X Games Austin Live: ESPN Adds South-by-Southwest Flare, Retains Production Philosophy
Whether it’s the four live concert stages, the addition of Major League Gaming competitions, or the nine themed festival villages, one thing is clear about this year’s Summer X Games: Austin is a whole new animal. After more than a decade in Los Angeles, Summer X has taken on a South by Southwest flavor in its inaugural year at the sprawling Circuit of the Americas (CoTA) complex in the Texas capital.
Although the atmosphere has decidedly changed, ESPN’s production model remains largely the same. The model, which was developed during last year’s now-reversed six-event Global X expansion, relies extensively on file-based workflows and a robust fiber network to exchange media with ESPN headquarters in Bristol, CT.
“This is a very similar model to what we have done since the birth of the global process,” says ESPN Senior Operations Manager Larry Wilson. “It’s the same global workflow that we have done recently … but with a few pretty big differences, both here and in Bristol.”
The Global X Production Model Is Alive and Well
As it has for the past two years, ESPN’s X Games production workflow reduces onsite staff and facilities by integrating the telecast in a control room in Bristol, where all graphics insertion, live-feed integration, and domestic/global distribution is done. In addition, ESPN uses its EVS IP Director file-transfer portal to push and pull content between Austin and Bristol, allowing the features/editing staff and facilities to be located at home. This is all made possible by two redundant OC-12 fiber circuits (provided via AT&T), which each provide ESPN with 580 Mbps of bandwidth (along with a satellite uplink for backup).
From CoTA to Downtown and Back
ESPN has split its X Games operations into three sectors: Venue A (Park, Street, BMX Dirt, and Big Air courses located along the front stretch of the track), Venue B (Moto X, Rally, and the new Super Trucks courses), and Venue C, which is located about 13 miles northeast of CoTA in front of the Texas capitol building in downtown Austin and hosted the Skate and BMX Vert competitions on Thursday night.
At Venue C, ESPN has taken its connected Global X model to the next level. Although NEP’s SS14 was on hand at the 9th St. and Congress Ave. venue Thursday night, it was used solely to shade the 10 cameras and cover the Vert competitions, as well as providing an audio sub-mix (announcers and judges also were onsite). Those 10 feeds were encoded and sent back discretely to the CoTA compound (over two redundant 270-Mbps dedicated video circuits), where the full show was produced out of NEP’s sparkling new ND1 mobile unit, debuting in Austin.
“There was the initial transmission costs, but, when you consider not having those crews and positions over there, it results in huge cost savings,” says Wilson. “You are essentially just making an extension of Venue A at CoTA through SS14.”
The workflow is yet another step in ESPN’s continued “at-home” production efforts, following a Feb. 27 University of Vermont college basketball game in which all camera feeds and effects mics were sent discretely to Bristol, where the show was cut, audio mixed, and graphics and commentary added.
“It’s not the first time we’ve done something like this, and it’s not even really unique to X Games, because we [did] something similar for X Center [in 2013],” says Paul DiPietro, coordinating director, ESPN Event Operations. “The difference is, this time, it’s a full 10-camera [show] instead of just four like in Vermont or two for X Center. It’s a much larger undertaking.”
Not one to give up any usable facility, the ESPN Event Productions team is using SS14’s remaining capacity to produce the onsite videoboard show.
“This was all based on the model that ESPN and X Games have utilized before, but doing a remote into a remote is a big twist,” says Steve Raymond, associate director, event operations, ESPN. “It’s good, though, to try that stuff because you find out where the weaknesses are.”
At the Track and Back in Bristol
With the Venue C show completed Thursday night, it’s back to CoTA, where the Venue A show is being produced out of ND1 and Venue B is using NEP SS32. With the cooperation of CoTA, ESPN installed a permanent 72-fiber trunk line between the A and B compounds.
“We had originally planned on just running fiber out there [above ground], but there is quite a bit of access for the general public where we would need to run cable, so that would have been challenging,” says Raymond. “CoTA has been a great partner in that. They have a lot of infrastructure here, and they are used to doing large events but nothing quite like this.”
Both shows from Venues A and B are sent back to Bristol along with the host-set feed (three camera feeds are discretely delivered via flypack and cut together) and integrated in the production-control room. In the past, two control rooms produced the domestic feed, sponsored world feed, and sponsor-free world feed.
In all, ESPN is sending 13 audio/video feeds to Bristol and bringing back eight, along with a data path of varying bandwidth for communications, corporate network infrastructure, VoIP (voice over IP) system, and Signiant file transfer.
As Usual, No Shortage of Cameras
In total, the X Games production will feature 45 Sony HD cameras, as well as 16 in-car/on-board wireless RF cameras from Broadcast Sports Inc. and a flock of mini GoPro cameras in various configurations throughout CoTA. In addition, ESPN has deployed 14 robotic cameras and two NAC/Ikegami Hi-Motion II ultra-slo-mo systems provided by Fletcher, five jibs, two 125-ft.-high camera cranes, and a FlyCam point-to-point aerial system. In addition, ESPN is debuting an ncam camera-tracking system and an ultra-small Antelope PICO high-speed POV camera system.
Longhorn Network Lends a Helping Hand
Another key element to ESPN’s X Games model has been to draw on local resources in each host city. Although Los Angeles had no shortage of freelancers, Austin presents the added benefit of also being the home of ESPN’s Longhorn Network, which will stream several of the X Games concerts live and is lending personnel and resources.
“We definitely tapped into every resource we could: facilities, personnel,” says ESPN Senior Operations Producer Patty Montero. “We came to Austin with the same model of traveling a very small core crew and searching the regional market to build a foundation for this first year and carry that forward. And Longhorn Network was an invaluable resource in that.”