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TouchDesigner Showdown at the HQ Championship

Back in July of 2020 The Interactive & Immersive HQ put on the very first and only live esports event for interactive tech and media professionals and boy-oh-boy what a show-stopper of an event it was! Over two days, the 11th and 25th July, the event was broadcast live on Twitch to a highly appreciative and engaged community who played their part too, lighting up the chat from beginning to end. In a nutshell 29 highly skilled and spirited TouchDesigner developers from all over the world competed across four different one-hour challenges over the course of the Championship for a chance to win significant prizes and get really creative (sometimes downright hilarious) demonstrating their skills.

The competition was based around four challenges - the Interactivity, Integration, Aesthetic and Technical challenges to really test the all-round mettle of the contestants. Co-hosts Elburz Sorkhabi and Matthew Ragan were joined by celebrity guest judges Greg Hermanovic and Matt Swoboda - respectively TouchDesigner and Notch founders, and music producer and TouchDesigner aficionado deadmau5 which altogether culminated in some high-octane fun and games and so much learning for everyone involved. We finally got a chance to talk to HQ co-founder and TouchDesigner community champion Elburz Sorkhabi about how this all came together.

Derivative: Long after-the-fact but picking up :) Congrats on putting on the pandemic’s most ambitious and crazy fun online event so far! How did the idea come about and was there much scope creep?

Elburz Sorkhabi: Thanks! It was a great event. The idea grew surprisingly naturally. It started as a seed of what it was at the TouchDesigner Summit in Berlin, where I was chatting with a few good friends (Landon Thomas, Matthew Ragan, Hal Lovemelt, and Noah Norman) about how fun an optimization showdown would be. It could determine once and for all, the true master of optimization in the community! That idea steeped for a few years, meanwhile eSports became a giant industry, our online TouchDesigner school (The HQ) was looking for its next big projects of 2020, and COVID-19 was starting to really become an issue. These all created the perfect storm which led to The Interactive & Immersive Championship: a live TouchDesigner eSports competition hosted on Twitch and created by a fully remote production team with dedicated hosts, guest judges, incredibly generous sponsors, amazing partners, and thousands of dollars worth of prizes. Somewhere in the middle we realized most people think optimization is boring so we created all of the other challenges!

 

Derivative: Backing up a bit, perhaps you could give a little bit of background about yourself and what you have been doing in the TouchDesigner community with the HQ.

Elburz Sorkhabi: I’m Elburz. I’m a long-time TouchDesigner developer and educator. I’ve worked all around the world to develop and deliver some of the largest TouchDesigner projects for clients like Google, Kanye West, Nike, Armani, IBM, and more. I founded nVoid many years ago and now am co-founder of The Interactive & Immersive HQ. The HQ is an organization committed to uplifting and elevating the entire interactive tech and immersive media community through education and professional training. We create a ton of free educational resources and tutorials through our blog, YouTube, and Twitch, and are continuously developing The HQ PRO into the premiere online school for TouchDesigner developers and folks looking to enter our industry.

Derivative: What needs did you identify in the community (during pandemic lockdown) and what did you hope to achieve with this? This event is also not necessarily restricted to being viable only during pandemics as the TD community is so geographically distributed.

Elburz Sorkhabi: Our whole business is focused on finding ways we can empower members of our community and bring lots of value to creators and their careers.Thus The HQ PRO, our brand new certification program, and The Championship. All these things were built to give people the power to build their own careers and realize themselves as artists.

The Championship was built to put the spotlight on our community members and give them a live and exciting way to show their work, skills, and personalities in a way that is difficult to do on your own.

Running a Twitch stream takes time, building a following and getting viewers takes time, doing marketing takes time. These things create barriers for creators trying to get in front of an audience and since we had already done all of these things and had our pipelines setup, we could then offer the benefits to our community for free. The results speak for themselves: the competitors had a great time and felt like they were always represented in a positive light; viewers in our industry had a great time with our hosts, guest judges, and watching people solve tough problems live; viewers outside our industry had a ton of fun learning about what we do and seeing all the talent; and we felt like we brought a lot of value to everyone involved throughout the whole process. To your question, pandemic or not, we were looking to do this anyways at a later point, and the pandemic really just made it a front and centre priority for us.

Derivative: So what was the process of organizing the championship? 

