335 million. That is the number of people around the world who stream and watch esports every year. That’s more than the entire population of the United States. Even though major esport audiences may not fill giant stadiums, likely indoors streaming via smart device or laptop, the numbers speak for themself. In just thirty years, the gaming industry has gone from being virtually nonexistent after the Atari-led crash of 1983 to one of the most exciting and promising industries around. While games have become incredibly realistic and consoles have evolved into full-fledged entertainment systems, one of the primary drivers of the industry’s success is the evolution of social interconnectivity amongst gamers.
By simply plugging in a headset with a microphone (most standard headphones come equipped with one), gamers can instantly play and talk with friends or various players across the globe, communicating strategies to defeat the competition no matter the game. Fans of games belonging to any genre now have access to media platforms such YouTube and Twitch that put the ability to watch video games being played in everyone’s pockets. Twitch, a game-streaming service that was purchased by Amazon in 2014, also allows viewers to comment in real-time, enabling the gamers within the videos to engage with their fans. All of these advancements have accumulated to a create a culture in which truly competitive gaming is no longer reserved for stereotypically Cheeto-dusted, basement-ridden millennials. Esports is not only an economically viable form of entertainment, but a platform that is being aggressively pursued by investors. Perhaps more importantly, the esports platform has provided new opportunities for creative minds that traditionally may have entered the music and film industries.
Cinematographer and director Zac Chia is one such creative mind who has capitalized on the opportunities within the gaming industry, earning his role as Segment Director of Blizzard Entertainment’s Overwatch League and successfully translating local content for a bigger global audience – consequently expanding the company’s global outreach. With a background in film and two award-winning short films in Where Things May Grow and Saptapadi, Chia’s uncanny ability to adapt his talents to a widening array of media has garnered respect from industry executives and gamers alike.
For those unfamiliar, Overwatch is an online fantasy first-person shooter developed by Blizzard Entertainment and was first released in Spring 2016. Chia was tasked with the role of being one of the pioneers for the game’s global presence, developing original content that would entice both those familiar and unfamiliar with the game to watch the professional scene. Given that Overwatch was created as an entirely new franchise and had no predecessors, Chia didn’t have a framework on which to base his decisions, largely relying on his own creative intuition. Initially, Chia was fairly nervous about how the Chinese market would respond to his choices as segment director, and with a new market in the Chinese audience, the room for error was slim. “I was really lucky to have Tutu, Overwatch League’s (OWL) Mandarin Host help me with learning about the Chinese market, and what the audience responds best to,” says Chia. “Blizzard Entertainment also entrusted me with a lot of creative freedom with designing the content for the Chinese market and its audience, and Blizzard’s support really helped me get past the nervousness and just focus on coming up with the language of telling the stories in the OWL.” The response has been spectacular to say the least, with the game’s playerbase growing linearly to 35 million players as of Fall 2017.
Aside from creating and directing content for the OWL, Chia plays a crucial role for Blizzard as the liaison between the US and Chinese divisions by ensuring that plans, ideas and content are effectively translated overseas. One of the most difficult aspects of being an original content creator is that choices in style, sound and humor are received differently depending on the region. This notion is one Chia has had to learn while on the job as he constantly expands his understanding of the cultures to which he is marketing. “I think the biggest thing that comes to mind for me (in regard to the challenging aspects of his work) is adapting the same piece for different markets because of differences in culture,” states Chia. “An example would be the ‘Shanghai Dragons Feature’ piece. There were some parts from the Mandarin cut that were left out of the English version as the comedic elements did not translate that well in the American culture, and vice versa.” While this knowledge is obviously applicable in Chia’s line of work with esports, knowing how to market to vastly different groups of people is an invaluable skill given the globally-connected digital age in which we live. Cultural awareness is not a skill that can be learned in an academic setting or in a book, but it can be learned via creative tenacity and trial and error.
Within Chia’s specialty field of film and media creation, the reality of the subjective nature and amount trial and error endured to be successful would be enough to turn most away; However, Chia, along with those who have found a niche for themselves as directors or cinematographers in creative roles understand it’s from the very same subjectivity that allows one to learn from mistakes and continue flourishing. “Feedback from pitch-meetings with the higher ups and looking at what the fans respond to have really taught me what type of content stands out in the market. I’ve also learned over the years that it’s important to trust my gut,” says Chia. “You can’t innovate if you don’t try new things, and every failure is a great opportunity to learn. That’s my belief anyway.” As potentially frustrating, mentally exhausting and time consuming as Chia’s duties for both the OWL and his film projects may be, the reward immeasurably surpasses any bumps in the road along the way. Chia states that it is nearly “surreal” knowing that content he has created and filmed has been seen by millions of people worldwide. A few years ago many would have not thought it possible to accommodate a professional gaming scene, but as the masses of millennials and generation Z’ers have shown, the experience of watching the absolute best compete at their craft is worth watching.
The gaming industry and esports show no sign of slowing down. In addition, mainstream outlets, like TBS, are beginning to give prime air time to esports. The result is unprecedented opportunities for creative, entrepreneurial minds in the gaming and esport industries; However, just like the competition experienced between gamers online, the competition for these creative roles will leave only the best, most adaptable around at the top.