ESPN 3D Adds Soccer to the Repertoire with World Football Challenge

With one year of experience under its belt, ESPN 3D added another production to its already lengthy resume.  As part of ESPN’s coverage of the 2011 World Football Challenge, ESPN 3D broadcasted two matches – Los Angeles Galaxy vs. Real Madrid on July 16 and C.D. Guadalajara vs. Real Madrid on July 20 – and officially checked soccer off the to-do list.

“Soccer is definitely one of the more challenging sports we’re going to do,” said Phil Orlins, ESPN 3D coordinating producer, who compared the sport to American football. “The size of the field is comparable, but [American football is a little less challenging] because you have time between plays and a lot of scrimmage where you can gather your cameras at closer proximity.  Soccer does not really offer the downtime for replays as much, or to position yourself.”

The 2011 World Football Challenge is comprised of 14 round robin matches played on various pitches throughout the United States from July 13 to August 6. Broadcast across the ESPN platform, the World Football Challenge features many of the world’s top international soccer clubs, including Los Angeles Galaxy, Chicago Fire, Vancouver Whitecaps, Philadelphia Union, Manchester United, Barcelona, Manchester City FC, Real Madrid, Juventus, C.D. Guadalajara, Club America, and Sporting CP.

Although ESPN 3D debuted with the telecasts of the 2010 FIFA World Cup last summer, the network did not produce the event in-house, instead carrying the feed produced by Host Broadcast Services.  Since that time, ESPN has undertaken a number of in-house 3D productions, including MLB’s Home Run Derby, Summer X Games, college football and basketball, golf, and boxing.

In each event, no matter how large the venue, proximity to the action is critical to the success of the 3D broadcast.  Unlike boxing, in which proximity is easily achieved and every punch pops in 3D, producing soccer in 3D requires a nontraditional approach.  Rather than rely on the conventional press box level game camera, Orlins and his team ran a FlyCam over the sideline, bringing the viewer approximately 150 feet closer than a conventional press box camera can normally achieve. The FlyCam, which ran 16-18 feet above the field and 10 feet behind the sideline, was supplemented by handheld and goal post cameras.

“We’re going to take a few more chances in terms of getting close than has probably been taken thus far,” said Orlins, of ESPN 3D’s approach to soccer. “But ultimately, we believe that 3D is the right place to take those chances.”

In its first year, ESPN 3D has produced boxing and basketball, among other events, using a single-truck 2D-3D setup, which broadcasts the 2D show primarily from the left-eye feed from the 3D camera.  This so-called “5D approach” is considered essential to the future of 3D sports production, and ESPN 3D plans to implement it in its upcoming coverage of the X Games and the Little League World Series. However, for the World Football Challenge, ESPN 3D opted for separate production crews in order to allow the 3D team to get comfortable with the demands of the broadcast, adjust to the challenges of soccer, and experiment with the medium.

“At halftime of the first game, the issue we faced was that we were not using our zoom capabilities enough when the ball was across the field on the opposite sideline,” said Orlins, following the first match.  “So, at halftime, we made that adjustment to be quite a bit more aggressive with how we used our zoom.”

By the end of the first match, the ESPN 3D team was confident in their ability to produce high value 3D images for two thirds of the pitch, which they see as an improvement over previous attempts to broadcast soccer in 3D.

“We believe strongly that we must create an impactful 3D experience,” said Orlins. “I think 3D viewers have an expectation that they’re going to get a little closer to the action, so we took that approach and we’ll continue to do so.”