X Games Minneapolis VR Live Stream Pushes Audio Boundaries

'Sets' of mics allowed switching perspective in covering events at downtown venues

Last week’s X Games Minneapolis were the first to be broadcast from the Midwest, but they also transcended mere geography: for the first time in the history of the Games, ESPN and its partners Samsung and Digital Domain supplied live-streaming productions of several events in virtual reality. Audio was a major part of that initiative.

Working aboard a B unit of Dome Vision’s remote-production contingent, VR A1 Nick Tveitbakk took individual microphone feeds and a stereo program feed from the main remote unit, where it was mixed for the six VR cameras ESPN deployed at the Skateboard Vert, BMX Street, and Skateboard Street Amateurs venues in downtown Minneapolis. The shotgun and contact mics, as well as lavaliere microphones under the ramps, were part of ESPN’s existing audio infrastructure for the Games. The main broadcast audio was mixed through a Calrec Artemis console, which provided feeds to the DiGiCo SD11 console used for the separate VR stream’s audio. Viewers were able to follow the action using the Samsung Gear VR headset through the Samsung VR app.

The two consoles were linked via MADI, allowing a single strand of fiber to send mic inputs and program feed from the Artemis to the SD11, then from there to ESPN’s VR production truck in the broadcast compound.

Tveitbakk, who has done audio work for ESPN on college-football, MLB, NHL and NBA shows in the Minneapolis area, assembled various configurations of effects mics into sets, or user-defined groups, on the SD11. This facilitated switching between them as the VR point of view changed, which it did often and quickly.

“It made it easier to choose which microphones we wanted for each perspective and to keep the sound closely linked to the action,” he explains. “For example, a conventional broadcast approach might focus on action in one area, but you’d hear the crowd cheering for something else out of the picture. With VR, we can keep all of that closely linked, as a single event; you can turn and see where the sound is coming from. There was also a lot of cross-fading: for instance, as the rider hit the very top of the ramp, where we had a microphone that could catch him as the camera followed him over the top. We were making a lot of this up as we went along. It had never been done before.”

There were two live-streamed events each day, with several others recorded via Blackmagic Designs HyperDeck Studio disk recorders assigned to each of the VR shoot’s six cameras. These, along with multitrack audio from the event from a MOTU interface from the SD11, would be edited for later streaming.

“This was a first-ever thing, but it tells us where sports broadcasting is headed,” says Tveitbakk. “The sense of being in the middle of the event that VR can provide is amazing, but it’s not nearly as effective as it needs to be without the audio being right there with it.”

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