ESPN’s NBA Finals Coverage Is a Camera Lover’s Paradise

The NBA Finals tipped off last night, with Game 1 coming down to a thrilling OT victory for the Golden State Warriors. ESPN kicked off the festivities with a bang, pulling in a 12.9 overnight rating (the highest-rated NBA Finals Game 1 ever on ABC, according to Nielsen) and putting together one of its largest and most technologically advanced basketball productions ever.

2015-NBA-FinalsThe network filled Oakland’s Oracle Arena with a camera complement totaling more than 40, and there’s a strong emphasis on specialty cameras this year, specifically high-speed and super-slo-mo devices. Most notably, ESPN has deployed the Sony HDC4300, which debuted at NAB 2015 and is the first camera to use three ⅔-in. 4K image sensors. The network is also using the popular Grass Valley LDX XtremeSpeed (LDX XS) 6X super-slow-motion cameras.

High-speed cameras are positioned throughout the arena bowl, including as handhelds under the basket, at midcourt positions, and at slash positions.

“It’s a significant amount of high-motion [cameras] on the event,” says Wendell Grigely, coordinating director, event operations, ESPN. “The crew was already prepared with a significant setup for the [Western] Conference Finals in Oakland, so that put us in a great position [for Game 1]. The Conference Finals were already a large show; we just needed to add a few things.”

ESPN has mounted robotic super slow-motion cameras above, behind, and below each backboard.

ESPN has mounted robotic super slow-motion cameras above, behind, and below each backboard.

All of these devices feed into a robust production compound at each site. Both in Oakland and in Cleveland, where the series shifts for Game 3 on Tuesday, ESPN has positioned five mobile production units. In Oakland, it’s Game Creek Video’s Victory and Spirit. In Cleveland, its NEP Broadcasting’s EN1, ESPN’s advanced Monday Night Football multi-truck system.

All camera sources, including the specialty devices, are being fed into 21 EVS XT3 servers networked together in ESPN’s file-based workflow. Replay operators will also use EVS XFile3 and EPSIO Zoom tools.

Back in the bowl, ESPN is also relying on a substantial collection of robotic cameras. Fletcher Sports has provided robotic units — some super-slo-mos — that have been affixed above the backboard, behind the backboard glass, and below the backboard.

“Those are unique angles that give us some pretty cool looks,” says Grigely. “Production likes those a lot.”

Also, robotic cameras are strategically positioned throughout the arena tunnels and hallways for shots of the players entering and exiting the court and the locker rooms.

ESPN worked with both Bexel and VER on gear rentals for the Finals, including lenses, cameras, extra EVS units, and more.

On the transmission end, ESPN is sufficiently covered with multiple satellite uplinks (two in Oakland, three in Cleveland) and full-fiber connectivity at both venues. There are 10 separate transmission lines and more than 500 strands of fiber running into each arena from the production compound.

ESPN is again placing microphones on players on a case-by-case basis. The NBA is one of the more progressive leagues when it comes to miking players for broadcast. In Game 1, Lebron James wore a discreet mic pack, and, throughout the series, coaches as well are wearing the units.

Onsite studio coverage is also on the docket, and each compound features an extra truck (both trucks designed by Lyon Video for ESPN’s Longhorn Network) to handle pregame, halftime, and postgame duties, in addition to all SportsCenter hits.

“There is a considerable amount of transmission going back and forth between our site and the plant in Bristol and ABC in New York,” notes Grigely. “It’s quite a complicated procedure, but this helps us service all of our platforms.”

An early storyline was the week-long layoff for both the Warriors and the Cavaliers between the Conference Finals and the Finals. Needless to say, for the production team, it was a welcome break and a chance to prepare.

“Everyone has enjoyed a bit of a rest, and now it’s time to charge right back into it,” says Grigely. “Here’s hoping for a long series, which, by all opinions, it should be.”

The NBA Finals is produced by Tim Corrigan and directed by Jimmy Moore. The series continues on Sunday night at Golden State (8 p.m. ET, ABC).