Elburz Sorkhabi: It was pretty crazy! What we thought would be challenging ended up being easy and the things we thought would be pretty straightforward ended up being pretty difficult. Since we went from concept to execution in about 6-8 weeks, we were always on the edge of something to solve and couldn’t think too far out in many ways. We had to keep our focus on the present. When we were thinking about sponsors and partners, we couldn’t dive into the tech infrastructure. When we got to tech infrastructure, we still hadn’t figured out the challenges. And so on and so on. Luckily we had a lot of help and fantastic folks who supported us the whole way through. We’d never personally run an event before so there were a lot of comical elements, like how totally wrong my first run of show time estimates were!

Derivative: And putting your team, sponsors and partners together etc. Who did what? (I really appreciated the typical TouchDesigner community generosity and collaboration that was well-evidenced btw. Our highly skilled and inventive community steps up once again.)

Elburz Sorkhabi: Well, this will be tricky but I’ll do my utmost to include everyone as best I can! Derivative and Notch were our Premium Sponsors who made everything possible across the board. From prize pool contributions, financial support, guest judges, and more, we couldn’t have done it without you folks! Walker Keene and Azimuth Digital were the brains behind all of the streaming infrastructure and all tech (remember when I mentioned I thought tech was going to be hard, then Walker made it easy!). Evan Gannon and Gannon Interactive played a huge role in running the show live and working with Walker on the technical backend. Josue Ibanez and Martin Pech from Cocolab gave us all the support we needed for graphic design, stream layouts, merch designs, and the Championship logo. Gilberto Castro and Rodrigo Yerena supported us through all our media creation, promo videos, and highlight video edits. My good friend Max Attwood and KMP provided us with the studio space for the event and filmed our promotional videos. JP Yepez from the TouchDesigner community helped us get the word out on social media. Hal Lovemelt of Feedback.video kept tabs on creative direction to make sure the whole event had a good vibe and feel. And of course massive love to Matthew Ragan and Sudo Magic for their constant support, co-hosting, helping design the challenges, and being my sounding board for basically everything.

Derivative: How was the response from the community in terms of competing/participating? More or less what you expected … or?

Elburz Sorkhabi: It was amazing! Since something like this hasn’t been done in our community, we had no idea what kind of response we’d get. Would it be 8-10 people applying? Would it be hundreds? We had no way of really knowing. Entrance into The Championship was free, so there was really no barrier-to-entry other than filling out a form and submitting a short video describing why you wanted to enter. At the end we had about 40 odd entries, and internally we had a hard cap of 32 competitors (which was already a huge number of people to co-ordinate!). Actually one of the hardest things I had to do for the event was let a handful of people know that we had run out of space and that they wouldn’t be able to compete. This is something I’d like to correct in our next iteration by changing the format to allow for unlimited first round entries.

Derivative: Early in the process we introduced Walker Keene of Azimuth Digital to the HQ team and Walker who is ahead of the curve in all things streaming huge amounts of video and being keen to the extreme (pun intended) jumped right in. We had some questions for Walker starting with how he got into this line of work?

Walker Keene: I started off my career working concert audio and supporting major North American World Tours... it was 99/2000 and I worked tours for everyone from NSYC/Britney to Ozzfest and Slayer. I then had the opportunity and moved into automated lighting and worked in supporting events such as World Tours for Janet Jackson, the 2008 Olympics and Broadway shows like Wicked and Beauty and the Beast. The world of video was a natural progression for me, I enjoyed the technical challenges of the discipline and as large format projection and LEDs became more popular I moved straight into that medium.Having found TouchDesigner in early 2013 (088), I started building systems for large format projection and projection mapping for live events right away. This has now evolved into building broadcast and eSports tools for live productions: live camera systems, streaming tools, stage LED production and playout.

Basically we are a Hot Rod Shop for the broadcast and live events production world. We build custom Hot Rod video applications.

Derivative: Can you walk us through what your Hot Rod Shop brought to the equation and how you went about pulling this off?

Walker Keene: We call our Cloud Services Cirrus and we have physical computers at a Gigabit Data Centre in Downtown LA. We put this together because we found virtual machines on the market didn’t cut it...CPU and GPU hardware and performance was from year 2011. We wanted and needed late-model hardware without all the complications and resource draining bloatware of the big cloud service providers. 

