Halo Championship Series: A look into the cutting-edge arena of esports
This article was originally published in the Spring 2022 issue of Professional Lighting & Production magazine.
By Audrey Leyenhorst
Photos & Renders Courtesy of Waveform Entertainment
Sitting squarely at the intersection of intense, competitive live entertainment, sophisticated AVL production value, and sleek, high-quality broadcasting, the world of professional esports is one of the most engaging and all-encompassing hybrid production mediums in the events industry today. At the forefront of this line of work are Dreamhack, the company organizing and facilitating these events alongside game developers and publishers, and Waveform Entertainment, a full-service production company focused specifically on esports events.
“Dreamhack is a video game festival with different aspects, one of which is esports – where pro players come to compete for a big amount of money, over $100,000 per tournament, sometimes,” explains Simon Marin, CEO of Dreamhack Canada. “In North America, in the past we’ve usually had four festivals per year, one each in Dallas, Atlanta, Anaheim, and Montreal, and we have several festivals in Europe, too. One of the other parts of our festival is the community aspect, where attendees can bring their consoles or computers and enjoy more casual competition over the weekend. We also have all our partners displaying new products, new games, and so on.”
This February in Anaheim, CA, Dreamhack hosted the North American Regional Finals of the Halo Championship Series (HCS), the premiere competitive circuit for the beloved first-person shooter franchise, Halo – specifically, its latest entry, Halo: Infinite – which launched in the fall of 2021. Sixteen teams competed in the event, which was won by the team Cloud9.
Typically, these events are put on as hybrids, both with a live audience and for broadcast on Twitch, but COVID restrictions at the time dictated that this edition of the HCS couldn’t have a live audience – however, it was still the first in-person production for both entities in quite some time. Even with the lack of audience, Waveform CEO Michael Sciortino’s recounting of the event just goes to show how engaging the typical esports show is.
“You’re used to hearing the crowd, for any sport, really – traditional or esports. You know, having someone cheer on a big play or a cool moment, it adds a lot. So, it was a relatively eerie silence when you’re standing in front of [the stage] and they’re playing for a big prize in a North American qualifier, but you don’t hear the roars or chants.” Without an audience present, however, it provided an opportunity for the teams to go all-in on a sleeker, “studio show” approach to the broadcast, according to Sciortino.
In terms of the design of the show itself, Waveform Senior Production Designer Thomas Gentilhomme explains: “Esports is very specific; we have elements that are always there, like the gaming stations, usually a program feed or LED screens with team cards, and a broadcast desk for the [commentators] in front of the stage or backstage.
Those are all the elements that are always there and we have to design around… Player lighting is quite important, because it’s always the utmost priority that they can’t be bothered during gameplay by flashing lights or whatever, but we also need to see them on the broadcast; so, you have to balance this.”
Gentilhomme, who was the acting LD for the event, details that he will typically do a CAD drawing of the stage in WYSIWYG, then export that into MVR for previs rending in Depence2. For this show in particular, he highlights some of his specific thoughts when building his design:
Thomas Gentilhomme: Usually I would probably add more lights on to the audience; usually I’ll light the sitting rows and one side is going to be Team Red and one Team Blue…
But yeah, usually it’s a lot of eye candy stuff, a lot of just making it look good on camera. So, we don’t see the stage that much in the streams; usually the people that watch these things online, they want to see the gameplay. [However,] you want to make sure that in every camera angle, you’re gonna get something – like, here’s the [Martin] Sceptrons, I had some [Robe] Spikies onstage – some [colour] in the background, so you can see which team it is at-a-glance, right? That’s what you have to keep in mind when designing for camera stuff.
For this show, originally, we had the Spikies as my main beams, and a couple LEDBeam 150s from Robe as well for washes; the Sceptrons from Martin for the linear stuff, and we also had some profiles, but we had to tweak a little bit because of availability. So, we ended up having the [Claypaky] Scenius Unicos as my main profiles, and [Robe] Spiiders for my washes. It was pretty much that, and then a couple of [Chroma-Q] Color Force and Studio Force for backdrop lighting and talent lighting on the casters’ desk, then the Sceptrons and Portmans, obviously; I run that all from a grandMA3 Light in Mode 3. I like the challenge.
