Live From X Games L.A.: ESPN Bids Adieu to Los Angeles With Action-Packed Production

This week marks the end of an era for the Summer X Games. ESPN will move its flagship action-sports event from Los Angeles — its home for 11 years — to Austin, TX, next year. With that in mind, the X Games production, engineering, and operations teams are looking to give the longest-tenured host city in Summer X Games history a roaring sendoff.

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X Games Operations Manager Larry Wilson

“We are very excited about Austin, but we are still working our way through this last event, and then we will jump into that,” says X Games Operations Manager Larry Wilson. “We haven’t had a technical survey there yet, so I can’t really speak to what the facility will be like or what the events will be yet, but we are looking forward to another challenge.”

The New X Games Production Model: Chapter Six
This week’s Summer X festivities mark the culmination of a grueling six-events-in-seven-months campaign for an X Games crew spread across five countries. During this stretch, ESPN has cultivated a new modular production model for X Games, using extensive file-based workflows to share media back and forth with its headquarters in Bristol, CT.

This allows a sizable chunk of the production operations, graphics insertion, and other elements to be completed in Bristol, reducing the remote-production costs for six events across three continents. Bristol handles all graphics insertion, features/highlights editing, live-feed integration, and global distribution and also has access to an “EVS portal” that serves as the hub for all file-transfer activity between Bristol and the remote production.

“I would call [development of this production model] a pretty great success, and I think our expectations were fulfilled — [thanks to] hard work by everyone on the team, of course,” says Paul DiPietro, coordinating director, event operations, ESPN. “Going in, the calendar was very intimidating, but the biggest challenge was just the unknown, which is always frightening until you find out what it truly is going to take to get it done.”

Two Venues, 20 Miles Apart: No Problem
Another notable change this year in Los Angeles is the addition of a second venue, Irwindale Event Center, which will host all Big Air, RallyCross SuperCar, and the debut of the Gymkhana Grid events. L.A. Live and Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles ¾ where all X Games events have been centralized for the past two years ¾ are still home to all Moto X (Whip Step Up, Racing, and Enduro X) and Street/Vert Skateboard and BMX events.

The addition of a second venue forced ESPN to essentially erect two separate production compounds 20 miles apart and connected via a newly installed 1-GB fiber pipe that runs between L.A. Live and Irwindale. ESPN is sending six ASI paths from Irwindale to L.A. Live and one ASI path from L.A. Live to Irwindale.

X Games Senior Coordinating Producer at the Skate/BMX Street Course

X Games Senior Coordinating Producer Phil Orlins at the Skate/BMX Street Course

“It’s great being in downtown L.A., and we’ve loved it, but space is always a challenge here,” says X Games Senior Coordinating Producer Phil Orlins. “There’s only one existing arena, and car racing is always a very big challenge that has a big impact on the city, plus the Big Air ramp was in a very tight area last year.

“There’s a lot more room in Irwindale,” he continues, “and it really alleviated a lot of the pinch points from our perspective. True that it’s 20 miles away, but it allows us to do Rally and Gymkhana the way that we want to do them and gives a lot more room for Big Air.”

The LA Live Truck Compound

The LA Live Truck Compound

NEP SS25 (A and B units) is on hand at L.A. Live, and the newly revamped SS32 (previously, ESPN 3D’s truck before it was announced that the network will shut down by the end of the year) is the production hub at Irwindale. NEP has also supplied a flypack for the on-site studio-show production.

“L.A. posed a little bit of a challenge in that we are in split locations, but [in terms of communications], everything is being trunked between L.A., Irwindale, and Bristol,” says Henry Rousseau, ‎coordinating technical manager, ESPN. “One of the new things we are doing is taking advantage of our trunking capabilities with the Bristol plant, so that everyone can talk to just about anyone that they need to anywhere. Operations will now be able to communicate from Bristol via radio out to us here if need be.”

Back to Bristol
Overall, ESPN is sending 14 transmission paths to Bristol, 10 from L.A. Live (from ESPN’s LAPC facility), and four from Irwindale. A clean feed, a dirty feed without sponsorship elements, a dirty feed with all sponsorship elements, and baseband line for the EVS portal are all sent from both venues. The L.A. Live facility is also sending a beauty shot (for international carriers to use during ESPN’s host-set segments), two camera feeds from the X Center host set at L.A. Live (which are cut together in Bristol to create the studio show), a camera feed for ESPN International, and a Skype feed for ESPN3 coverage.

All these feeds run over ESPN’s 10-GB fiber pipe that runs between its LAPC facility at LA Live and Bristol (of which the X Games team has access to 2GB). Once all feeds are in Bristol, the in-house team handles distribution of the domestic ESPN feed, English world feed, non-English world feed, and non-sponsored world feed, as well as customized feeds for foreign countries with corresponding sponsor elements and graphics.

EVS Portal Continues To Evolve
Although dual venues are nothing new for the X Games crew (including Munich and Foz de Iguaçu, Brazil), this marks the first occasion when the secondary venue — Irwindale, in this case — has access to the EVS portal.

The EVS Portal area at the LA Live Operations Center

The EVS Portal area at the LA Live Operations Center

“What we are doing differently in terms of the file-based workflows here is that we have complete connectivity between sites, so we are doing a large amount of file-transfer daisy-chained from Irwindale, through L.A., to Bristol, and back; we haven’t done that before,” says Steve Raymond, associate director, event operations, ESPN. “We have replicated the EVS portal on a smaller scale out in Irwindale, so we have a mini portal out there. All the systems are tied together; the EVS network is one big network between the two sites.”

L.A. Live + Irwindale = No Shortage of Cameras
ESPN has spread a total of 49 cameras across the two venues: 23 at Staples Center, 22 at Irwindale, and four on the host set.

In addition to 29 Sony HDC cameras and two Sony HDC-P1 POV cameras, Fletcher Sports has provided two Ikegami NAC Hi-Motion II ultra-slo-mos (one at each venue that will switch between handheld or hard configuration), seven robotic cameras, and seven POV cameras.

In addition to two RF Steadicams, two RF Sony HDC-1500 handhelds (one at each of the respective venues), and two mobile units for RF coordination (one per venue), BSI is supplying connectivity for a “follow-cam” backpack unit. A staple of Winter X competitions for years, the follow-cam will be used to capture a unique perspective as it follows skaters on the Skateboard Street competition. Although not a new angle for action-sports coverage, this marks its Summer X debut.

The JITA (jib in the air) camera on hand at Staples Center during a MotoX practice session.

The JITA (jib in the air) camera on hand at Staples Center during a MotoX practice session.

ESPN has rolled out one Supercrane, three spider lifts, and three 30-ft. jibs, including the JITA (jib in the air) cam, a 30-ft. jib hung from the Staples Center overhead grid and enabling a 360-degree range of aerial coverage.

“JITA gives us a great shot of the MotoX stuff and with [athletes] flying 35-40 ft. in the air, and there is a scoreboard hanging down, cable and aerial cams aren’t really an option,” says Orlins. “It is a much tighter but still effective use of space.”

In addition to the primary 49-camera complement, BSI is providing 12 on-board and in-car RF cameras for the RallyCar and Gymkhana car competitions, and GoPro has brought along more than 90 of its signature mountable mini POV cameras.