will Hodgson; COVID-19 Testing and Clinician, Sarah Barrington.
Despite the ever-changing goalposts, legislation and legal hurdles, the team look forward to knowing where they, and the majority of the industry stands on the quest to return to some semblance of normality.
This article originally appeared in issue #258 of TPi, which you can read here.
Photos: Sibar Productions and FACEIT