Gentilhomme also ended up programming the team graphics for the event, which isn’t usually the case, but his solution was very streamlined, as he explains. “I didn’t want to use a StreamDeck and the grandMA3 at the same time, so I thought ‘you know what, I’m just going to integrate everything in the same place.’ So, I programmed a couple macros on the MA3, which basically selected my team colours, team graphics, and triggering Resolume from OSC triggers directly on the board – so, just a couple of buttons to select the teams, and then manual triggers for winning sequences and stuff like that.”
Upon mentioning specific teams’ graphics and colours, it piqued my interest in how team branding plays into colour selection; specifically, whether Gentilhomme receives specific hex codes or colours to use, or if it’s all eyeballed in. “They’re very nice, and they always send the hex codes,” he chuckles, before explaining that while it’s useful in theory, a human touch is more or less mandatory to nail the colours. “Even if I put the RGB values in to my LEDs, it never renders exactly what the colour is so you have to do it by eye – and usually, it’s not even by eye; it’s through the camera… For this particular event, we knew which teams were competing against each other, so there was a fixed selection of 16 colours, but a lot of them were red, or red-ish, or very red, or not as red, so I would just have to tweak them a little bit so they look different.
“Some tournaments, they want to stay with the game colours,” Gentilhomme continues. “Like for Rocket League, where it would be orange and blue, or Halo could be red versus green or red versus blue, but here it was suggested that we could use the team colours. So. it was a bit more work on my end to make it all work, but it looks better when it’s all integrated between the graphics on the LED wall and the lighting onstage.”
Speaking of the LED wall, this show employed Unilumin 2.6mm screens controlled by Novastar MCTRL4K processors, with graphics generated by the Resolume server mentioned earlier. An Arkaos Media Server was also in use running drawings for the Sceptron fixtures, which Gentilhomme says were triggered using Art-Net and output feedback from the grandMA3 using NDI. Also involved in show control were four Luminex sACN nodes.
Sciortino points out that designing one of these productions is not only highly-dependant on the method of delivery, but also changes heavily based on the featured game in a given tournament. “It’s very different from DJ shows or rock shows, in that you could swap out the talent at most concerts or productions, and the [production design] will still work. For gaming, it’s very, very title-specific; even in terms of stage layout. For example, where the main program feed is located, where you actually watch the gameplay [in a live audience situation]. Some games, you’re getting the same view that the gamers are getting [and that’s fine], but if it’s a game like DOTA or Counter-Strike, that’s really bad if [other players] can see the main screen. There’s all those intricacies that are very title-specific, and that’s why people like working with us, because at Waveform we’re gamers and understand these crucial points.”
Coincidentally, he goes on to mention one of those specific intricacies that had to do with colour selection. I’d made a passing joke about how Halo developers 343 Industries probably wouldn’t be too happy if the Waveform crew used a shade of green non-congruent with that of the Master Chief’s (the protagonist of Halo’s campaigns and one of the most renowned video characters of all time) iconic sage armour.
“We literally had that exact conversation come up at HCS,” Sciortino laughs. “That’s how specific a lot of these things are – you’re dealing with their brand, and multiple brands – so it’s not like a single-talent show where it’s like, Yup, looks good! Thumbs up! You know, you’re dealing with the PMs, but you’re also dealing with the 16 teams and how their logos and colour are portrayed.”
These fine details ultimately speak to the standards of quality that these types of shows are held to, as they are ultimately more than just gamers competing – these are events officially sanctioned by game developers and publishers. In this case, 343 Industries is an internal studio owned by Microsoft (Xbox Game Studios, specifically), who also publishes Halo. These events are a big deal for the brands that take part in them, especially considering that gaming is amongst the planet’s most bustling industries these days. And while the production design and execution are obviously paramount, I was also curious to hear about what the day-to-day grind is like for the Waveform team on one of these productions. Sciortino explains:
Michael Sciortino: So, usually how it goes down is, we’ll arrive at the venue on the Sunday, we’ll go in when there’s no one around, and we’ll spike the floors and get a lay of the land a little bit. What usually ends up happening is, on these larger shows, I’ll go down well in advance and coordinate with the venue and do a walkthrough and all that good stuff. So, kind of already have bearings set up.
