Inside the Launch of VENN, the New 24/7 Gaming-Lifestyle Network Built in the Midst of the Pandemic


New network launches today out of LA studios; state-of-the-art NYC facility still on the horizon

In September of last year when gaming-industry stalwarts Ariel Horn and Ben Kusin announced VENN (the Video Game Entertainment and News Network), they laid out an aggressive timeline to launch the 24/7 gaming, esports, and entertainment network in Q3 of 2020. However, when videogame play and esports viewership began to skyrocket during quarantine, VENN’s launch date was moved up three months in order to capitalize on this growing number of eyeballs. Today, the new network launches with 21 hours of original programming per week and big plans for the future.

CTO Scott Gillies (right) and SVP Real Estate & Facilities James Lee inside VENN’s LA studio.

Despite one of the most aggressive network-launch timelines in recent memory, CTO Scott Gillies and SVP Real Estate & Facilities James Lee were able to essentially create a 24/7 linear-network operation from scratch at Vista Studios in Los Angeles in a matter of months.

“I’ve been building broadcast facilities for 30 years and I’ve never seen a full network launched as quickly as we’re launching,” says Lee. “But it certainly doesn’t look like it was just cranked out; it looks as good as the best [original programming] out there right now. I think when people turn this on, they are going to be blown away. There’s no one out there that’s putting the kind of content out that we’re going to be putting out.”

From NYC to LA: How VENN Pivoted Its Plans on the Fly

The VENN studio at Vista Studios came together in a matter of months.

When Lee originally joined the company in Nov. 2020, VENN planned to launch dual live studios in New York and Los Angeles with New York serving as the flagship location and content-production hub. His team secured a 11,000-sq.-ft. footprint on the second floor of 3 World Trade Center, where VENN planned to build out a state-of-the-art, IP-based 4K production facility geared towards gaming and esports-centric content. However, just two weeks before starting construction on the new studios, New York City was shut down by the pandemic.

“We had to put that on hold and everyone moved into work-form-home mode started to try figure out how we were going to move forward,” says Lee.

Not to be deterred, Lee and Gillies had already set their sights on building out a smaller talk-show studio at Vista Studios in Playa Vista, Los Angeles in addition to the NYC facility. With the 3 World Trade Center studio on hold, they shifted their focus west.

VENN’s main studio features more than 1000 sq. ft of LED

“The plan originally was to launch in LA and New York at the same time – and then COVID hit,” says Gillies. “Fortuitously, James and I had already come out to Vista Studios, where we were looking for a smaller studio space here in town. It really became clear that this was far away the best facility on the West side of LA – an unbelievable location, amazing stage footprint, and great infrastructure and technology.”

With plans to move ahead with an initial launch out of Vista Studios in place, VENN announced in early March that it would be moving up its debut from the fall to July to reach the growing audience for gaming and esports content during the pandemic.

“Ariel and Ben had the vision of pivoting the whole [operation] and launching a beta version [of the network] out of LA so we could turn this on as quickly as possible,” says Lee. “So we pretty much did everything to make that happen between mid-April and now. It was an insanely fast timeline.”

LED Galore: Inside VENN’s Main Studio at Vista

Vista Studios, which opened in 2017, was already well equipped for VENN’s needs with the latest technology and a sprawling footprint. Vista has a total of four stages on property and VENN has taken over the largest – a 6,000-sq-ft studio with a 19-foot lighting grid, an elephant-door truck bay for easy load-in, and a dedicated production control room (PCR).

VENN’s main studio has multiple stages to serve news, talk, and game shows.

“Originally we wanted to do a fully 4K, IP plant and that’s still our plan for New York,” says Gillies. “This [Vista] plant is capable of 4K, but in order to get things rolling as quickly as possible we opted to launch at 60p (59.94). Thankfully they have a 3G-capable router and very capable switcher, so we were able to move forward with that right away.”

VENN’s Studio One at Vista has been outfitted with over 1000 sq. ft. and 30 million pixels of LED walls and floors composed of D3 NVIEW UHD 1.5m pixel pitch panels. Designed by Devlin Design Group, the studio was designed to be ultra-flexible to accommodate a mix of talk shows, news shows, game shows and variety shows, and live music performances all in the same footprint.

“From the day one, we knew we wanted as much LED as possible because we need to have as flexible a space as possible,” says Lee. “We can change from a news set to a five-person gaming set in a matter of half an hour. So when you’re looking at the Grey Area, which is a talk show, versus The Download, which is more of a news show, they will actually be in the same exact spot, but you will never know it’s the same studio.”

Building on Vista Studio’s Infrastructure: Inside the Control Room

Inside the VENN’s control room in LA

While VENN made some adjustments and additions to the equipment complement, the studio largely features the technology already integrated by Vista Studios. This includes Ikegami cameras, a Grass Valley Kahuna production switcher and GV Sirius video router, and Evertz DreamCatcher replay. Gillies and company also upgraded the audio system to a new Calrec audio console and router to handle the increased number of sources VENN productions will require. Other key gear includes Sony remote cameras and Cobalt Digital SCTE processing.

