ESPN goes to extremes for Summer X Games

By Ken Kerschbaumer
Every year ESPN’s X Games telecast gives viewers at home an up-close look at the half-pipe and dirt track playgrounds where top X gamers compete. But there’s another playground viewers don’t see: the ESPN playground that is the entire X Game experience.

“We pride ourselves on being the testing ground and accepting any new product or idea,” says Paul DiPietro, ESPN senior director, remote operations. “Each year we start with a blank piece of paper and go at it with the attitude that if it works, try it.”

This weekend’s X Games will be held in Los Angeles at the Staples Center and the Home Depot Center, with the main broadcast center and 12 mobile units (NEP Supershooter‘s SS25 and SS18 at the center of the operations) located at the Home Depot Center. Coverage requires 60 cameras, 52,900 feet of triax cable (not including the infrastructure that already exists in the arenas) and 75 VTRs and 22 EVS machines. Six POV cameras, two Strata cranes (a 56-90 foot crane) and two ultra slow-motion systems were on hand to capture the action. This year’s new toy are the two super slow-motion systems, from Fletcher and Tech Imaging, capturing the acrobatics of the athletes at upwards of 1,000 frames per second.

Because ESPN created the X Games and basically oversees every aspect of it the network has much more freedom to build an innovative production. Many more handheld cameras are used than the average sporting event and wide-angle shots are the norm. “The camera people have a lot of freedom in positioning themselves to get the shots they want,” says DiPietro.

“There’s no governing or sanctioning league,” says Ron Scalise, freelance audio consultant and project manager. “There’s an event organizing committee that has to follow some rules and regulations but we get to put cameras and mics where other leagues might not allow them.”

And those cameras and mics are often on the move. One of the top challenges at the X Games is that there is only about seven minutes of changeover time from one event to the next. That means, for example, every BMX Freestyle camera position has to be transformed into a Skateboard Big Air camera position in a matter of minutes. “Those 60 cameras serve over 100 camera positions,” says DiPietro.

The quick change over also puts a lot of stress on the communications systems as everyone needs to know exactly where they need to be and when they need to be there. A Telex 128XC Adam frame has an RVON-8 card installed to deliver 8 channels of trunked VoIP connectivity that is piped over a T1 line to the in-house control room. “Fourteen of those cards ties everyone together,” says Stephen Raymond, ESPN senior operations producer.

Still SD
As big of an event as the X Games are (and it requires more than 400 people to put it all together) it’s still a standard-definition viewing experience. The sheer amount of equipment and, more importantly, the long distances of cable runs turns the cost of going HD from being incremental to huge.

“We’ve considered going HD and we’ll continue to investigate it,” says Raymond. “But upgrading a number of SD point-of-view cameras and an SD core Broadcast Center, would make the production much more complex and expensive “

On the audio side the top innovation continues to be what ESPN calls the X-Ducer. The “X-Ducer” is a transducer pick up that is attached to the wooden half pipe (also known as the Vert). It’s comprised of 100 audio pickups that pick up the solid, raw sounds of skateboard or bike wheels flying across the Vert and metal copings.

“It turns the 106-foot Vert into one humongous contact surface,” says Scalise. “It picks up the sound without the PA or crowd and we can pan them so the perspective moves the rider left to right and back as he works the vert with detail. We can then add in stadium ambiences as desired.

Surround Success
While the video portion of ESPN’s coverage is old-school SD the audio side is new-school 5.1 Surround Sound. It’s the only SD event ESPN broadcasts that delivers the thrills in Surround Sound.

‘Every venue produces in Surround and sends back pieces and parts to be assembled in a final mix at the broadcast center,” says Scalise. “There’s also a sub-mixed who does the rear channels and enhances them.”

The live event also requires a large amount of editing. An Avid Unity with 7.5 TB of storage serves 11 nonlinear edit suites, with a couple of those units tied into ProTools audio software. “Editors will pull together lead-ins and bios, build features, and share media among multiple clients like the “X Center,” which is a SportsCenter show for the X games,” says Raymond.

Seven Avid Deko graphic systems are also networked via Gigabit Ethernet. “It’s not seven Avid Deko systems but rather one big one,” says Raymond. “If one went down we could use another.”

ESPN will always use the X Games to push the envelope of televised sports coverage. “At the 1999 Winter X Games this year we put cameras on the snowmobiles but on the first lap they were all broken,” says DiPietro. “Who would have known the amount of stress a snowmobile can put on a camera mount while landing an 80 foot jump ?”

But those sorts of crash landings simply embody the X Games spirit of pushing the boundaries and never settling for the safe route.