2014 NFL Preview: ESPN Goes for Wow Factor With Monday Night Football

Last September, ESPN unleashed its four-trailer mobile production unit on the sports-broadcasting world. NEP’s EN1 traveled the country for the 2013 Monday Night Football slate before taking on the network’s coverage of the NFL Draft, NBA Playoffs, and MLB All-Star Game. It even paved the way for the similarly configured ND1, which will handle Sunday Night Football for NBC.

This year, ESPN will see what EN1 can really do. For the first time, the network will produce Monday Night Football entirely in 1080p.

“Our goal from the very beginning was to take full advantage of the power of all the equipment on that truck,” says Chris Calcinari, VP, remote production operations, ESPN and ABC Sports. “We are now doing that. We’ve done both of the preseason games that we did in 1080p, and we are prepared now to do all of the regular-season games moving forward in 1080p.”

To accommodate the switch to 1080p production, ESPN expanded EN1’s EVS network to 20 replay servers on a 10-gig backbone. For replays, the network replaced its existing super-slow-motion cameras with six Sony F55 cameras, which will record in 1080p at 360 frames per second. In addition to the near- and far-sideline locations previously occupied by the super-slo-mos, ESPN will add two F55s to the slash position.

Two I-MOVIX 4K cameras will record in 4K and feed directly into an Evertz DreamCatcher. ESPN tested the 4K cameras during its first preseason game — the Chicago Bears hosting the Jacksonville Jaguars on Aug. 14 — and plans to experiment with the technology throughout the season.

“Having [4K cameras] on the field line to be able to zoom with clarity anywhere — anywhere that’s in the frame — was really unbelievable,” says Monday Night Football producer Jay Rothman. “The initial conceit was to have the defining angle at the goal line and back of the end zone, but then we studied plays that went on during the game. … To be able to zoom and track the players and show nuances of the game that we didn’t even think of … was unbelievable.”

In total, ESPN will blanket each Monday Night Football game with around 32 cameras, including the F55s, I-MOVIX cameras, Spidercam, and aircraft provided by Aerial Video Systems. From EN1, the MNF signal will be delivered to Bristol, CT, in 1080p and downconverted to 720p prior to distribution to ESPN’s cable affiliates.

“One of the things that we found out is, if we run a camera in 1080p and it gets downconverted to 720, there’s better picture quality than running it natively in 720,” says Steve Carter, senior operations manager, ESPN. “We also found that, with all of our animations that we’ve upconverted, we actually got more detail that we couldn’t see in 720. We could see it in 1080.”

For the 24th consecutive season, Rothman and director Chip Dean will produce Monday Night Football for ESPN, now in its 45th season. Mike Tirico will handle play-by-play from the booth alongside analyst Jon Gruden, with Lisa Salters reporting from the sidelines.

MNF Flies High With ncam
ESPN will also have the capability to show virtual graphics on the Spidercam, thanks to ESPN Emerging Technology and its work with the ncam camera-tracking system. Introduced at X Games Austin, ncam will be used for Monday Night Football in the technology’s first pairing with Spidercam (a Steadicam was used at X Games).

“The ncam sensor bar is mounted to the broadcast camera, and the data from the ncam bar comes back to a graphics workstation, where the virtual graphics are created,” explains Michael Gay, chief technologist, ESPN Emerging Technology. “Once we have the camera information, we can draw the graphics, and they will appear as though they were in the real world.”

Placing the ncam bar on Spidercam will enable ESPN to create and insert graphics anywhere in the stadium while maintaining Spidercam’s capabilities (pan, tilt, zoom, etc.). The network plans to first experiment with graphics coming out of commercial breaks, including halftime stats and team comparisons.

“The sizzle factor is the tracking that you’re able to do, not just having static graphics on the field but the ability to show movement, tag players,” says Rothman. “We have a little toolbox of different elements to utilize, and we’re just going to walk before we run, because you’re relying on a pilot sitting up in the press box somewhere flying a camera on cables that’s flying over the field. It’s a tricky little thing. But, if we can pull it off, we think it’s a wow.”

The 45th season of MNF kicks off Sept. 8 with a doubleheader: the Detroit Lions hosting the New York Giants at 7 p.m. ET and the Arizona Cardinals hosting the San Diego Chargers at 10:15 p.m.

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