Live From X Games: ESPN Pulls Out Big Tech Guns Once Again in Aspen

Rarely does an X Games occur without one or two exciting, bleeding-edge live-production technologies popping up, and this week’s Winter X Games in Aspen, CO, is no exception. Headlined by the first-ever deployment of an FAA-approved drone for a live sports production on U.S. soil and the debut of GoPro’s first foray into the live broadcast RF cameras, ESPN once again had a full bag of tricks on hand at Buttermilk Mountain.

From left: Top X Games production execs Jed Drake, Amy Rosenfeld, and Rich Feinberg

From left: Top X Games production execs Jed Drake, Amy Rosenfeld, and Rich Feinberg

“At X Games, we have an enormous advantage. Because this is a major event that is completely ours, we don’t have to go to another league or outside entity; the discussions about using new technologies are internal,” says ESPN SVP of Production Innovation Jed Drake. “That is why, over time, you have seen this technological exploration happen at X and succeed at X. It’s truly the working laboratory. What other entity was going to let us fly a drone during competition. X provides that platform for technological exploration and innovation.”

Cameras All Over the Mountain
In addition to the Vortex Aerial drone and GoPro-Vislink RF camera systems, ESPN deployed more than 50 cameras throughout the venue, including an army of Sony HDC1500s (in various hard and handheld configurations) and a variety of specialty camera systems.

The FollowCam has become a staple of ESPN's X Games coverage.

The FollowCam has become a staple of ESPN’s X Games coverage.

“Whenever we can give fans a view that changes the way they see the sport or that they have never seen before, then I feel like we’ve done our job,” says X Games Senior Coordinating Producer Amy Rosenfeld. “Getting right in there behind the skier with [a drone] or up on top of the course with Flycam and shots like that, I believe we’ve really achieved something great.”

Among the specialty cams are two NAC/Ikegami Hi-Motion II ultra-slo-mos (in handheld, hard, and jib configurations), two 90-ft.-high StradaCranes  (on Big Air Jump and Snowmobile courses), a SuperCrane (on snowmobile course), two RF FollowCams (provided by BSI), and nine robotic cameras (provided by Fletcher).

One of two Flycams ESPN has deployed at Buttermilk Mountain

One of two Flycams ESPN has deployed at Buttermilk Mountain

“There are more robos than ever because they require less infrastructure,” says X Games Senior Coordinating Producer Rich Feinberg. “One of the challenges of X Games Aspen is, you never know how much snow you’re going to get, so how much you build out all your camera platforms is dependent on Mother Nature. Over the years, we have evolved to more robos and less hard cameras because it’s a lot easier to stick up an 8-ft. piece of box truss than three decks of scaffolding.”

In addition, ESPN has added a second Flycam aerial system.

“We added a second Flycam farther up the mountain because X Course now includes [Snowmobile] HillCross,” says ESPN Operations Producer Jon Winders. “Last year, it was basically a single event on that course, but now it’s two events, and HillCross has the snowmobiles going up the mountain. We felt we needed that second Flycam.”

Making X Games an ART form
ESPN will use the Advanced Replay Tool (ART) live-virtual-telestration system, developed by ESPN Emerging Technologies, for the first time on X Course and SnoCross racing competitions.“

The racing [events] got a lot of toys this year,” says Rosenfeld. “[ART] will be used live for replays and then for postproduction, the same technology we use for player tagging. On some of these events — Rich has used it on NASCAR forever on the pits — it could be huge. We are not quite at that capability, but, for the X Course and the snowmobiles, you can imagine how big it is.”

The ESPN Emerging Technology team will once again deploy the 30-ft.-high Huck Tower to instantly display the height of each jump on the SuperPipe to viewers at home via virtual graphics inserts, both live and in replay. However, ESPN has revamped the system, mounting GoPro cameras on each side of the SuperPipe and using proprietary software to identify, isolate, and track the athlete for the entire run.

Chris Cokas inside the Emerging Technology office in Aspen

Chris Cokas inside the Emerging Technology office in Aspen

“We do all adjusting wirelessly,” says Chris Cokas, manager, SIG X Games, ESPN Emerging Technology. “So we can control everything with our phone instead of going up there and [physically] mounting and adjusting, which is nice for us.”

Yellow Line Goes From Gridiron to Mountainside
Also new this year is the VMagic virtual yellow line for the Snowmobile long-jump competition. The software, which ESPN uses for the 1st-and-10 yellow line on many football telecasts, is tied to a SuperCrane covering the long jump and will display a virtual yellow line indicating to viewers how far the snowmobiler must jump to advance to the next round.