Live From X Games Minneapolis: ESPN, Echo Entertainment Soar Into First Summer Event
U.S. Bank Stadium provides strong foundation for video-production magic
This weekend, Downtown Minneapolis is alive with the sounds of revving dirt-bike engines, clapping skateboards, and wailing rock music as the 23rd edition of the Summer X Games descends on the Midwest.
With 18½ hours of linear-television programming scheduled and a wall-to-wall social-media and live-streaming plan, ESPN is set to work again alongside new production partner Echo Entertainment to make television magic.
The two entities kicked off their relationship at Winter X Games in Aspen in January and are bullish on the relationship heading into their first Summer X Games together.
“I’ve been in the action-sports world for a long time, and it’s the most collaborative [event] we’ve ever worked on,” says Hugh Arian, president, Echo Entertainment. “It’s great because TV and film is a collaborative industry. It’s been way more [phone] calls than I have even been used to, but, honestly, that’s been great. It enables us to come into the event being on the same page with what we want to accomplish and how we get there.”
A Turning Point in Talent and Tech?
X Games has long been a laboratory for what’s next in the world of sports, technology, and overall programming. This year, the X Games team is making a little bit of ESPN history, putting on the network’s first-ever live virtual-reality production (more on that to come at sportsvideo.org this weekend!).
One of the major changes that Echo Entertainment has brought in joining the effort is to establish a commitment to producing more Hollywood-like feature pieces, most short-form in nature and conducive to distribution across any digital or social platform. This allows more athletes to be spotlighted and the event to be more accessible to younger audiences, who may not be consuming the X Games over linear television. ESPN and Echo have more than 50 of these vignettes ready to play through the broadcast and to distribute on streaming and social platforms throughout the event.
“Kids are consuming content differently,” says Tim Reed, VP, X Games, ESPN, who is working his 21st U.S. X Games and has been working the property since 1997. “The ability to create short-form stories and be able to program TV and all of the digital and social platforms with interesting content and personalities is a big part of what we’re doing. The biggest thing that we do is try to remain aware of what [new] audiences want. They want authentic content, a lot of personality, and brands that stand for something and have an identity.”
In addition, the content strategy is intended to help ESPN build the next generation of action-sports stars. The early days of the X Games were filled with household names like Tony Hawk, Shawn White, Travis Pestrana, and Bob Burnquist (who, amazingly, is extending his streak at this event as the only athlete to compete in every Summer X Games). Now the challenge for ESPN and Echo is to make the next generation of action-sports stars just that: stars.
“People have to have somebody to root for,” says Arian. “By doing all of these short-form pieces, we are trying to give the viewers an idea of who the new star athletes are.”
No Fear in Positioning Host Set
One way ESPN and Echo will look to spotlight this event’s stars is by bringing them on as guests at their sharp studio set (which they are calling XHQ), which is built in the style of a boating dock (in honor of Minnesota, the Land of 10,000 Lakes) and is located at the center of all the action.
Instead of erecting a studio set in a traditional place, such as on one of the concourses or outside with a backdrop of the stadium, they chose to channel their own internal action-sports–inspired rebel and built the set smack in the middle of the venue, at essentially the 50-yard line of U.S. Bank Stadium.
XHQ, nestled comfortably between a dirt-bike track and one of the skateboard courses, is intended to become a destination where X Games athletes will not only come to take part in interviews and segments but want to simply hang out as well.
“We have many harebrained ideas, but we think this is awesome,” says Arian. “Being in the middle of the action like this is part of the immersive experience in telling the story of this event.”
Complete Cameras and Compound
ESPN and Echo have established 73 camera positions inside (and outside when needed) U.S. Bank Stadium. Of those, 43 are handhelds (many receiving RF support from BSI), 13 are hard, 10 are Sony HDC-4300’s for super-slo-mo capture and playback, seven are POVs, and four are robotics; Spidercam is providing aerial shots from inside the stadium bowl.
All resources are connected to an all-Dome Productions compound in the stadium’s indoor truck dock. Dome has supplied four A units and a B unit (which is playing host to the VR production). BSI has an RF-support vehicle, and two satellite trucks are providing full satellite transmission to ESPN headquarters in Bristol, CT.
Approximately 165 above-the-line, below-the-line, and postproduction crew members are in Minneapolis working the X Games for ESPN and Echo Entertainment.
The Stadium Is the Star
Anyone in the crew will say that the star of this year’s X Games is the venue. U.S. Bank Stadium is one of the more technologically advanced stadiums in the country, and there are few places that are more conducive to both throwing and broadcasting an event the caliber of a Summer X Games. Compare that with a year ago at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, TX, which offered a massive footprint to work with but also was a tremendous challenge to cable.
At this event, even with U.S. Bank Stadium’s robust, high-end fiber network, ESPN and Echo Productions have laid 276,000 ft. of their own cabling. According to Pierce Williams, technical producer, Echo Entertainment, 216,000 ft. of that is tactical fiber, with the rest being SMPTE and triax. The fully networked stadium also made for significantly quicker setup of the event. This year’s Games took only six days to set up; the Winter X Games in Aspen in January took more than two weeks.
Visit staging.sportsvideo.org throughout the weekend for more reports from X Games Minneapolis 2017.