Image courtesy of Karate Combat

Virtual environments pack a punch for Karate Combat

December 21, 2020
Karate is the most popular martial art in the world, practiced by up to 100 million people on five continents. It is even due to make its debut at the next Olympic Games in Tokyo. Despite this, it has had very little exposure on network TV until very recently.

Karate Combat aims to change that. The organization hosts a full-contact karate league that pits both men and women against each other in a series of three-minute, three-round fights. The events are attended by live audiences, as well as recorded as TV shows. While the first season aired solely on YouTube, the rights for the second season have been picked up by the global TV network beIN SPORTS.

 

Originally, the fights were physically staged around the globe; one event was even shot on the 102nd floor of the World Trade Center as an invitation-only black tie event. But the show’s producers quickly realized this kind of setup was unsustainable, and sought a different solution. 

“Doing this consistently is extremely difficult,” says Christian Colletti, Karate Combat’s Senior Producer. “It's hard logistically; we would have to build out our staff a lot more. I think we started to change our minds and change our thinking.”

Before deciding on an alternative format, the team at Karate Combat spent a lot of time talking to their fans in focus groups. “We showed them everything you can imagine under the sun,” says Founder Robert Bryan. “We showed them combinations where the fighters had virtual effects on them. We tried everything out there.”

One option they tested was placing the dojo in a completely virtual environment, and that proved to be the most popular. “The younger generation actually prefers that versus the fight that we hosted on top of the World Trade Center,” says Bryan. “So once we saw how it resonated, we said, ‘look, this is something we have to be able to build.’ ” 
Image courtesy of Karate Combat
That’s where real-time rendering came in. The team chose to work with Unreal Engine and veteran 3D animation studio Reel FX, who create the fantastical virtual environments—which have so far included a Mad Max-style Scrap Punk scene and a Neo Tokyo setting, with an Aurora Borealis Ice World in the works. “With Unreal Engine being the clear leader in the field, we needed a VFX house that was familiar with that,” says Bryan. “And we ended up going with Reel FX because we thought they were clearly ahead of the competition.”
Image courtesy of Karate Combat
Initially, Unreal Engine was used just for previs, until the team realized that the quality was high enough to be used for the final rendering. “We're like, ‘this thing really works!’ ” says Coletti. “Now, from a director standpoint, a producer standpoint, it tremendously helps having real-time backgrounds built out in super high quality with real fighters that are actually fighting.”

League President Adam S. Kovacs agrees. “While we're shooting, we can see with the previs what we're going to see after post-production.” he says. 
Image courtesy of Karate Combat
With a very aggressive shooting schedule, a number of events are shot at once and aired just a few weeks later. The footage is sent to Reel FX the day after shooting for final compositing with the Unreal Engine asset. During this time, small changes may be made in post, such as adding additional sponsors. However, the plan is to broadcast final pixels live from Unreal Engine next year.
Image courtesy of Karate Combat
While the motivation for moving to virtual environments was initially to increase efficiency, the team now recognizes that it’s also proving to be a key differentiator. “It creates a whole new genre of entertainment,” says Colletti.

“I think we're an early test of the future of live sporting events,” agrees Bryan. “And seeing what we see here, I can't imagine the rest of the industry not making similar changes over the next five years.”

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