Live From X Games: ESPN Looks To Stay Ahead of the Curve on ‘At-Home’ Production

There has been a proliferation of “at-home” productions recently on everything from Monday Night Football and NFL on Fox to Pac-12 Networks college games and ESPN college basketball, setting the industry abuzz with the potential impact on the live-remote-production ecosystem. But, for ESPN’s X Games production-operations team, it’s old hat.

Dieter Backx (left) and Frank-Talarico at work inside the file-exchange portal trailer

Dieter Backx (left) and Frank-Talarico at work inside the file-exchange portal trailer

With the expansion to six events during the Global X initiative of 2013, ESPN moved to a model that relied extensively on file-based workflows and a robust fiber network to exchange media with ESPN headquarters in Bristol, CT, where the telecast was integrated (including all postproduction, graphics insertion, etc.). Despite the demise of Global X Games after just one year, the groundbreaking production workflows that came out of it are very much in action this week at the Winter X Games in Aspen, CO.

“We continue to use that same Global X model; just because we lost Global X doesn’t mean we lost our efficiencies,” says Paul DiPietro, coordinating director, event operations, ESPN. “We are still doing everything that we learned. Acquisition of the events happens here; feeds are sent back to Bristol where the integration of the show happens — both international and domestic.”

How To Make 2,000 Miles Seem Like Next Door
The key to these workflows remains connectivity. ESPN deploys two redundant 1-Gbps fiber circuits to connect Aspen and Bristol. Running on these pipes are 14 outbound video paths, eight in-bound paths, and 500 Mbps reserved for data, including communications and file transfer.

Ryan Zainc inside the comms trailer at Buttermilk Mountain

Ryan Zainc inside the comms trailer at Buttermilk Mountain

“We took a critical look at the project when we went to the Global model, really dialing it in and economizing it, and we haven’t strayed from that much,” says Steve Raymond, associate director, event operations, ESPN. “We have reached a plateau where it works extremely well, people get the content they want, and it’s being done in a very financially manageable way.”

The file-transfer operation remains extremely robust, with an entire trailer dedicated to the “portal” that allows Bristol producers to push and pull content almost at will, a luxury that ESPN content creators are beginning to view as a necessity.

Dieter Backx (left) and Frank-Talarico at work inside the file-exchange portal trailer

Dieter Backx (left) and Frank-Talarico at work inside the file-exchange portal trailer

“The producers in Bristol are more comfortable with [the portal], so that makes them use it more,” says ESPN Associate Director of Remote Production Operations Dennis Cleary. “Ever since the Global model started, … it really comes down to the connectivity and speed to make this all happen. And every year, [the portal] gets a little easier and streamlined for setup.”

With a single operation being conducted between two locations 2,000 miles apart, communications are also key. A massive, 896-port intercom infrastructure enables Bristol and Aspen staffers to feel as if they were in adjacent offices, providing 320 MADI channels, 112 RVON channels, and 464 analog ports.

Joe Rainey beside the Bexel flypack that is key to ESPN's production model

Joe Rainey beside the Bexel flypack that is key to ESPN’s production model

“This year in Aspen, ESPN is utilizing enhanced trunking,” notes Ryan Zainc, associate manager, remote production operations, ESPN. “The four X Game matrices are locally trunked and are also trunked to our satellite facilities and remote locations. This setup allows us to continue communicating locally even if we lose our IP connection to Bristol.”

At the Compound
In terms of trucks onsite this year, NEP’s SS22 A unit and ND4 C unit are working Venue A (SuperPipe, Big Air, and Slopestyle courses), and SS32 and ST32 are handling Venue B (all snowmobile events and the X Course/HillCross course). ST28 (home of Event Production’s videoboard show) and SS22’s B unit (storage and utility) are also on hand.

From left: Chris Calcinari, Paul DiPietro, and Dennis Cleary at the ESPN truck compound in Aspen

From left: Chris Calcinari, Paul DiPietro, and Dennis Cleary at the ESPN truck compound in Aspen

“[This model] has allowed us to shrink the size of the operation down to something much more dense without sacrificing quality or connectivity. That has been the single biggest advantage,” says ESPN engineer Joe Rainey. “But we continue to look for ways to improve it, like we are using a lot more MADI audio to help us move more signals on less wire. [It means fewer] overall connections but no less complexity in terms of channel count and amount of content moving back and forth.”

Bigger Than Just X Games
Like so many innovations that come out of X Games, the impacts of the “at-home” production model developed for Global X are being felt throughout the ESPN empire. While ESPN’s commitment to produce 47 college-hoops games from Bristol is the most apparent, aspects of the model — especially file transfer — are used on ESPN’s Monday Night Football and on NBA, MLB, and other high-profile coverage.

“X Games is really our lab; that is what it comes down to,” says Chris Calcinari, VP, remote operations, ESPN. “When we create something new at X, we are already brainstorming on where we could use it next. That is the sort of mentality we have always had at X: it starts here and expands out to other things.”