During part 1 of my Extra Life 2019 post-mortem, I focused on all of the activities leading up to the marathon itself. From joining the Extra Life Toronto Guild, to running a mini-campaign around my performance in Tetris 99, I reflect on what worked and what could improve. This time around, I’m tackling all of the technical mumbo jumbo related to the big day. Maybe these insights could help guide your next charity event!
If you build it…
There is no “right” way to organize an Extra Life marathon. Some will use that time to broadcast their attempts at breaking speed-running world records. Others may host a Dungeons & Dragons session without any sort of live streaming component. One person I follow on social media took photos of his TV and updated his followers on his progress through The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Whatever approach you use, the ultimate goal is to inspire others to make a positive impact on pediatric care.
For two years running, I hosted a gaming party at my house. Inviting a small group of family and friends over, we wanted to enjoy games while sitting on the same couch. In an age of online play, this approach to playing games together is somewhat of a novelty. That said, our house party featured a heavy mix of modern technology.
For 25 hours, our living room was covered in streaming equipment. From studio lights on top of our TV unit, to the webcam on my coffee table, to the big screen TV on our left-hand side used primarily for monitoring the chat, all of this gear was in service of bringing you into our living room. With an extra dose of Discord, we were able to get Kris, Rachel, and Jason on stream with us. Together, we aimed to inspire others to support the cause by donating, spreading the word, engaging with us through the chat, or even just lurking. The more that viewers tuned in, the higher we would appear in the Twitch directory, which made it easier for others to find the channel and hopefully join our movement.
Just like last year, this was going to be a team effort. Enlisting a small group of my family and friends, it was an opportunity for us to play games, enjoy each other’s company, and inspire others to make a positive impact on pediatric care. While I much prefer to partake in this experience as a group, it does open up a unique set of logistical challenges:
- When are your guests available? Not everyone is going to be willing or able to play for the full duration of the marathon. I know I don’t have the energy or willpower to play until the sun rises, so I don’t ask that of anyone that participates with me. Guests are welcome to come and go as they please, though I try to get an understanding of everyone’s availability before the show starts. From there, we build out a loose schedule that attempts to give everyone ample time to play and rest.
- What are your guests going to eat? During the course of a 25-hour marathon, there’s at least four meals you need to account for. We opted for baked goods for breakfast, sandwiches at lunch, and pizza at dinner. An assortment of snacks were also available.
- Where are your guests going to sleep? At some point, some of your guests are going to need to lie down for a bit. We had a number of inflatable mattresses ready to go this time. Jenna even brought her own portable mattress. Space can be tight, especially if you’re in an apartment. However, it’s key to have some sort of designated resting area.
Ready for My Close-Up
As a viewer, we want you to feel like you’re right there with us. We want you to cheer us on as we play through a particularly tough challenge. We actively invite you to be a part our conversations through direct interaction with the chat. During some instances, we’re even able to play games together.
One of the most effective ways of creating that connection is through a webcam. Giving viewers that window into your world adds so much context to the action. They see the emotion on your face as you overcome a particularly difficult part. If you’re not using a green screen, they get an understanding of your surroundings. If a streamer looks directly into the camera as they address your message, the sensation is like they’re actually looking you in the eyes. All of that really matters when it comes to building that rapport with those watching.
While I did have a webcam during last year’s show, my placement of it was poor in retrospect. Mounted to the TV, the view was zoomed out too far. Combine that with streaming at 720p and at a less-than-ideal bitrate, you can’t really see our faces. Without that visual information, it feels like viewers are voyeurs instead of being part of the experience.
This year, I moved the camera. Propped up with a camera stand and a board game, I wanted viewers to be able to see the faces of everyone sitting on the couch. Even in our primary gaming view, you can clearly see us speaking to you and reacting to the action.
For our intermission screen, the change is even more dramatic. Last year’s view did allow viewers to see our faces, but much of the screen was eaten up by the gameplay and chat feeds. In 2019, I went with a full-width camera similar to the one I use on my regular streams. With the gameplay and HUD elements greatly minimized, the view almost feels like you’re sitting directly across from us.
I loved these changes. Looking back at the footage, a lot of our personalities really shine through thanks to how much closer the view was. If I could, I would have raised the camera even higher so that we could be a bit more at eye-level with the viewer while also minimizing the odds of something blocking the camera. During one hour-long stretch, someone placed a water bottle in front of the camera, obstructing the scene for a good hour before it was moved.
