After years of sustained enthusiasm for leagues like UFC, it can seem like MMA is the reigning champ of martial arts. In reality, that honour belongs to karate, a discipline practiced by nearly 100 million people around the world. Despite this, you’d be hard pressed to find it on network TV.
Karate Combat wants to change that. Already boasting over 150,000 subscribers, Karate Combat is a new full-contact karate league that pits men and women against each other in a series of three-minute, three-round fights. So far, these battles have been appearing solely on YouTube, but that’s about to change as the second season has already been picked up by the global TV network beIN SPORTS.
Perhaps in a nod to the worldwide nature of the sport, the fights were originally staged around the globe - often in captivating locations. One episode was even shot on the 102nd floor of the World Trade Center as an invitation-only black tie event. But ambition soon gave way to a need for consistency. A global shooting schedule was costly and challenging, putting producers on the hunt for a solution that was a bit more sustainable.
“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.”
Whatever the change ended up being, Karate Combat wanted to get it right. They started by convening focus groups that would let fans put their mark on the final outcome. “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. The fans loved it. “The younger generation actually prefers that versus the fight that we hosted on top of the World Trade Center,” says Robert. “So once we saw how it resonated, we said, ‘look, this is something we have to be able to build.’”
The virtual sets would only work if the illusion appeared constant, though. That’s where Unreal Engine came in. Armed with real-time rendering, veteran 3D animation studio Reel FX began designing eye-popping virtual environments for the fast-paced production, bringing a unique look to each bout. So far, fighters have met in the middle of a Mad Max-style Scrap Punk scene and a Neo Tokyo setting. An Aurora Borealis Ice World is also in the works.
“With Unreal Engine being the clear leader in the field, we needed a VFX house that was familiar with that,” says Robert. “And we ended up going with Reel FX because we thought they were clearly ahead of the competition.”
Initially, Unreal Engine was only used for previs, but was quickly upgraded after Karate Combat realised that it could deliver a quality level long associated with final renderings. “We're like, ‘this thing really works!’ ” says Christian. “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.
Having a direct line of sight on a near-final shot was helpful in the moment, as Karate Combat wanted to maintain a very aggressive shooting schedule. In practice, this meant filming a number of events at once and then airing them a few weeks later. After each episode is filmed, the footage is sent to Reel FX, who blend the live action elements with the episode’s virtual background. During this time, small changes may be made in post, including the addition of sponsor content. However, the plan is to broadcast final pixels live from Unreal Engine in 2021.
Now, with an evolving set of virtual environments on tap, what started as a way to increase efficiency is proving to be a key differentiator for Karate Combat. “It creates a whole new genre of entertainment,” says Christian.
“I think we're an early test of the future of live sporting events,” agrees Robert. “And seeing what we see here, I can't imagine the rest of the industry not making similar changes over the next five years.”