Live From MLB All-Star: ESPN Weathers the Storm, Delivers Tech-Heavy Home Run Derby

After torrential downpours and roaring thunder most of the day called into question whether the Home Run Derby would take place Monday night, ESPN’s production went off without a hitch at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati. With a bit of cooperation from Mother Nature, ESPN rolled out a massive show powered by its EN1 mobile unit, featured the MLB debut of a 3G Wireless CatcherCam, and included an increased role for Baseball Tonight and MLBAM’s Statcast player-tracking and analytics platform.

Severe thunderstorms put the Home Run Derby in question Monday, but cleared up that evening.

Severe thunderstorms put the Home Run Derby in question Monday, but the weather cleared by evening.

“As we resurveyed to find a new position today for one of the sets, we did kind of chuckle at the irony of [using] a November [2014] survey to figure this all out,” ESPN Coordinating Producer for MLB Phil Orlins said before the Derby. “But Murphy’s Law always delivers, and, with the rain, we were suddenly figuring it out the morning of the event. It’s not the first time, and it won’t be the last, but that comes with the territory.”

EN1 Unites ESPN’s Multipronged Production
Although the Home Run Derby is the centerpiece of ESPN’s programming during each year’s MLB All-Star festivities, the network’s annual production goes well beyond just a single event. ESPN delivers live editions of Baseball Tonight and SportsCenter, produces the Legends & Celebrity Softball All-Star Game live-to-tape, and supports its ESPN Deportes brethren at the Great American Ball Park. For the second consecutive year, this sprawling operation is tied together via a single mobile unit packing plenty of tech power: NEP’s five-truck EN1.

ESPN Operations Producer Carla Ackels oversaw the Home Run Derby show.

ESPN Operations Producer Carla Ackels oversaw the Home Run Derby show.

“In the past, we would all be in our own separate trucks interconnecting, which was kind of a pain because we would share so much: edit [facilities], feeds, cameras,” said ESPN Operations Producer Carla Ackels. “Even though we’re separate shows, we really all worked together, and we’d share a lot of resources. Being in EN1 is fantastic because everything is coming into one truck and everything is accessible on the same router, so anyone can grab anything. Even though, for example, Baseball Tonight doesn’t have 26 cameras, Home Run Derby does; [Baseball Tonight] can grab any of those very easily.”

CatcherCam Tops Camera Complement
ESPN’s 26-camera arsenal for the Home Run Derby featured the pro-sports debut of a catcher-worn camera system developed by 3G Wireless. The system, which launched as UmpireCam during ESPN’s College World Series coverage last month, was worn by the catcher throughout the Sunday’s Celebrity Softball game and Monday’s Derby telecasts. The minuscule camera, which weighs under a pound, is mounted at the top center of the catcher’s mask; the battery (two-hour lifespan) and transmitter are located on each side of the mask.

“It’s something we believe is a very important shot for baseball,” said Orlins. “Your cameras are not as close for baseball as they are [for sports like] football and basketball, with sidelines. [With] baseball, you [have] sort of a 60-ft.-radius moat around the action. But this offers an optimum view of the most important aspect of the game, so we view it as a priority. 3G has been extremely responsive to our needs and various requests, and I think it’s going to be a perfect addition to Home Run Derby.”

The ultra-small camera is positioned at the top of the catcher's mask.

The ultra-small camera is positioned at the top of the catcher’s mask.

He added that ESPN is in continuing discussions with Major League Baseball to use UmpireCam for live games.

In addition to CatcherCam, ESPN deployed eight robotic cameras (including an I-MOVIX ultra-slo-mo system), an RF Steadicam and two RF handhelds (courtesy of CP Communications), one handheld super-slo-mo, and the DirecTV blimp for aerial shots.

Two ENG teams were on hand leading up to and, during the Derby, as well as a Dejero bonded-cellular video-over-IP system roving around the city.