We have a Streaming layer at Cirrus that is built upon Nimble Streamer’s API and TouchDesigner. This combo allows us to handle literally hundreds if not thousands of simultaneous 1080P videos feeds. The system we put together was originally conceived and built for eSports and a popular Battle Royal Videogame that has 150 simultaneous players. The Spec was to produce a live broadcast, hi quality video production with 150+ simultaneous 1080P@60 live video feeds - and we were up for the challenge. 

With a little help from Malcom Bechard at Derivative we were able to meet the spec. Using a combination of CPU and GPU hardware decoding in TouchDesigner we were able to decode 30 1080P at 60 streams per server. We built out the video switching matrix and integrated the show graphics package all in TouchDesigner. To round off what was needed for the production we used a combination of Blackmagic Decklink PCI cards and NDI to interconnect all the video/audio feeds depending on the final destination. 

For the Championship we spun up some of our Tier One Servers.
TouchDesigner Hardware:
Intel I9 10940x Processors 20 Core (40 thread)
128 GB Ram
P-6000 24gb GPU’s 

The contestants from the Championship used OBS to capture their local screens and stream into our system at Cirrus. We used two Tier One servers to grab all 40+ contestant streams and Evan Gannon built out a video switcher in Touch that tied it all together. We had a Vmix instance for the final hub as we used Vmix call for Elburz , Matthew and all other talent for the panel. And finally, a little green screen magic and voila!

Derivative: Technological feat not withstanding Elburz, what most surprised you during the two days of competition? 

Elburz Sorkhabi: The best part about it all and what surprised me most was that we were able to successfully deliver an event that was a competition that uplifted and empowered everyone. This sounds kind of obvious but it was a very specific thing we committed to in our planning and especially whenever we had guest judges and partners working with us, our message was always clear:

“we only highlight the good things competitors are doing to make them seem like rock stars, and we never highlight the stumbles or the mis-steps to make them look bad in front of the audience.”

It would have been really easy to pick apart mistakes or up the drama by making it feel like reality tv, but that’s not what our community is about. We wanted to stay true to that good vibe everyone gets when we all gather together for events like the TouchDesigner Summit and I think we were successful. The surprising part was how much that was latched onto by both the competitors and the audience. Competitors all could talk to each other in our private Discord channel we used for organizing things, and they were chatting up a storm and supporting each other and having a great time. Similarly the audience and Twitch chat picked up on the good vibes and was equally positive and interested in seeing people succeed. That was a really nice thing for us.

Derivative: And again more generally speaking, what are your experiences and insights into how streaming has changed during the pandemic. From what our team did development-wise to create and make certain tools available to the bigger picture?

Elburz Sorkhabi: I think the best way people can think about it is that streaming itself hasn’t really changed. Twitch and YouTube are still the same platforms they’ve always been. What’s changed is that the work-from-home boom means that you can realistically build an audience that is actually able to tune in during the day. That’s compounded with the fact that a lot of folks are spending their evenings indoor and looking for things to watch and engage with, so there’s so much more room for new content creators to fill those spaces for people. TouchDesigner has been fantastic for this! All the new features from lowering license requirements for using NDI and Notch Blocks, integrating direct RTMP output capabilities, to the newly re-done Websocket DAT allow you basically interact with and stream to any modern streaming platform without having to leave TouchDesigner.

Derivative: A little birdie mentioned you are planning a second go at this.. anything you would you do differently? Any major things learned/insight gained during this process?

Elburz Sorkhabi: Oh absolutely!! The Championship was a success top to bottom, so we’ve already started preparing for the second. A few things we’ve identified that could make it even better is consolidating The Championship into one single weekend, so it’s easier for folks to tune in and compete. We’ll also be working with more partners and sponsors to get even more exciting companies and groups involved in our community and seeing the work of the amazing talent in our industry. To top it off we’re also looking at integrating talks and virtual networking into the event as well, so that even viewers can become more actively engaged in The Championship. There’s a lot of exciting news we’ll be releasing over the next little while about all that!!

Derivative: Massive thanks to you and your team Elburz for organizing such an incredible opportunity for the community. And to our readers, here are a few parting shots of the contestants in action. Be sure to check out the rest of the videos above and there are more to view on The HQ's Youtube channel here.

 

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