But we’ll go in on the Sunday, and we’ll spike the floor so that the following day, when crew shows up or are unloading trucks, we know exactly where everything is going; that’s usually done with the engineer and the technical director, Matthew Lebrun and Jesse Léveille, two guys on our team, usually. Then on Monday morning, we’ll go in nice and early with our main crew – not the general workforce, but their main crew – for an hour or two before, and make sure trucks arrive and heavy machinery is onsite already. So, forklifts, scissor-lifts, whatever is needed there.
And then after that, usually a couple hours later, we’ll have our general crew come in to start unloading trucks, laying everything out; power and rigging are very much the first two things that we do. We use that power for all the motors and all the rigging, and as well, we start divvying off the production area for the broadcast team so they can take their time to install cables and all that. We try to get the production team as much time as possible to do the setups, so usually one of the first things we do is all the power division.
Next, we’ll start floating all our trussing, then we’ll bring in the risers, and carpet that; so, a lot of the carpet team and rigging team come in next. Then we’ll move onto sound, lighting, and video, and that’s usually done during the second half of the first day or the beginning of the second day. So, the first half of the first day is very much power structuring and carpentry, and the second half is when we’ll start on the technical side. So, dealing a lot with lighting plots, video schematics, and audio plans, getting all that stuff in order, and that usually lasts about another day and a half.
So usually, we have about two days to install – for this show and on larger festivals it’s usually about three days, and the fourth day, which is either the Wednesday or the Thursday, is a rehearsal day, and that’s usually a full day. And that’s where we’ll test out all the special effects, all the cues, and all the lighting for the broadcast, because obviously that’s a big part of it. And then that will roll into a two- or three-day show, and then we’ll start tearing down the night-of and then usually have that full next day to load out.
Another cool thing that we do a lot on these shows is the custom fabrication. So, anything scenic, or the player stations, the broadcast desks, trophies, and all that stuff. It’s a very creative part of it that we enjoy, and we deal a lot with carpenters, CNC machines, custom LED integration, those kinds of things. That’s a really neat part of it.
PL&P: How much are the competing teams themselves involved in the rehearsals?
Sciortino: Not at all, actually. When we do our rehearsals it’s usually just the broadcast and technical teams present. The teams sometimes arrive the day before that, or the day of rehearsals, and they usually just come and check out the site. The teams also have separate setups at all these where they can go and practice and familiarize themselves with everything prior to the event. When you’re dealing with larger global tournaments, you’re dealing with players coming from a lot of different time zones, so they need some time to acclimatize. Rehearsal is ultimately directors calling cues and making sure everyone’s aligned.
“Honestly, [it was] a fun and smooth show,” Sciortino summarizes. Though, it’s hard to imagine how it wouldn’t be fun, even as a closed-door show, not to mention viewing the broadcast. “It went very well,” Marin corroborates. “It was nice for us to be back doing a physical event.”
I can speak from personal experience as to the excitement of an esports production; last September, after Waveform was acquired by event production colossus Solotech, I attended the Solotech & Waveform Esports Showcase in Toronto, which was of a very similar ilk to this event – as it was a showcase, it was limited to smaller audiences, which delivered an up-close-and-personal, immensely engaging experience as it presented a live championship match in the popular shooter Overwatch. It was this showcase that made me realize just how all-encompassing and wildly intersectional this avenue of event production actually is. The comparison I drew in my conversation with Sciortino is that of premiere professional wrestling promotions; the middle of a Venn diagram of live competition, bespoke stage production, high-quality broadcast, and raw entertainment value.
“You know what, though? That’s probably the most comparable thing, to be very honest with you,” Sciortino responds to that theory. “Just for the fact that the technology, the showmanship, the fight that’s going on – it’s very similar to what esports is, and what it’s all about.”
I suppose the main difference is that in esports (to its credit), the competition is unscripted… And I say that as a huge fan of professional wrestling.
Audrey Leyenhorst is a former Assistant Editor with Professional Lighting & Production.