ESPN Goes All-Axis for NBA Playoffs

By Carolyn Braff

The NBA playoffs are already under way, but, for ESPN/ABC, the real production firepower does not hit the screen until the conference finals. For this year’s postseason, ESPN has launched a new graphic look, similar to the dashboard it uses for Monday Night Football, and, for conference and league finals, the network will incorporate its ESPN Axis virtual-replay technology, ramping up the production complement along the way.

For the opening rounds of the playoffs, ESPN uses 11 cameras and a microphone complement that is a slight enhancement on regular-season coverage. Maintaining consistency is paramount for the network.

“In the first couple of rounds, we are consistent across the board with what we let out, both equipment-wise and personnel-wise,” explains Tim Corrigan, senior coordinating producer for ESPN. “You never know when the best game is going to break out, and we want to be equally prepared to best cover that with each of our windows.”

Relying on the same slate of announcers deployed throughout the regular season enables ESPN and ABC to have the same voices from the preseason through the playoffs. “That is something we really like,” says Corrigan, “so we don’t need to grab people and have them do tryouts on-air.”

While ESPN is sporting a new graphics look for this year’s NBA playoffs, no on-air tryout is involved there, either, because the look mimics the dashboard used during last season’s Monday Night Football coverage. The dashboard consists of a bottom line that constantly shows the clock, score, quarter, and shot clock, above a line that the network can use to “soft-serve” information throughout the game.

“Whenever you turn on a game on ESPN or ABC, you won’t have to wait more than five or 10 seconds to know what game you’re in and what game it is in the series,” Corrigan says. “As people are clicking around trying to determine what they want to watch, they will automatically know they’re in the sixth game and Atlanta is up 3-2, which is important.”

Beneath the clock and score information, the networks also have the ability to stream information to viewers without creating a large graphic that eats into the screen size, allowing them to keep the main broadcast frame focused on the game.

“We create a steady flow of information, and then, on dead-ball situations, where you want to make a bigger deal of graphics, the entire board will flip to reveal our larger graphics,” Corrigan says. “We gave the screen back to the viewer. The pictures can now tell the story without losing the constant information you want about the clock and score. We feel like we can actually stream more information for those people who want it, without being obtrusive.”

Also adding to ESPN’s coverage of the later playoff rounds are additional cameras — including high-speed super-slo-mos, which can roll at a higher frame rate for greater clarity.

The newest addition to the production fleet for this season will be ESPN Axis, virtual-replay technology that allows analysts to use graphic telestrations to highlight locations and movements of players on the court. The technology has been used for football and soccer broadcasts but never before on NBA coverage. Although it’s slated to be used primarily during finals, Corrigan says ESPN Axis may make an appearance in earlier games.

“We’ve been testing it offline and fine-tuning some things,” he says. “I looked at it last week with [analysts] Jeff van Gundy and Mark Jackson to have them start thinking about the kind of things that would be valuable to teach with it. It’s going to become a major part of our coverage for the finals.”

Even with all the technical enhancements ESPN has at its fingertips, the network strives to keep its fingerprints off the main event video, choosing to focus on documenting history.

“There’s one key word for us, which is documentation,” Corrigan says. “The last thing you want to do is put a signature on something that, in any shape or form, doesn’t document what just happened. There’s nothing worse than trying to get in the way. The additions we make can enhance the moment, but first and foremost, we’re there to document the event.”