The COVID-19 pandemic has not made it easy for offline esports events. Especially if you’re running one in a three-storey shophouse with limited space, and with measures to ensure the safety of all participants and crew.
But the show must go on, as they say, and telecommunications company Singtel, together with their partner, The Gym, has managed to make it work despite the restrictions for the inaugural season of the Mobile Legends Professional League Singapore (MPL SG).
What you don’t see on your screen every weekend for the last two months were the hard work of the crew of PVP Esports and The Gym getting it all sorted.
Located near Jalan Besar stadium, The Gym is an ironically named esports arena, which the owner, Neo Yong Aik, 43, said was a play on the shops in the area. Take for example, the coffee house Chye Seng Huat Hardware or the Chinese Druggist Association that serves burgers.
"The idea behind The Gym Esportscentre is to give industry folks a home. People can convene here, meet up. It's a place where you can find production, host tournaments, do marketing, you know, the whole ecosystem."
Neo, who also doubles up as the MPL SG live stream's producer, is focused on making his stream a success, by using his experience in production to control the flow and pace of the show.
"My only goal is to make the production a success, so all my decisions are centred around that. If there's a slight hiccup, it is my job to then also make sure whatever impact it has to the show is minimised."
Inside the venue
As an esports arena, the Gym’s three floors aren’t actually filled with PC computers like you’ll find in a LAN shop. Instead, it’s an actual event area for competition, with the first floor dedicated as the battleground for two teams of Mobile Legends: Bang Bang players to compete.
This means a long row with chairs, all filled with chargers and LAN connectors for mobile phones to give them the best ping via SingTel's fibre network (naturally). There's also a giant LED screen to set the mood.
The second floor is where teams can rest and plan strategy and also where the casters gather and get make-up done. Casters also work in two shifts each weekend, since MPL SG runs for a full day.
Freelance makeup artist, Hana Leong, who has done makeup for esports for the past eight years, said she pays careful attention to make her casters look as natural. She's also on standby for about 8 to 10 hours a day, to perform touch ups since the casters go on and off the air.
"My style of makeup has always been to make people look natural, and make them a better version of themselves. I use subtle shading and highlights to bring out their best features," said Leong.
The third floor is where the magic happens. The casters sit in front of a green screen, where on-screen, an Unreal Engine-powered set shows them in a studio. This, Neo says, is an elegant solution to the space issue.
Observers are located here as well, and work hard at making sure they don’t miss out on the action. There’s also a small set for interviews, likely because a player’s jersey colours may get cancelled out by the green screen and look weird.
KC Tan, who's been working as a freelance MLBB observer for the last two years, said it was pretty challenging to be an observer despite the smaller map size.
"It is not easier, as at times, fights are happening in different parts of the map and we have to decide what to show the audience to have the best viewership experience," said Tan.
Tan puts in a full day of work each weekend, as changing observers may affect the chemistry within the production team.
From the third floor, Neo controls the flow of the show, using his experience from working on esports events in China the last few years.
There’s also a direct link to the first floor, where a production head and three cameramen are all capturing the players’ expression to be shown on stream.
Despite the distance in floors, the crew is said to have no issues getting it all organised. There’s also a production room hidden in what appears to a store room, making full use of the space.
50-year-old Hazrin Johari may have plenty of camera work experience in the last two decades, but esports is still new to him. He focuses on capturing the emotions of the players to make the production more interesting and meaningful.
"If you asked me 10 years ago, I didn't think I'd be doing camera work for esports in my career. But in the last few years, you can see the tremendous growth of the sector," said Hazrin.
He also added that with all the esports happening locally, he expects that it will become the norm for more people in his line of work to do esports gigs.
For the playoffs, Neo also added player cams, a feature that was not available during the league matches, something that fans have been waiting for.
While fans may not be able to gather to catch the grand finals live, Singtel is hoping to add some interactivity by letting fans tour a virtual event floor as well possibly let fans choose their favourite players and casters to win awards.
"What we really want to own in the space is the community through engagement," said Cindy Tan, Singtel's Head of Consumer Group Marketing. "We learnt previously that the user engagement of live streaming isn't just interacting with the game play and viewing, it was also about having live votes and contests."
"This time we're adding an interactive arena for fans on our website. It's a simulation of a real arena for our fans. It's our first attempt and we're taking baby steps, there will be more ways where we can make it more immersive."
That said, it’s not the actual arena of The Gym though, but you can pretend it is.
If the pandemic did not exist, we would all be at live events holding banners and cheering our teams on a grand looking stage. For now though, this virtual stage will have to do.
Aloysius Low is an ex-CNET editor with more than 15 years of experience. He's really into cats and is currently reviewing products at canbuyornot.com
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