“Since Vista was built so recently, it really has the latest technology – like the 3G router and 4K capable [equipment] – across the board, so that’s a huge advantage,” says Gillies. “So it didn’t take a lot of engineering on our part to get that [main studio] ready to go. Of course, we’ve added on a lot more to meet our requirements since we are a live 24/7 network, but it was really ready to go for the most part.”

VENN’s primary studio at Vista Studios

VENN will also rely heavily on remote contributors, integrating streamers and remotely-created content from around the world into its programming. With that in mind, VENN is relying on Blackbird’s cloud video editing/publishing platform for remote production, as well as Medialooks Video Transport for remote guest contribution and Mobile Viewpoint for remote talent. VENN has also brought in Vimond Media Solutions’ video content management solution to handle ingest, media manage, and curation.

Vista Studios also had a robust UPS (uninterruptible power system) only running at 22% capacity, so VENN has opted to connect its entire operation to this system for power redundancy.

Vista has worked closely with Lyon Video on the overall production facility design and Advanced System Group (ASG) on the broadcast and IT equipment side.

‘The Ultimate Streamer’s Den’: Inside VENN’s Studio 1B

Guest House on VENN is being produced inside Studio 1B

In addition to the main studio, VENN was looking to create a small secondary studio that could serve as “ultimate streamer’s den”, as Gillies puts it. VENN Studio & Technology Management team worked with Vista to transform an existing office into this Studio 1B and an auxiliary space into as second control room.

While the main studio was largely ready to go when VENN arrived in terms of backend infrastructure, the Studio 1B facilities had to be built out from scratch. Considering VENN plans to continue to use the LA facility even after its IP-based New York facility launches, Gillies opted to build this secondary studio on top of an NDI IP backbone and utilized largely NewTek equipment, including PTZs and a TriCaster TC1 (with the new TC2 to be installed soon).

“Because we want to go IP in the long-term, we went with NDI backbone,” he says. “That will allow us to easily transition what we’re building now into the IP world without having to go backwards.”

When Designing a Facility in the Age of Coronavirus, Safety Comes First

VENN will regularly integrate remote contributors into its studio shows

As one of the first – if not the only – new network facility to launch during the pandemic, VENN had to drastically rethink the way studios and control rooms were laid out in order to ensure social distancing.

Venn’s main PCR at Vista originally featured a three-bench layout that allowed for as many as 20 crew members to be inside. In order to meet safety protocols, the third bench has been removed and the middle bench has been moved to the back of the room. In addition the front bench now seats three after previously sitting five or six and the rear bench seats four after previously holding seven or eight. There is also one designated standing position near the door, but no other individuals are allowed to enter the PCR.

In addition to being six feet part, every position is now separated by a plexiglass partition and all crew members are required to wear masks at all times. A strict sterilization process has also been put in place and an extra half hour of transition time has been built in between shows to allow the studio and control room to be thoroughly cleaned as crews shift in and out.

Lastly, the entire staff completes a COVID-19 each Friday with a 24-hour turnaround, so that results have been returned before staffers return on Monday.

“We’ve had over 500 tests here in the last three weeks and fortunately we’ve had zero positive tests so far, but we have [protocols] in place in case that happens,” says Lee. “Everyone’s top priority is the health and safety of the staff.”

Looking Ahead: NYC Studio Still on the Horizon, While IP and 4K Remain on Tech Roadmap

Behind the scenes of The Download news show on VENN

With the network off the ground and LA studio now live, Gillies and Lee will soon turn their attention back to New York. The long-term goal is to unify both the LA and the New York facilities via fiber to allow the two operations to seamlessly share content and transmit signals back and forth. Lee describes the World Trade Center studio as a public facing facility that will include live audiences for shows and a “PC bang” LAN gaming center for the gaming community to congregate.

“It’s a completely different build [from LA],” he says. “We don’t know when we’ll be able to have audiences, but we’re very excited about it once that becomes possible.”

The New York studio will be a fully 4K-production facility based on the SMPTE ST-2110 suite of IP standards. By going with an IP backbone, Gillies says VENN can embrace the consumer-technology and PC-based workflows widely used by gamers today. With remote contributors and live-streamers playing a crucial role in VENN’s content moving forward, VENN will be able to seamlessly ingest a variety of internet-based feeds into its broadcast facility.

“We know want to do 2110 IP and we’re already in the late stages of design and working with a few different manufacturers on their IP systems. So we’ll be ready when the time comes,” says Gilles. “Going IP really open us up to gamer workflows – SRT, OBS, and things like that. Gamers are very tech savvy, so they are able to remotely contribute in ways that news reporters and broadcasters are just now discovering. We have to be ready to take in those feeds and IP will allow us to do that.”

After a monumentally fast development period, VENN launches today streaming on Twitch, YouTube, Facebook Gaming, Twitter, and, as well as on connected-TV platforms representing more than 30 million U.S. households (with talks for additional distribution deals ongoing).

“In this business, we’ve all done projects where you have to bring something together quickly, but to do it in the isolation of the pandemic that we are dealing with is unbelievable,” says Gillies. “Honestly, if you asked me to bet on it six months ago, I would not have thought we would have gotten to where are now this quickly. We’ve somehow made it happen by sheer will, good fortune, and making the right safe decisions. There’s been lot of long days to get here, but it’s unbelievable that something that was in all of our brains has come to fruition in just a few months.”

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