MLB Network Experiments With a Live Drone as a Coverage Camera at MLB4 Collegiate Tournament

From Salt River Fields at Talking Stick in Scottsdale, AZ, MLB Network will push the envelope in live-drone use

Live drone visuals have are increasingly a part of the sports-television–production toolbox as of late. Having carved out a niche for drones as an option for unique beauty shots, sports broadcasters are seeking new ways to be more aggressive in the use of these aerial devices in the live coverage of sports.

Today, MLB Network will be pushing the envelope in the use of a drone in live baseball coverage in broadcasting the “MLB4” collegiate baseball tournament from Salt River Fields at Talking Stick in Scottsdale, AZ (coverage begins at 3 p.m. ET on MLB Network). The network says it will not just use the drone for establishing aerial shots but will fly the unit over the field for active game coverage.

At the MLB4 Tournament in Arizona this weekend, MLB Network will test out a drone as a live-coverage camera. The drone is a DJI Inspire II outfitted with a Zenmuse X7 camera/gimbal. (Photo: MLB Network)

“Our plan is to do more than just get beauty shots,” said Chris Pfeiffer, senior coordinating producer, live events, MLB Network, during tests of the drone on Thursday afternoon. “That’ll be part of the plan, but the main reason we are out here is to use [the drone] to help in coverage of a baseball game. If there’s a home run, that drone is leaving its perch and following the batter around the bases. It will be over the field during action. We’ll be getting really cool shots while it’s out there.”

Among the shots that Pfeiffer said the crew is hoping to get are following a baserunner during a home-run trot, escorting pitchers on and off the field during inning changes, and during meetings on the mound.

“I’m not sure you’ve seen anything like that in a baseball game,” he added. “We are really excited for this.”

Working with JibTek, which supplies motion-control camera platforms like cranes, gimbals, and Steadicams, MLB Network is deploying the DJI Inspire II drone with a Zenmuse X7 gimbal camera attached.

The process has required in-depth preparation largely focused on the safe deployment of the device inside the ballpark. Testing took place on Thursday afternoon following a walkthrough with facility management and reps from MLB. According to Pfeiffer, the crew has storyboarded out a lot of the shots it plans to try and used the testing session to get the lay of the land to prevent collisions with any ballpark infrastructure.

“So far, in sports, we’ve seen drones mostly in wide-open environments,” says Jason Hedgcock, senior director, remote technical operations, MLB Network. “This is going to be the first time that we try to do it in a game. There’s foul-ball netting, there’s wires, there’s cables. There’s a lot more going on than I think people realize until they take a critical look at it. It’s about balancing safety with pushing the envelope.”

To this point, much of the drone usage seen at the highest level of live-broadcast sports coverage has involved flying over large areas of land (such as by Fox Sports at Field of Dreams) or large bodies of water (some major golf events). Those executions abided by safety regulations and largely avoided flying over competitors or spectators. You have to dig a little deeper to find more-experimental deployments of live drones as a coverage camera in 2022, but it has been happening more lately and has produced some exciting results: for example, in this FloRacing shot from a dirt race at the Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals in January or Eurosport’s execution of this shot during live coverage of the Alpine Skiing World Cup in France in January.

The MLB4 Tournament, meanwhile, has established itself as a test bed for MLB Network’s new technology. For example, “Speed Cam,” which places a gyroscopic-stabilized camera on a dolly along a track atop the roof of the first-base dugout, was first tested at MLB4 in February 2020 before eventually making its way onto a regular-season telecast in 2020 and even making an appearance on a postseason game that year.

This is the third iteration of MLB4, and MLB Network will broadcast the Friday games of the three-day tournament. The season-opening collegiate-baseball tournament is being hosted at the shared Spring Training home of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies and features University of California, Berkeley; University of Houston; Texas Christian University; and San Diego State University. The games will be seven-camera shows produced out of Game Creek Video Yogi A and B units, which will house the producer/director tandem of Ryan Sullivan and Jason Lobb.

Coverage of the MLB4 Tournament begins Friday at 3 p.m. ET with Cal vs. Houston followed by TCU vs. San Diego State at 7 p.m. ET. Stephen Nelson (play-by-play), Dan O’Dowd (analyst), and Jim Callis (analyst) will call all games from Salt River Fields at Talking Stick in Scottsdale.

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