ESPN Gives Grand Sendoff in X Games’ Final Year at Austin

The X Games bid adieu to Austin this week: the event’s third year at Circuit of the Americas (CoTA) will be its last. The ESPN production departs South-by-Southwest a very different event from the one in Los Angeles in 2013 and leaves a legacy of technical and production innovation.

X Games Austin“I think every X Games evolves, and we learn something and get smarter about how we do things, where we place cameras, and the layout of the venue, which makes the best fan experience better and translates into a better TV show,” says ESPN Remote Operations Producer Patty Mattero. “Another [innovation] is the heavy-music integration with Metallica and Kanye the past two years and now Blink 182 and All-Time Low this year. We’ve gotten to the point where we’re doing two live performances this year during the event by pulling a stage out in front of the Big Air and doing one song each night in primetime. It’s a pretty big undertaking and something that we’re really proud of.”

Camera Complement: Repos, Repos, Repos
Although the X Games production always boasts a sizable camera complement, it’s the number of repos that reveals just how big a show ESPN puts on. The network uses 39 cameras in all, but 30 of them will be deployed at a total of 101 locations, each covering as many as seven events. The remaining nine cameras are Fletcher robos and Marshall POVs from Admiral Video, which are used at 18 locations, including on course, in announce booths, and in judging areas.

“Operators with handhelds, scissor lifts with mounted cameras, and robos are shuttled from event to event,” explains Shane Smith, ESPN Remote Operations, “maximizing inventory utilization and man-hours while allowing for a full spectrum of coverage for every televised event.

Besides the robos and POVs, ESPN’s specialty gear at CoTA comprises two Sony HDC-4300 4K/high-speed cameras, two jib cranes, a 125-ft. camera crane, two 85-ft. Strada camera cranes, three RF handhelds (provided by BSI), and a helicopter with gyro-stabilized camera attached.

“The [camera] numbers aren’t necessarily all that overwhelming, but it’s pretty impressive that the team can cover so much competition over the four days and so many different venues with this [level of camera complement],” says Paul DiPietro, coordinating director, ESPN Remote Production Operations. “We don’t go in with 700 cameras and plop them down. They really maximize the use of their gear to make things as efficient as possible. What this team can do with the resources they’re given is pretty amazing.”

Inside the Compound and On the Set
At ESPN’s CoTA truck compound, NEP MIRA M-14 (A and B units) is handling Venue A (Big Air, Vert, and Park, as well as the X Games Extra studio show); NEP SS24 (A and B) is handling Venue B (Flat Track racing on Thursday night and MotoX and BMX Dirt/Street the remaining days). Because M-14 carries Grass Valley cameras and SS24 carries Sony cameras, the X Games team was faced with a new challenge this year.

“Usually, we’re all-Sony. So we can mix and move camera heads around, and we don’t have to be quite as careful. But, this year, we’ve got one Grass Valley truck and one Sony truck,” says ESPN Operations Specialist Joe Rainey. “We’ve just had to plan out carefully and not paint ourselves into any corners as far as repos or what goes with what. But the teams have done a great job with that; we’re not really anticipating any problems.”

ESPN has also rolled out NEP’s ESU2 to handle signal distribution throughout CoTA, as well as eight office trailers. Also on hand are BSI’s mobile unit for RF frequency coordination.

After previously locating its primary set atop the paddock, ESPN has relocated it to CoTA’s Galleria near the entrance to the festival villages in order to interact more with the crowd onsite.

“We decided to go for a more of [an ESPN College] GameDay feel and get closer to the public,” says Mattero. “We’re going to do a combination set where we’ll use it for our set, SportsCenter integration, and later each night for our X Games Extra show.”

Intel Curie Returns
After debuting at Winter X Games in Aspen in January, Intel’s pencil-eraser–sized Curie “puck” module is back in action in Austin for the Skate and BMX Big Air and BMX Dirt competitions. The module transmits real-time acceleration, motion, and location data via more than a dozen antennas mounted down the sides of the courses. The Intel team delivers the metrics to the Visual Technologies (VT) operation housed in ESPN’s truck, where real-time graphics are generated automatically for the ESPN telecast.

VT has two pucks on the BMX riders so the team can test multiple pivot points simultaneously.  In addition, VT is looking to use the height data from the puck to potentially replace ESPN’s Huck Tower technology, which has virtually displayed how high athletes go in the air during tricks for several years at X Games.

“Curie was a big success in Aspen for the snowboard slopestyle event. For the first time it allowed us to see rotations happening in real time and feel connected to these athletes,” say Chris Cokas, manager, Visual Technologies, ESPN. “Moving that success forward to Austin we are focused on Big Air, both skateboards and BMX, and BMX Dirt.  These events allow us to get an even deeper understanding of just how much intensity is involved in these competitions and these athletes disciplines.”

Audio Goes Dante
X Games Austin will be once again be presented in 5.1 surround sound, and ESPN will deploy more than 350 individual mic positions to capture the sounds around the venue, all interconnected through a variety of transport mediums, such as Andiamo MADI and Calrec Hydra. Although the audio side of the production is very similar to previous iterations, the ESPN Event Productions (EP) team is breaking new ground in its onsite videoboard production, basing the audio infrastructure on Dante.

“[EP] is using Dante this year for their master distribution plan for audio,” says Rainey. “We’re just dipping our toes into that water with a MADI-to-Dante interface between the two groups, which is a unique technology to this year.”

At-Home Production Is Back
ESPN’s X Games production was a pioneer in at-home production years ago, and that legacy continues this year in Austin. The X Games production team will once again be tied to ESPN’s broadcast center in Bristol, CT, via two 1-GBps fiber paths, allowing the bulk of the features- and craft-editing staff to remain in Bristol to take advantage of the facilities there.

Content can be pushed and pulled via file transfer and ESPN’s EVS portal. ESPN has five feeds coming into Austin and nine feeds going to Bristol. The outbound feed to Bristol comprises sponsored and non-sponsored programs from each truck, clean feeds from each truck, a dedicated edit or a dedicated feed, a safe camera, and a master beauty shot. ESPN is using PCR D22 in Bristol this year, the first time a 1080p control room is being used.

“[In] one of the big changes that we’ve made this year, we have transitions to JPEG2000 circuits rather than MPEG circuits,” notes Rainey. “That has allowed us to more or less eliminate the onsite encoding that used to have to take place. And it’s also helped a great deal in latency. Now our returns happen within a few frames rather than the time it would take to encode and decode MPEG. So that’s helpful.

“We’ve also whittled it down to nine outbound feeds and five returns,” he continues, “which is less than in the past. In addition, we’re doing our normal EVS portal and file-transfer workflow with a good chunk of that IP pipe dedicated to file transfer and moving media back and forth on a file basis.”