Live From MLB All-Star: ESPN Goes Long with Enhanced Home-Run-Tracking System at Derby

Baseball’s biggest power hitters took the stage at Citi Field Monday night live on ESPN to crown this year’s Sultan of Swat, King of Crash, Colossus of Clout – the Home Run Derby champion. Oakland A’s outfielder Yoenis Céspedes ended up capturing that mantle, but in the process, ESPN viewers were treated to a bomb-astic telecast chalked full of unique camera angles, up-close-and-personal player audio and video, and an enhanced Home Run distance-tracking system.

Joa O’Connor, now in her sixth year as ESPN’s senior operations producer at the Derby

Joa O’Connor, now in her sixth year as ESPN’s senior operations producer at the Derby

“Every year is a new challenge at the Derby,” says Joa O’Connor, now in her sixth year as ESPN’s senior operations producer for the Derby and ninth Derby overall. “This is not a new show, but every year is different because the ballparks bring different aspects to it. Every year, it changes depending on the stadium and the different confines around it. ”

Three Times the Distance Tracking
In just its third year of existence, ESPN’s distance tracking system has already become a staple of its Derby coverage. Developed by ESPN’s Emerging Technology group in Orlando, FL, the system utilizes a 3D laser-scanned model of the ballpark to create instantaneous on-screen virtual-home-run icons that mark the landing distance and projected distance of each home run. The Emerging Technology group’s Ball Track technology also creates a virtual spray chart of home runs that is displayed on-screen after each participant has finished their round (it can also track some live home runs).

Producer Scott Matthews arrived on the Derby scene in 2011 - the same year that the distance-tracking system debuted.

Producer Scott Mathews arrived on the Derby scene in 2011 – the same year that the distance-tracking system debuted.

“At the end of the day, the Derby is a live videogame – how many are they going to hit and how far are they going to hit them?” says ESPN producer Scott Mathews. “The distance tracking tells you just that – it instantaneously tells viewers how far it went or and the projected distance.”

This year, however, the distance-tracking platform was expanded from a sole camera (high-home-plate) to three cameras (adding mid-first and mid-third shots), giving ESPN the opportunity to utilize virtual home-run icons on a trio of angles rather than just one.

“[The Emerging Technology Group] will come in more than a month ahead of time to get a 3D-laser-scan model of the stadium,” says O’Connor. “Then they calibrate all the cameras and test all of their equipment during a game. The 3D laser scan generates X, Y, and Z coordinates so that they can [determine] distance and projected distance.”

Mathews adds: “Even though this is only the third year, we, as production people, missed it when we had to cut to other shots and couldn’t have [the virtual home run icons]. So [director] Jimmy Moore was very much on board with us adding [distance tracking] on more cameras. The technology has actually influenced the way he cuts the Home Run Derby – that gives you an idea of the impact that this technology has had.”

All the Best Seats in the House
Over the past 21 years, the Derby has evolved into one of ESPN’s biggest and most complicated shows. The network was not about to buck that trend Monday night, deploying a total of 28 cameras throughout the ballpark – not including four more on the Baseball Tonight set in center field stands and three more dedicated to ESPN Deportes’ coverage (a handheld on the field, a handheld in its booth, and an additional hard camera).

One of 28 cameras on hand at Citi Field for the Derby.

One of 28 cameras on hand at Citi Field for the Derby.

“When people see a home run derby on ESPN, they are conscious of the fact that it is truly being covered from every single angle,” says Mathews. “It gives people not just the best seat in the house – but all the best seats in the house.”

ESPN once again deployed several robos and wireless RF cameras on the field to capture angles that would otherwise be impossible during a traditional baseball game. In terms of robotics, ESPN rolled out three on the field – one just in front of the batter on each side of the batters box and one behind the pitcher’s mound – as well as another attached to the video board in right center field.

One of several robo-cams provided to ESPN by Fletcher Sports.

One of several robo-cams provided to ESPN by Fletcher Sports.

Fletcher supplied all robotics, as well as an I-MOVIX ultra-slow-motion camera that was used in a hard-camera configuration for the Futures game on Sunday and then reconfigured into a low-first robo setup for the Derby on Monday. ESPN also utilized a super-slo-mo camera for the Derby.

RF cameras were also once again a major part of the Derby show, adding up-close shots of players cracking jokes and letting their guard down on the field. A Sony HDC-P1 SteadiCam covered the infield and players near the dugout, while two standard RF cams roved through the ballpark and outfield. Baseball Tonight will also add a SteadiCam for its pregame coverage of the All-Star Game on Tuesday.

Then there is the audio side of things, in which every Derby participant was outfitted with an RF and four manned parabola mics were placed in the outfield. In addition, ESPN deployed an army of shotgun and effects mics and mics on both foul poles.

Much More Than Just the Derby
Of course, ESPN’s coverage of the All-Star festivities goes well beyond just the Derby itself.

NEP's SS-25 served as the home of ESPN's Home Rune Derby production.

NEP’s SS-25 served as the home of ESPN’s Home Rune Derby production.

In addition to producing the All-Star Legends and Celebrity Softball Game (aired immediately after the Derby) and All-Star Futures Game (Sunday afternoon) telecasts, ESPN has rolled a significant presence for Baseball Tonight and ESPN Deportes.

Lyon Video's Longhorn Network trucks were on hand to serve as facilities for Baseball Tonight and ESPN Deportes.

Lyon Video’s Longhorn Network trucks were on hand to serve as facilities for Baseball Tonight and ESPN Deportes.

Production for the Derby, Celebrity, and Futures events was housed in the A and B units of NEP SS-25 (the former Monday Night Football Truck), while Lyon 3 HD and Lyon 4 HD (Lyon Video’s Longhorn Network trucks) were used for the typically for Baseball Tonight and ESPN Deportes shows, respectively.

Upward and Onward to Minneapolis
With the Derby now in the rearview mirror and the All-Star festivities set to conclude after the game tonight, O’Connor and her team would seemingly be set to refocus their attention on the Sunday Night Baseball package and forget about the Derby for a few months. That couldn’t be farther from the truth, however.

“Last year we had our first Derby meeting in mid-August, so as one Derby ends my brain has already started think about logistics for the next year’s,” she says. “My full-time responsibility is Sunday Night Baseball, so I usually have seen the stadium several times and have a good knowledge of what can and can’t be done. That has been very helpful over the years. But, with the amount of planning that goes into this show, it’s always going to be on my mind.