Live From MLB All-Star Game: ESPN Deploys NEP’s EN-1; Emerging Technologies Enhances Home Run Derby
All-Star Games are a showcase for rising talent not only on the field but in the production compound as well.
At the MLB All-Star Game in Minneapolis this week, ESPN is providing three days of coverage surrounding the event, highlighted by the Gillette Home Run Derby (Monday, 8 p.m. ET), and running things behind the scenes is operations producer Carla Ackles. She’s no stranger to MLB All-Star Games — this is her fourth — but this is the first year she’s managing the entire operation.
“It’s a great feeling,” she says matter-of-factly but with a broad smile. “We started planning this back in August with our first site survey. Seeing everything come to fruition has really been amazing.”
Besides a new leader, the operation has a whole new production workflow. ESPN is deploying NEP’s EN-1 mobile production facility, whose A, B, C, D, and E units debuted just under a year ago for ESPN’s Monday Night Football.
EN-1 streamlines the operation, pulling all the various onsite productions under one roof. Throughout three days of festivities in Minneapolis, ESPN will produce the live-to-tape Taco Bell All-Star Legends & Celebrity Softball Game, the live Gillette Home Run Derby, shoulder programming for Baseball Tonight, live hits for SportsCenter, and ESPN Deportes’ operations. At previous All-Star Games, ESPN had multiple trucks, each independently focusing on a piece of the programming pie. EN-1, however, is robust enough to house all the properties.
“It’s tremendous,” says Ackles. “It’s ironic [because] we have always tried to not … put every production into one truck because trucks just aren’t meant to do that; you’ve got all of these back-bench splits, and it creates chaos. But EN1 is meant to do this. There’s so much sharing between all of the groups, and now all that interconnectivity between different trucks isn’t necessary because we’re all in the same truck; we all have the same access to the same router. So, in theory, it should streamline everything and simplify things on so many levels..”
Emerging Technologies Has a Field Day at Derby
The flashiest new enhancement that viewers can watch for tonight is what ESPN calls the Slugger’s Wheelhouse. The enhanced replay essentially shows where the sweet spot is on each participant’s bat and how that directly relates to performance — in this case, home runs.
ESPN will build a replay that shows all the batter’s home runs at once. For each long ball, an operator will roll back the swing, freeze the frame and the exact point of contact, and crop out the bat and the ball. After that particular round for that contestant, all the frames will be superimposed to create an image that will ultimately show where the sweet spot is on the bat and in the strike zone for each contestant.
The technology was built in-house at ESPN’s Innovation Lab in Orlando. The developers built a recorder into a computer system that ingests uncompressed 720p60. Also inside the technology is the interface where the operator edits and compiles the replay. The result is a process quite similar to rotoscoping, a technique used by filmmakers for a specific style of animation.
“We’ve tried many different ways to do this, and we tried to automate it. But, at an event like this, there’s a lot of noise in the background,” says Dave Casamona, director, production enhancements, ESPN Emerging Technology. “There’s a catcher, other players in and out of the shot, other cameras out on the field. Those kinds of things can mess up this technology. So we manually go in and pull out the bat from the frame when the bat makes contact with the ball and save that off. Once all of the home runs are done for that athlete, we can than create a rendition of that particular sequence.”
Tracking and measuring home runs is a natural part of any Home Run Derby, and ESPN has continued to tweak that process to ensure greater accuracy in a quicker time frame. Having used methods from radar to real-time video tracking, the Emerging Technologies crew this year will produce a full laser scan of Target Field — everything from the diamond to the walls, stands, signs, railings, concourses, etc. This scan produces an exceptionally accurate 3D model of the stadium. With that model, the crew can easily extrapolate a world of information from a home run by identifying the exact X-Y-Z point at which the ball intersects with the model.
“We have done instantaneous distance in the past, but, for several reasons, this system really works well for us,” says Casamona. “We’ve found that it’s better to be very accurate and have a really nice workflow as opposed to a real-time track.”
In addition, ESPN Ball Track Technology will be able to create virtual spray charts of home runs after participants have finished their at-bats. All of Emerging Technology’s special enhancements are run from a proprietary system for rendering special effects. These enhancements are separate from the production’s standard graphics package.
ESPN is deploying 26 cameras for coverage of the Derby. Of them, six are robotic (one an I-MOVIX), and one is an RF Steadicam. Two roving reporters will be on RF as well.
The one area ESPN is cutting back on this year is aerial coverage, forgoing a blimp, helicopter, and airplane camera.