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Two Trophies, One Cloud!

By Chuck Meyer, Technology Fellow & Adviser to the CTO at Grass Valley

It has been a big year for soccer (or football in most places outside the US), with the UEFA Euro championship and the Copa America now concluded and the Gold Cup finishing August 1. But for the fans, the wait for the next big international tournament won’t be too long, as excitement around “the beautiful game” will soon reach fever pitch again with the FIFA World Cup due to kick-off in Qatar next year.

Putting my TV production hat on, I can say with certainty that the FIFA World Cup is a hugely challenging live event for even the biggest broadcasters: 64 matches played over four weeks, spread across a dozen stadia with feeds going out to over 200 countries and countless affiliates across terrestrial, cable, satellite and over-the-top (OTT) services. Preparation for the event takes months, and any failure by the main broadcaster or an affiliate that interrupts the coverage to the global audience of 3.5 billion is not only embarrassing but can incur significant financial penalties.

Although this paints a daunting picture, the upcoming World Cup will be steeped in innovation, including the likely use of broadcast workflows that include the cloud for the first time. The use of these pioneering workflows for the World Cup should put to bed any notion that the cloud is not suited to a mainstream flagship event. What’s more, the potential of the cloud in broadcasting is gaining more attention elsewhere for less high-profile sports such as lower tier soccer leagues, US regional college football, and the rapidly growing world of esports. The ability to spin up broadcast infrastructure in the cloud, pay for it during use – then let it evaporate, as if by magic – is unlocking new opportunities to widen the diversity of sports on TV and across OTT platforms.

Virtual becomes reality

The rising use of cloud production is highlighted perfectly by another competition with the words “FIFA” and “World Cup” in its title – namely the 2020-2021 FIFA World Cup esports qualifying tournaments run by Electronic Arts, the game developer behind the popular franchise. The EA Sports FIFA 21 Global Series features a new region-based structure to the FIFA eWorld Cup and preseason that includes participation by FIFA professionals, influencers, content creators, and professional footballers.

Esports flourished last year. Gaming analytics firm Newzoo reports that the total esports audience will grow to 474 million people in 2021, representing year-on-year growth of nearly 9%. The EA FIFA esports tournaments were picked up by 21 broadcasters, covering 115 countries that generated 47 million viewers. Not bad, considering that the average television viewership of a regular season NFL game in 2020 was just under 15 million!

Yet, unlike the last (physical) 2018 World Cup, which had thousands of production staff across Russia, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic means EA’s production teams instead used an end-to-end cloud workflow to deliver its broadcast quality storytelling to a global fanbase.

The system was successfully tested in December 2020 for the FIFA 21 Global Series European Qualifier, which handled more than 20 camera feeds from Europe and additional live contribution feeds for the talent – all processed at an AWS datacentre in Northern Virginia. At the heart of production was EA's Technical Director (TD) Geoff Butler, who punched the show using GV K-Frame on GV AMPP (Agile Media Processing Platform) from his home in Sacramento, CA. Yet, due to AMPP's low-latency and intelligent timing management capability, there was no perceivable difference to punching the show in a physical studio. Similarly, the AMPP platform has integrated an audio mixer with MIDI support for control surfaces within its toolset. This last part is key because for intelligent timing to work, it must satisfy the needs of human operators – and then, as needed, groups of operators. The net result is stunning content – as expected from Grass Valley equipment – developed with collaborative contribution from geographically distributed creative talent, effectively in real-time – or close enough – with no compromised audio video processing.

And that’s the beauty and elegance of the platform – the end experience for the viewer is better while the production process for distributed teams is easier. With cloud proving to be vitally useful during the pandemic, the impact will certainly be longer-term for a geographically popular esports franchise like FIFA. The EA team can manage live production of its gaming events more efficiently, rapidly pivoting regionally to meet esports fans' needs across Europe, Asia and the Americas.

Turn the AMPP up!

Although it may be a tad unfair to compare the two World Cups at a technical level – considering the 50+ cameras at each stadia linked to the physical 2018 FIFA World Cup Master Control Room (MCR), handling potentially hundreds of streams simultaneously. However, the pace at which cloud-based production, and AMPP specifically, is progressing is staggering. A few years back, managing half a dozen feeds into the cloud was an achievement. Today, 20 is realistic, and in a few years, 50 might be seen as standard. The GV engineering teams have solved the fundamental technical hurdles and now it is more a case of scaling the solutions based on the nuances of cloud architectures and IP-based networking technologies. To emphasize this point, the AMPP platform inherently scales by design.

The other major shift in thinking that these two events highlight is that remote production, previously considered by some to be a compromise, is now increasingly seen by innovators as a way of empowering new levels of creativity. Concepts such as dynamically generated and hyper personalized content, viewer interactivity, and augmented reality are not just the stuff of science fiction but a real possibility as production merges with the power of cloud computing.

No matter who lifts the trophy at either World Cup, the real winners will be a global audience able to enjoy both experiences on any device, anywhere, and the production teams that have new tools to make both events truly world class.