However, we were already at a point where the webcam was starting to obstruct our view of the TV, so I stopped from going any higher. I guess I could have put the camera off to the side to get the height right, but I much prefer a straight-on view so that we’re looking in the general direction of the camera by default.
Last year, my solution for staying on top of the chat while being in front of the camera was rather clunky. With my computer off to the side, I monitored the chat through my phone. The problem was that no one else in the room could see the chat, nor could I monitor the overall health of the broadcast.
Two nights before the big day, I had an idea. We have an extra TV in the basement that we currently don’t use. Instead of building a desk and placing my small monitor on it, why don’t we use the big TV as a monitor instead?
This adjustment worked wonders. Not only was it possible for me to easily see the chat while still on camera, it was now possible for everyone on the couch to follow along. I get the sense that everyone involved got more invested in the show because they could see and respond to viewers watching them. One of the truly amazing things to come out of this event was that we had viewers for the entire 25 hour run. Providing everyone on the couch with the ability to read the chat may have gone a long way towards us keeping things exciting for our viewers.
Furthermore, there were a few catastrophic moments where my computer broke down. Being able to spot them quickly on the big screen versus having to leave the sofa to check saved us from broadcasting a broken show for long stretches of time. We’ll get to that in a bit.
Rock the Mic
Very late in the process of setting up last year, I realized that I did not have the proper equipment to mic a room full of people. Our voices did not come through all that clearly and the audio distorted like crazy any time we laughed or when someone would put their glass down on the coffee table. Unfortunately, I still don’t have the equipment to do this, as it’s really expensive to either invest in a bunch of wireless lavalier mics, an assortment of dynamic mics, or one boom mic that would have to hover over all of our heads.
The adjustment I made was to incorporate a set of software-based filters on the mic input. Using my modern settings as a starting point, I tweaked them as best I could to accommodate for the new setting and circumstances.
Configuring a mic for my regular streams is a much easier task, as I can minimize the number of variables at play. I wear headphones so that I can hear the game without creating any feedback into the microphone. I speak into the mic from about the same distance every time. The volume in my voice is also pretty consistent.
Setting up the mic for this marathon was incredibly difficult. Some of us speak very loudly, while others are soft-spoken. Our volumes will also vary depending on where each of us is in the room. On top of that, the TV volume had to be on for us to hear the game. It was essentially impossible to tweak my settings to accommodate for all of those factors.
If it is any consolation, our microphone audio was less painful to listen to. Adding compression greatly minimized the distortion that was created by moments of laughter and yelling. If anything, I should have added more compression to further squash the distortion.
Though I tried my best to keep the TV volume to a minimum, there are stretches of the show where you can hear the TV through the microphone, creating an awful echo effect. You can hear it most prominently during the times we played Jackbox Party Pack 6, as that game runs considerably louder than the others I tested for. The only way to really test if the sound is leaking into the mic is by asking everyone to awkwardly stay silent for a moment while we adjust the TV volume to figure out exactly how loud we can go before the mic picks it up.
Unfortunately, since my TV audio is going through a soundbar, we have no on-screen visual indicators to denote exactly how loud the TV was at any given time. Maybe next time I’ll unplug the soundbar so that we get the TV’s on-screen indicator instead. Being able to know exactly where the break points were beforehand would help me set the volume appropriately before it creates an audio mess.
Dialing Long Distance
For the most part, the show went fairly smoothly in terms of production value. However, there were a few kinks that I’ll need to address with regards to streaming with our long distance friends.
One should be fairly straightforward. In retrospect, I found that Kris, Rachel, and Jason’s audio was too low. Though I wasn’t going to get the opportunity to rehearse with them beforehand, I could have taken a step away from the stream for a bit to check their levels myself to ensure they’re where I want them to be.
The bigger failing occurred due my computer being overloaded. One of my recurring issues with incorporating Discord video calls into my streams is that it eats a ton of CPU. To counter this, I usually stream at a lower bitrate. This time, I tried to keep my bitrate up while lowering quality settings elsewhere, but that appears to have failed. My gut says that if I mimic the settings I use when I stream Paladins or Overwatch with Randy, that should do the trick.
3,000+ words later across two posts and…I’m gonna need more time. Still haven’t gotten around to talking about my overall feelings on the event and sharing some of my favourite memories among other Extra Life related topics I’d like to discuss. I guess there will be at least one more of these? Stay tuned!