College Football Playoff: In a Season Unlike Any Other, ESPN Set to Deliver Epic, Tech-filled Productions at Relocated Rose Bowl, Sugar Bowl

Network utilizes GREMI+ workflow in Bristol to support substantial on-site presences in Arlington, New Orleans

A college football season truly unlike any other nears its conclusion and ESPN is ready to put the finishing touches on a year that has seen it produce north of 300 games (with a myriad of production models) with big time shows at this year’s College Football Playoff semifinals. The championship festivities begin on New Year’s Day with the Rose Bowl Game presented by Capital One (No. 1 Alabama and No. 4 Notre Dame at 4 p.m. ET, ESPN) and the Allstate Sugar Bowl (No. 2 Clemson and No. 3 Ohio State, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN).

An ESPN crew member works on the SkyCam inside the Mercedes Benz Superdome prior to the start of the Allstate Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day.

However, even here on the biggest stage and in a new calendar year, ESPN is still fending off a flurry of logistical challenges to pull off some of its biggest shows since the pandemic hit back in March. Not the least of which was the complete relocation of the first semifinal, the Rose Bowl, from its historic site in Pasadena to AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX.

Despite all of the last minute changes, ESPN is ready will big crews on site at each venue, College GameDay on the road, and its at-home GREMI model (which will allow select graphics and replay operators and techs to work back ESPN’s main campus in Bristol) all in place for the gigantic doubleheader.

“We do have a significant presence on site but obviously, under the current circumstances, we had to rethink, re-engineer, and try to reduce the number of personnel on site to keep everybody as safe as possible,” says John LaChance, Director, Remote Production Operations at ESPN. “We had spent weeks and months in the planning and prep as we always do for these semis but there was a shift of assignments between crews. A lot of that hard work and long hours that we spent months and weeks putting together, everything had to be retooled, re-engineered, and redesigned in a matter of days.”

“I couldn’t be prouder of the collective team and the efforts,” adds LaChance. “What everybody is facing and to be able to stop, spin, pivot, and be able to retool, re-engineer, and work these things in a matter of days and have our crew out there in position to be successful, it’s outstanding work.”

Rose Bowl Shifts to the Lone Star State
As noted, the biggest curveball of this whole process was when the word came down that the first CFP semifinal – the Rose Bowl Game – would be changing locations to AT&T Stadium. An altered crew – now headed up by Senior Operations Producer Joe Lyons, Operations Producer Justin McIntosh, and Operations Specialist Brian Ristine are in Arlington with a credentialed crew well over 100 along with Game Creek Video Spirit (A and B) and GCV’s Edit 1 unit.

Game coverage is fully loaded with 14 hard cameras anchoring the production. Four of those are super slow-mo. In addition, there are five handheld cameras (one cabled and on the jib, one super slow mo, and three RF). Also expect to see a SkyCam, a fix wing airship, three robotics (two of which are Sony 4800s are each goal line), four pylon cams (provided by BSI), and a pair of the line-to-gain pylon cams that move along the sidelines with the first down markers.

On the replay side, there’s seven EVS servers supporting 84 channels of replay. Plus, there’s a 16-channel Evertz DreamCatcher.

Sugar Bowl Supported With Large On-Site Crew
The marquee matchup of the day pits Clemson and Notre Dame in the Allstate Sugar Bowl and ESPN has supported that site with more than 250 personnel with game and College GameDay support combined.

The Sugar Bowl site is being overseen by Senior Operations Specialist Jack Coffey, Operations Producer Chris Swihart, and Operations Specialist Kevin Cleary with facility support from Game Creek Video 79 (A and B), as well as an Edit unit.

It’s a similar gear deployment in New Orleans, as ESPN will roll out 14 cameras (four of which are super slow-mo). The number of handhelds bump up to six, with an added cabled HH for sideline work. A SkyCam, a fix wing airship, three robotics, and the four pylon cams and two line-to-gain pylon cams are also deployed.

At Sugar Bowl, 10 EVS servers support 86 channels of replay. There’s also the 16-channel Evertz DreamCatcher.

GREMI Model Supports Both Sites
As noted, there are elements of these productions that have been forced back to ESPN’s main Bristol campus. COVID restrictions made it impossible to have the full complement of staffing on site that games of this magnitude typically require.

Specificaly on the replay side, one of the production models used on college football games during the regular season integrated a Vizrt Viz Libero that was operated out of Bristol. According to Ristine, that has been augmented with a newly-built content management file transfer network that utilizes a data center in Los Anegles before spinning the signals back across the country to Bristol. This allows ESPN to do virtualized instances of content managed with EVS’ IPDirector that’s able to pull clips from the game truck and push to Viz Libero for use in telestration.

At the Rose Bowl specifically, that’s being leveraged for an an edit workflow. With a remote instance of Avid and a remote instance of IP director the crew can pull clips into Avid, edit them, and push them to the truck.

“I think it’s fair to say that we have a pretty robust remote integration plan in place for both semis,” says LaChance. “It also allowed us then to grow specs on site but keep personnel levels at a more defined level, that we’re not having to travel as many people, that they can work remotely from Bristol and from afar into the semifinal sites.”

While both games will be using this GREMI workflow (which is similar, but not exactly identical to a workflow executed this year on Monday Night Football), ESPN will also be debuting a new graphics and animations package for the CFP semifinals and championship that will expound upon a new package that debuted at the beginning of the season.

“It all starts with safety,” says LaChance, who has received help from operations manager Tommy Mitchell is overseeing this multi-site GREMI effort. “To put on a semifinal, to have College GameDay on site, and to have that minimal presence, I think it’s a testament to how the team is thinking differently. Push the envelope. It may not always be comfortable for everybody involved, it may be new, but rest assured they’ll be well supported.”

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