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How Blizzard turned a ‘Tonight Show’ studio into an esports arena

Esports have become a huge attraction that can rival more traditional sports. With annual events larger than ever, prize pools breaking records every year, and pro players becoming stars, professional gaming has never been more respected or supported. There’s even talk that a few games will make it into the Olympics.

One of the most impressive dedicated esports centers is the new Blizzard Arena. Recently opened at the Burbank Studios, California, the facility houses everything from player practice areas, to multiple sound stages, plus large spectator arenas where fans can come to watch their favorite players take part in the latest Blizzard pro gaming tournaments.

It kicked off with the Overwatch Contenders Season One play-offs, and will host the upcoming Hearthstone Summer Championships in the very near future. We spoke with Adam Rosen, Senior Business Operations Manager and head of esports development at Blizzard, to find out all about its new gaming venue.

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DigitalTrends: How big is the Blizzard Arena and how many people can it handle?

Adam Rosen: It’s about 50,000 square feet and has a maximum capacity of 450 people. That’s only the live audience, so any of our production staff, players, talents, anyone else who’s working in the facility or playing, will not be included in that total.

blizzard esports guest lounge
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Right now, what the arena looks like is we have two primary sound stages and a whole lot of other stages called the insert stages. With our two primary sound stages one is called the “Big stage,” the main arena. It has 450 seats and will be the primary facility that we use for live audience events like Overwatch contenders or Hearthstone Championship Tour (HCT) summer camps.

The other main sound-stage will be more flexible. That stage will be able to be used for multiple things, so that we can do multiple shows concurrently all throughout the year.

When it came to building the facility, did you have to start from scratch?

What the facility looked like when we started was that it had most of the major layout, multiple sound stages and office space. Most of our renovations focused on how do we actually make this space functional for esports and functional for Blizzard.

“[The arena] had been used for the Tonight Show, for the primary audience facility.”

It had been used for the Tonight Show, for the primary audience facility. That was cool for us, but there are a few major differences between TV production and everything that we need to do with esports production. So, we gutted a lot of the office space and the space within, and built them in a way that supported our needs. Building player practice facilities, talent lounges, all the functional spaces that we need to support esports.

The other thing we did when building it out was completely gutting and renovating the lobby, so when you walk into the facility now, off of Alameda and Olive, you see the Blizzard arena and it instantly transports you into ‘Blizzard land’. We have a merchandise store in the main lobby, photos all over the lobby celebrating our recent champions of all of our major leagues, and as you’re actually walking to your seat, you can walk past the trophy case which contains merchandise and many of the trophies from our previous events, so fans can get a really personal interaction with Blizzard esports.

What are some of the differences between an esports studio and a traditional sports stadium?

blizzard esports seating
Image used with permission by copyright holder

The major difference is that when we do these productions, everything we do is based on technology. We’ve really focused on creating a technological solution to create high-production value content that’s compelling and more engaging than we’ve ever been able to do before. What that means, is that we have a greater understanding of our players and we can have much greater integration of historical stats. Most competitive stages in the world, [the technology] is very strict, but it’s something that we’re very good at this point. It’s essentially the backbone of the facility.

Do you have any plans to produce your much larger, world championship games at the Blizzard Arena?

A lot of our world championships will be produced at Blizzcon, which is a massive live event with 25,000 attendees. Most of our world championships will continue to have that huge live event feel regardless of where they are. In general, and looking to the future, Blizzard produces thousands of hours of esports content across all of our games, and we have more than enough content to fill the facilities. With that said, we’ll have content, especially our world championships, that don’t happen at the facility because it would be too small for the numbers of fans we want to engage with for those.

Why does Blizzard want to have such a key role in the way its esports is presented to the public?

One of the things we care about a lot is the fan experience. When players engage with us and engage with our games, we want to make sure that that experience is of the highest quality, and the most engaging possible.

“When fans engage with our games and esports programs, we want them to walk away with that feeling of, ‘Wow!'”

The reason we take such a hands-on role in creating facilities like this, and the way that we craft all of our esports programming, is so that we can ensure that those experiences are high quality and compelling. When fans engage with our games and esports programs, we want them to walk away with that feeling of, “Wow!” By being really invested ourselves, we feel like we’re in the best position to be able to create that.

What has the response from fans been like so far about the Blizzard Arena?

So far what we’ve seen is a lot of excitement form our fans. Recently we announced all of the programming that we’re having at the facility, starting off with the Overwatch contender and the Hearthstone Summer Championships, Blizzcon opening week, and then Overwatch will have its pre-season and regular season at the arena.

I think our fans are more so than anything, really excited where they can come and visit and engage with Blizzard on a year-round basis. Historically, the opportunities a lot of our fans have had to engage with us and our esports products have been at the large live events like Blizzcon, Gamescom or some of these other events.

blizzard esports store
Image used with permission by copyright holder

The Blizzard Arena symbolizes an opportunity for fans to come, regardless of where they live, any time in the world, come to the arena and interact with Blizzard in a meaningful way.

How will merchandise be handled during pro-gaming events?

We have a merchandise store in the facility, right inside the lobby. Something we feel strongly about is being able to rotate and create a list of upcoming merchandise that’s custom tailored for events, as well as celebrate our larger esports community through merchandise. The merchandise will rotate out depending on what’s best for that event, and taking a look at what that esports program or league is, and offering custom merchandise for that as well.

Will fans be able to visit the Arena between events?

Right now, the audience facility will be open for our specific events, so there will be tickets that fans can buy and come and engage with us at the arena. When we’re not doing live events, we’ll be producing a lot of content at our facilities.

We have thousands of hours of content, way more than we could put in the facility now.

As we look at our esports league, it’s not just live events that build up the successful esports system. We have a studio broadcast that doesn’t involve a live audience or live players. We also focus a lot on post-produced content so that we can really create compelling narratives around our players, and the games that are participating in these leagues. As we move forward, you’ll see that a lot of time these facilities will be open for live audience events and will be operational full time to create all the content that’s necessary to create a compelling league.

Does Blizzard have plans to build more of these facilities all over the world?

We don’t have any plans to announce about future arenas right now. One of the things we really believe in from an esports perspective is to create that high quality fan experience for fans all around the world, regardless of where they live, whether that’s through live events, or through studios, it’s something we pay a lot of attention to.

Will you be looking to allow other esports organizations and game developers to use the Blizzard Arena for their events?

Right now, we’ve built the facility to focus on Blizzard esports primarily. We have thousands of hours of content, way more than we could put in the facility now. But at some point, we would be open to potential partnerships with other organizations.

Does the creation of the Blizzard Arena mark Blizzard’s transition from primarily a game developer into a more general entertainment company?

At Blizzard, we really believe in esports and the Blizzard arena represents the level of investment we put into our esports programs. As we look toward the future, the world will see that our esports programs will continue to evolve, and they will become bigger and better than ever before.

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Jon Martindale is the Evergreen Coordinator for Computing, overseeing a team of writers addressing all the latest how to…
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