ESPN’s Latest Tech First, Virtual 3, Lights Up Three-Point Line During Attempt

Innovation debuted Saturday night during Bulls-Cavaliers in Cleveland

ESPN is taking the mystery out of three-point attempts during NBA games. Launched last Saturday night, ESPN Virtual 3 illuminates the three-point line during a shot attempt and, if the shot is made, remains illuminated until the ball transitions to the other team.

“It went very well. It was a good launch,” says Jed Drake, SVP, production innovation, ESPN. “We’ve been running tests for several months to work out the kinks.”

Tim Corrigan, senior coordinating producer, NBA on ESPN, sees the system providing a subtle yet impactful new way to enjoy an element of an NBA game. “It will give viewers instant clarity on whether a three-point shot has been attempted, which hasn’t been consistently evident during a live telecast.”

ESPN’s Innovation Lab team in Orlando began working on the system last March alongside PVI, which is owned by ESPN and based in Lawrenceville, NJ. The end result is a system that is manually triggered by a former NBA referee in the stands. Once the referee on the court signals that a three-point shot is being taken, the former referee activates the line.

ESPN’s Virtual 3 enables viewers to tell whether a shot is worth two or three points.

ESPN’s Virtual 3 enables viewers to tell whether a shot is worth two or three points.

“Tim wanted to make sure that something like this, which can be used during the most important moment of the game, was in sync with what the referees were calling,” notes Drake. “Essentially, we are using it to indicate what the refs are calling.”

The system is currently tied into only camera 1 because that camera can be on-air upwards of 80% of the time during an NBA game.

“The creation of the line was a big challenge for several reasons,” says Drake. “The line has a pronounced curve, and we also wanted to put it over the existing line and mask it perfectly. But the line was only a couple of pixels wide, and there was also the issue of making sure the line is stuck to the ground and not cutting through people’s legs. I credit the guys in Princeton for dialing it in.”

The system marks another industry first for ESPN and was created with the input of, among others, Corrigan; Marina Escobar, VP, visual technology; Jay DiGiovanni, VP, technology enhancements; Celia Kelly, manager, production enhancements; and Chris Strong, senior remote operations specialist.

“Chris was over in Australia for the Open and would call at ungodly hours his time to see how the tests were going,” says Drake. “This project involved a lot of really good people.”