ESPN MLB Derby Coverage Focuses on Fun

The MLB Home Run Derby seems like the kind of production that could be done with three or four cameras. ESPN, of course, continues to provide director Jimmy Moore and producer Scott Matthews with much more than that: last night, 29 cameras, including iMovix super-slo-mo and robotics, offered unique shots from bird’s-eye perspectives, nooks, and crannies, and the team in the NEP SS25 truck at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, MO, put those tools to great use during a Derby that was won by Prince Fielder of the Detroit Tigers.

Producer Scott Matthews sees the MLB Home Run Derby as very much a videogame come to life.

With some of baseball’s top home-run hitters facing off in a straightforward contest of individual and league power, the event is produced to give fans maximum access to the players, chances to see balls flying at cameras, and a better understanding of what it takes to hit a ball more than 430 ft.

“It’s basically a real-life videogame,” says Matthews of the event. “The essence of the Derby is the same [from year to year], but we try to tap into the uniqueness of each ballpark. For example, a lot of the elements here at Kauffman Stadium involve the big centerfield scoreboard, and our on-air elements evoke that scoreboard.”

He notes that each ballpark has its own opportunities for new camera angles. Last year, the Derby was held in Phoenix at Chase Field, an indoor stadium that allowed a robotic camera to be mounted on the roof. This year, a robotic camera was mounted on top of the scoreboard in centerfield.

The iMovix cameras have become a staple at the event since making their debut at the 2006 Derby in Pittsburgh. “They give us a great replay,” says Matthews, “and it’s one of the last looks in the replay sequence. It’s great to hear the reaction of our team as they can break down the swing and help viewers understand the reason [the contestants] can hit the ball 450 ft.”

Last night’s Derby once again featured on-screen graphics that instantly showed viewers how far the ball traveled. Developed by the ESPN technology team in Orlando, the system maps out a grid of the stadium with distances tied into every location. The operator clicks on the spot where the ball landed, and the correct distance is displayed.

Another returning ESPN innovation, Balltrack, showed the trajectory of the flight of home runs via a yellow line. It was also used live occasionally from the high-home camera position to show the flight of the ball live.

The audio, like video, had many more sources than are found on a typical MLB broadcast. For A1 Scott Pray, what sets the event apart is the high degree of microphone placement available for audio: batters, umpires, and catchers wore either Quantum QX5 or Sennheiser SK250 lavalier microphones, with the latter generally nestled in the umps’ and catchers’ protective padding.

“It gives you tremendous coverage of the home plate area,” Pray says.

The mics were buttressed by shotgun microphones attached to robotic cameras placed along the first- and third-base lines, which Pray says were crucial to getting a clear “crack” of the bat.

As much coverage as there will be for the batting area, the abundance of sources called for a more complex mix strategy. That was compounded by the fact that, since catchers changed often, not all of them were wired, constantly changing the balance in the home-plate area. Pray says submixer Jonathan Freed stayed on top of that.

“He does a great job of finding the best combination of sources for each moment,” says Pray, who mixed on a Calrec Alpha from the NEP SS25 truck B unit while Freed mixed effects from the CP Communications RF5 unit on a STAGETEC AURUS, also mixing all RF mics and RF cameras for both ESPN and Fox. Freed also mixed in a Holophone surround microphone and several digital shotgun mics to create the surround field ambience for the show.

“It’s a really difficult audio show, and we’re lucky that Scott has been doing this for years,” says Matthews. “He does an unbelievable job with the crowd reactions, capturing the player commentary, and the interviews with players. It’s a challenging audio show, and he is one of the best in the business. In many ways, the audio makes the Derby better on TV than sitting in the stadium because you can hear the players.”

Next year, the event hits Citi Field in New York, a town with its own unique feel, sound, and energy. For Matthews and the team, the goal, once again, will be straightforward: “How can we cover the event better and make the viewer’s experience more enjoyable?”

The world will know on July 15, 2013.

Dan Daley contributed to this story.

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