Giant Control Room, At-Home Workflows on the Docket for ESPN’s World Cup Adventure
Jed Drake doesn’t pull any punches.
For ESPN’s SVP/executive producer, the World Cup is his baby. So, when Fox Sports won the U.S. English-language–rights battle for the 2018 and 2022 editions of the global event, Drake called his good friend David Hill, then CEO of Fox Sports Media Group, to congratulate him.
“I asked him if he liked our coverage in 2010 [in South Africa],” says Drake, who — along with Coordinating Producer Amy Rosenfeld — has long been one of soccer’s most ardent champions inside Bristol. “When he said, Absolutely, I told him, Well, here’s the deal: we’re going to make 2010 look like a warm-up act.’”
Consider the gauntlet thrown down.
Now, while one has to love the swagger, make no mistake: this World Cup will be a production marvel for ESPN, as much out of necessity as by choice. Drake notes that, “given the logistics of it, this is much, much, much harder than South Africa.” Brazil’s vast and varied geography offers an obvious array of challenges, which the media giant is attacking head-on.
Drake told a full theater of media and ESPN personnel last week at the network’s World Cup preview press event at the Paley Center in Manhattan, “This is the most complex production that we’ve ever attempted at this company.”
At-Home Workflows Take Step Forward
ESPN’s production of the 2010 World Cup was a turning point for the company in terms of at-home workflows. 2014 is another massive step forward.
Forget the traditional International Broadcast Center (IBC) and say hello to Clube dos Marimbás, a popular members-only sailing club on the southern tip of Copacabana Beach, which will serve as the home to ESPN during the month-long journey of the World Cup.
In South Africa, everything ran through the IBC in Soccer City. All of ESPN’s studio sets, control rooms, and edit bays were housed there. In Rio, nearly all of that will move from the IBC to ESPN’s own custom-built production setup. The only facility ESPN will have at the IBC will be two match-control rooms that will be fibered over to “The Clube” — as it’s being called by everyone at ESPN.
“It’s a much bigger leap,” says Drake, who has overseen World Cups at ESPN since 1994. “In 2010, we had five edit bays, all of our mass media, our three control rooms, and a hardwired set at the IBC. Now we’ve got an IBC with no edit suites; the primary control room for all of our coverage is actually a satellite operation to the IBC, albeit a massive one. These are big changes.”
Through approximately 12,500 miles of fiber, a vast majority of editing and postproduction work will be sent back home to three separate locations in Connecticut: ESPN’s campus in Bristol and two independent production companies that the network has enlisted to assist on the event, Bluefoot Entertainment out of West Hartford and Victory Pictures out of Avon.
Massive Control Room and Scenic Studios
At Clube dos Marimbás, ESPN is building two studios — one for ESPN Deportes and ESPN International’s game-around-the-game programming, the other a multi-purpose studio for ESPN’s English-language U.S. networks — and a massive two-story control room that seats about 17 production staffers.
Built by Bexel, the control room was designed and erected in Los Angeles before being deconstructed and shipped to Rio de Janeiro. The first floor features all the network’s mass-media and EVS systems. The second floor houses the primary control room for all of ESPN’s studio programming. According to Drake, the structure so maximizes the space available in the club that crews will have to use laser sights to ensure that is erected exactly as designed.
“I did not want to have the studio and set 30 miles away from the control room [in the IBC],” says Drake. “So I said to the guys, We’ve got to build this thing right here on the property, and we’ll fiber it all back.”
In-Game Enhancements Lessen as HBS Grows
When it comes to the actual games themselves, ESPN is more than comfortable relying on the world-feed production developed by Host Broadcast Services (HBS), which produces the games for FIFA.
ESPN will do what it can to supplement key sites — including matches involving the U.S. Men’s National Team (USMNT) and the Mexican National Team — with news coverage. The network currently has nine SNG trucks running around the country, thanks to its work with ESPN International. Other than that, the quality of the HBS world feed has grown so much throughout the years that there’s not much more a network like ESPN can add technologically.
“The games are really well-televised in terms of the actual coverage of the event,” says Drake. “I don’t think we’re going to be doing anything to overtly enhance with new technologies. Where the enhancements are going to come is in the studio. We rely on the world feed; our augmentation is going to be pretty minimal on-site.”
One site has proved particularly challenging for ESPN. Manaus, site of the USMNT’s massive showdown with Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal in the second game of the Group stage, is situated in the northwest of Brazil and is separated from much of the country by the Amazon River. The only way to get a production truck there would be to float it across the river.
To meet the needs of covering the big game, HBS has provided ESPN with a multicamera flypack that can transmit back to The Clube in Rio.