X Games Live: ESPN IT Infrastructure Builds on World Cup, Winter X

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From a production and operations standpoint, X Games resembles a scaled-down version of the Olympic Games or FIFA World Cup: several venues and hundreds of staffers must be seamlessly interconnected with one another and with the primary broadcast center via a massive IT and broadcast infrastructure. The difference? The Olympics and World Cup have months and even years to build out this infrastructure; the X Games team must do it in a matter of days.

“When you see how massive this setup is, you have to realize that we didn’t pull in here in February; we just pulled in a few days ago,” said Henry Rousseau, senior technical producer for ESPN Event Operations, during the Games. “It’s an awfully big endeavor to get something like this done in that amount of time.”

A Cue From World Cup
In an effort to streamline its L.A. Live operations, ESPN used an IT infrastructure similar to that deployed at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, combining a multitude of applications on a single unified network that linked L.A. Live operations to ESPN’s home base in Bristol, CT.

“We’re including the EVS [server] network, the corporate network, the dirty [feed] network, the [communications] network, as well as additional [elements] on a single main pipe,” said Rousseau. “It makes for a cleaner installation that’s easier to troubleshoot and support.”

The network ran over a powerful 10-GB backbone and fed a total of 35 access points throughout the L.A. Live compound. ESPN relied on this backbone to deliver a total of eight transmission paths (as well as two back-up satellite paths) back to Bristol via the network’s LAPC (Los Angeles Production Center): ESPN Primary and Back Up; ESPN 3D left eye and right eye; ESPN3 course coverage; ESPN3 in-car/on-board cameras for Rally Car; a baseband connection for the EVS IPDirector to support X Center; and ABC Primary and Backup. The ESPN3 and ABC feeds were scheduled to share the same path. In addition, ESPN delivered two satellite uplink paths to backup the ESPN and ABC primaries. ESPN deployed four MPEG4, four JPEG 2000, and two MPEG2 encoders.

“In the old days, we might have had two feeds out of here, but, this year, we have eight,” said Coordinating Technical Manager Steve Raymond. “And, as the industry moves toward IP workflows, I can only see that growing. You will see less of the spaceman [satellite] transfer and more IP traffic.”

The X Games 17 production also boasted one of the largest EVS networks ever created, according to Raymond. Between the three mobile units on hand in L.A. (NEP’s SS32, SS25, and Denali Summit), the network encapsulated 32 EVS servers, the maximum number of allowable addresses on a single network. The majority of these servers were six-channel boxes, making 25-30 channels available to each truck.

Straight Outta Aspen: Fiber, MADI
Several workflows that were launched at Winter X Games in January made their way into the L.A. Live compound, including a mix of MADI infrastructure over fiber cabling that ran throughout the facility. Overall, the X Games production relied on about 80% fiber-optic cable.

“We’ve really expanded the MADI and fiber setup that we tested out at Winter X Games,” said Rousseau. “It worked out so well that we deployed it here. All of the main consoles and [communications] go into the MADI router electronically, which saves a lot on copper [cabling]. It makes for an easier installation with less copper and something that we’re going to be sticking with in the future.”

Although this fiber- and MADI-based configuration was a success at ESPN’s homey confines in Aspen, CO, the sprawling landscape of downtown Los Angeles presented a much larger challenge.

“The significant challenge this year was that we had over 2000 individual strands of fiber because of distance and need for HD signal and network connectivity,” says ESPN senior operations producer Larry Wilson. “The challenge was in both managing the allocation of strands to the correct locations, anticipating need, as well as securing the correct electrical to optical hardware.

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