X Games Aspen 2022: ESPN Brings Back Crowds, Debuts 5G-Powered Immersive Viewing Experience on App
20 manned cameras across 40 different positions are planned
After going a year without its signature raucous crowds and festival-style atmosphere, X Games Aspen is back in full swing beginning today with the return of fans and a larger onsite presence at Buttermilk Mountain from ESPN and production partner Echo Entertainment. For fans who can’t attend in person, ESPN Edge and Verizon have teamed up to create a new immersive viewing experience within the X Games Aspen 2022 App. So, whether they’re in Aspen or watching at home, the 2022 edition of Winter X promises to be a welcome return to normalcy for fans.
“Clearly, last year, operations were very different and scaled down to ensure safety in a pre-vaccination world,” says Tim Reed, VP, X Games, ESPN. “We were thankful just to make that event happen and get it in the books last year. This year, the biggest change is obviously having fans here, and we could not be more excited about that because we really missed them last year. We’re excited about the size and scope of show we’re going to have, and it should be pretty epic while also being a safe environment for fans and crew.”
Immersive Experience: 180 and 360 Cameras Take Viewers Onto the Slope
For the first time at an X Games, the event app — built on Verizon 5G Ultra Wideband — will provide fans with an immersive viewing experience via 180- and 360-degree cameras positioned throughout the Slopestyle, SuperPipe, and Big Air courses. Within the app, fans are able to select among multiple live cameras and access immersive views exclusive to the app (now available to download on iOS and Android/Google Play stores).
“Within the app is an immersive viewing experience where you would essentially be your own director while watching the X Games,” says Reed. “In some cases, the program feed will be fed into the app, and the end user will be able to select different cameras to view. Then, in addition to those cameras, there are also 180- and 360-camera options that allow the viewer to move around and determine their own [viewing] angle.”
The new immersive experience is the result of a collaboration between ESPN’s X Games team, the ESPN Edge Innovation Center (which launched in September), and Verizon (a Founding Partner in ESPN Edge).
In Aspen, ESPN and Echo Entertainment have teamed up with Verizon, YBVR, and Ghost Hand Productions to deploy nine 180/360 camera systems on the Slopestyle, SuperPipe, and Big Air Courses. The 180-degree systems comprise two Panasonic Lumix BGH1 4K cinema cameras; the 360-degree systems feature an array of four BGH1’s. Although some camera arrays are supported by fiber connectivity (laid down by Echo), others are fully wireless and connected via a Verizon 5G network established at Buttermilk.
“They’ve worked with our director on the best places to put those cameras to get the views that will be different from the television production,” says Echo Entertainment Technical Manager Pierce Williams. “The course designers even had some input just to make sure we can get that most immersive shot possible. We are all pretty psyched to see some of these angles that have ever been seen before.”
Besides providing these 180- and 360-degree views for the app, ESPN plans to integrate these views into the linear telecast. Throughout the three-day event, Verizon’s onsite team will take the feeds from the 180 cameras, stitch them together, and distribute them to the production truck as EVS replay clips.
“We’re planning to use those angles within our broadcast as replays, which will be pretty cool,” says Reed. “We will be able to grab those replays to tell [TV viewers] about this unique experience and actually show them what it is. We will be driving people to go download the app through the use of the replays within the broadcast.”
The Return of Crowds: Reinjecting the Fan Element Into the Broadcast
Although this year’s festivities may not have full-fledged concerts as X Games Aspen did in the pre-pandemic era, the 2022 iteration is most certainly a partial step in the return to normalcy. With fans back onsite (all attendees and staff are required to be vaccinated), ESPN and Echo expect this week’s broadcasts to feature a return to the party-like atmosphere of years past.
“As the producer,” says Echo Entertainment President Hugh Arian, “you can’t speak enough to how much the fans make a difference in terms of the energy of the event, the noise and audio, how it makes events look bigger, and how all of that rubs off on the athletes. The fans are what ties it all together. So we’re all extremely excited about having them back.”
Although there won’t be full concert-level musical performances, ESPN is planning a smaller-scale music performance in the corral at the base of the SuperPipe course on Sunday night prior to the Men’s Ski Pipe competition.
In addition to having fans back onsite, ESPN will also have its full team of announcers in Aspen after having limited the headcount in 2021. Host Jack Mitrani will return, along with reporters Jonathan “DC” Oetken and Victoria Arlen and the play-by-play/analyst teams for each event.
“We have not had a traditional host set for a few years now,” notes Arian. “We prefer to do a lot of standups with Jack instead. We made a decision a few years back that we wanted more competition and less talking heads because the reason people watch is to see these amazing athletes. We will definitely be moving our [talent] around, and you’ll see them do standups, but we want to keep the action flowing and the spotlight on the athletes themselves.”
In the Compound, on the Mountain: Dome, CondorCam, FollowCam Are Back
ESPN and Echo have brought back Dome Productions’ Silver and Unite trucks to serve as their A and B units for all Buttermilk venues. Longtime partner BSI is on hand with a mobile unit to manage RF operations. In addition, Illumination Dynamics (who has provided power and lighting for every X Games Aspen) is providing four sets of twin generator packs and multiple single generators, as well as TV lighting for announcers, host and start positions, and athlete interviews.
In terms of cameras, ESPN and Echo have deployed 20 manned cameras, primarily Sony HDC-4300’s along with one Sony HDC-5500 and a handful of Sony HDC-P1’s (for beauty shots) Marshall POVs. These cameras can be repositioned across more than 40 camera positions throughout the three-day event.
ESPN has also brought back the CondorCam point-to-point aerial system and plans to use it on both the SlopeStyle and the Big Air venues (along with some crowd and beauty shots on the Half Pipe course).
In addition, BSI is on hand with two standard RF cameras (one each at the top and bottom of courses) and three live RF FollowCams, including a PoleCam that can go over jumps trailing the competitors. BSI is also supplying more than 20 channels of RF audio and IFBs along with another five RF PL channels that tie into the ADAM communications system in the Dome trucks.
Although reports surfaced this week that this may be the last X Games under ESPN/Disney control, Reed and the production team in Aspen remain focused on delivering the best broadcast possible and are excited just to be back in the X Games swing.
“Everyone has been living through a lot, and many of us have been stuck in our homes,” says Reed. “So I’m absolutely thrilled just to be able to get back and do this event, be back with our friends and co-workers, and bring this community together again. Nothing about this is easy — especially with all the protocols to keep everyone safe and healthy — so huge compliments to the entire team to get us to this point. We are so grateful to be here.”