MLBAM Statcast, ESPN Visual Technologies Tag Team Virtual Graphics
ESPN’s Visual Technologies division (previously Emerging Technologies) has always played a significant role at the Derby, providing a stable of virtual graphics and augmented reality elements. This year, VT is leveraging the infrastructure of MLBAM Statcast’s player tracking technology to take that to the next level.

ESPN Visual Technologies creates a 3D diagram of the entire ballpark for its Derby coverage.

ESPN Visual Technologies creates a 3D diagram of the entire ballpark for its Derby coverage.

Just as it has done for past Derbies, VT built a 3D model of the stadium to help calculate home-run distances and deploys three cameras for its ball-tracking system. Graphics are inserted indicating where a home run landed and its distance.

This year, however, instead of taking the actual distance traveled from the 3D model, ESPN interfaced with Statcast, which provides the projected home-run distance (how far the ball would have gone had it not hit into rafters or seats). This projected distance is automatically inserted into the graphic on screen during the ESPN telecast and the full-screen home-run chart after each batter’s round.

“Statcast is giving us the projected-distance number that we put inside that icon [graphic] for every home run,” said Mark Meunch, principal engineer, Visual Technologies. “We’re still doing our own graphics on three different cameras, but the data that is displayed inside those graphics comes from Statcast.”

New Derby rules made these calculations much more important: batters got four minutes (reduced from five because of time concerns over possible late-night rain) instead of 10 outs and could add 30 seconds of bonus time for hitting home runs 425 ft. or longer during their round.

“The distances in the past have just been kind of nice to see for people,” said Meunch. “But, this year, they play into extra time that each batter can get, so it’s even more important to [the competition] itself.”

A Trio of Sets in Cincy
ESPN rolled out three sets at Great American Ball Park, headlined by its flex desk located on the third baseline and manned by Derby play-by-play staple Chris Berman, with analysts John Kruk, Aaron and reporters Pedro Gomez and Nicole Briscoe.

The on-field Baseball Tonight set was integrated into the Derby telecast for the first time.

The on-field Baseball Tonight set was integrated into the Derby telecast for the first time.

Baseball Tonight had two sets at the Ballpark this year: its traditional centerfield location (which was moved to Section 305 at the last minute because of the downpours) and a second set on the field down the first baseline. Although the centerfield set served primarily as home to Baseball Tonight’s three-plus hours of pregame coverage, the on-field set was integrated into the Derby telecast itself with Baseball Tonight host Karl Ravech, analyst Curt Schilling, and reporters Buster Olney and Tim Kurkjian contributing to the coverage.

ESPN's Chris Berman-led set on the third baseline

ESPN’s traditional set on the third baseline

“They will be bouncing back and forth between the Home Run Derby set that we’ve always had on the third-base side and this new set on the first-base side,” said Ackels. “It makes for an interesting dynamic that we haven’t had in the past.”

In addition, Mike and Mike in the Morning aired live from nearby riverfront-side bar The Moerlein Lager House.

Edit Team Stays Home in Bristol
In the past, ESPN deployed two Avid suites onsite for its All-Star and Derby coverage. This year, in line with ESPN’s growing use of “at-home” production models, all editing and feature operations are located at the broadcast center in Bristol, CT. As with many of its other large-scale operations (including Monday Night Football and X Games), ESPN relied on an EVS IPDirector file-transfer system to exchange content between the remote operation and Bristol. The network also deployed an additional IPDirector admin staffer to help manage the content exchange.

NEP's quintet of EN-1 trucks were positioned right on the waterfront at the Ballpark.

NEP’s quintet of EN1 trucks were positioned right on the waterfront at the ballpark.

“That is all happening in Bristol this year,” said Ackels. “Luckily, we have some really great tech managers on this show, and they have worked with the content group to take care of their needs and understand the workflow they are expecting. Based on that, our Tech Manager Jim Munn and his team worked with our network traffic group to make sure we have the appropriate bandwidth and appropriate technology installed within the truck so that everything runs smoothly.”

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