Fox Lends Epic Scale, Eye-Popping Tech to World Series Production

Any attempt to quantify Fox Sports’ impact on the style of live sports television over the past two decades starts with its World Series coverage. Sure, the NFL on Fox’s in-your-face approach has become a staple of televised football in America, but it is the World Series and MLB Postseason where Fox has most drastically altered viewers’ expectations of a high-profile live sports telecast. With its coverage, the network has brought America’s tradition-rich pastime into the modern age with booming on-field audio, extensive use of graphics, unique camera angles, and ultra-slow-motion images.

Never is that flair more apparent than in this year’s World Series coverage, which begins tonight in Kansas City with Game 1 of the Giants-Royals series. Fox’s World Series production (winner of the Sports Emmy for Outstanding Live Sports Special two out of the past three years) will feature a record 38 cameras, including eight high-speed systems and two in-ground Diamond Cams, a cavalcade of virtual graphics and augmented-reality elements, and more than 80 microphones scattered throughout Kauffman Stadium.

“I think a lot of the technology we use goes towards not only being closer to the game but also showing people what they don’t see with the naked eye,” says Fox Sports President/COO/Executive Producer Eric Shanks. “We have found, over the years, that the more fans understand the game and the more things they see with this technology, it makes it more enjoyable and makes them bigger fans. It’s a testament to baseball that, every year, they allow us to use new technology … and to make this hands down the most technically comprehensive World Series that we have ever done.”

Specialty Camera
Thirty-eight cameras and 70 EVS replay channels (12 EVS servers in all) may seem like overkill, but SVP of Technical and Field Operation Mike Davies says no camera is superfluous when it comes to the World Series.

“Every camera has a purpose,” he points out. “When you work with [veteran MLB on Fox director] Bill Webb as long as we have, you see there is a method to his madness. You may not see all 38 cameras live, but the replays are the important part so that you don’t miss a thing on the field.”

As with nearly all high-profile Fox Sports shows, Inertia Unlimited is playing a key role in supplying an army of specialty cameras.

Two Diamond Cams (or Dirt Cams) have been planted in the ground at AT&T Park. Inertia Unlimited’s custom-designed ultra-miniature RF system (based on its Gophercam technology used for NASCAR on FOX) is buried in the infield dirt in front of home plate and behind first base with a tiny lens peeking out just above ground.

For ultra-slow-motion, Inertia Unlimited is providing a Vision Research Phantom Flex4K (running at 1,000 fps) at third base; three Vision Research Phantom cameras (running at 2,000-3,000 fps) at first base, third base, and a locked-off position at third for Fox’s SideTrax pitch-tracking feature; and three X-Mo systems featuring Vision Research V642 cameras. In addition, Fox is deploying a Grass Valley LDX XtremeSpeed 6X ultra-slo-mo system in tight center field.

“If you look at how important these high-speed cameras have become in Postseason coverage, it’s pretty remarkable that, [of 38 or so cameras], eight are high-speed devices,” says Davies. “Just a few years ago, it was one or two if we were lucky.”

This Postseason’s star has been the Flex4K system, which has been “simply unbelievable,” according to Davies. Though noting that some “broadcast-finery” tweaks are still needed, he finds the camera impressive, especially in moments like the NLCS finale when the Flex4K captured a crisp slo-mo shot of the ball leaving the pitcher’s hand, rotating in the air, and entering the catcher’s glove on a strikeout.

“The other nice thing about how we are using that camera is that it provides us with two [applications],” he adds. “It goes into the Evertz DreamCatcher for the zoom-crop [replay application], but it also goes into a standard DVR workflow so we can take the full [image] and it looks like a standard Phantom shot.”

Big Compounds
With Fox Sports 1 supplying several hours of shoulder coverage daily from Los Angeles via Fox Sports Live and America’s Pregame, as well as the broadcast network’s pre/postgame shows, Fox will roll out plenty of remote facilities in both Kansas City and San Francisco.

In Kansas City tonight, Fox will have NEP’s NCPX (A and B units) and customizable Super B truck on hand for game production, as well as NCPXIV to produce the onsite studio pre/postgame show (with the set located in left centerfield).

When the Series heads west to AT&T Park in San Francisco for Game 3, Fox will rely on Game Creek Video’s Dynasty (A and B units), the D unit from its FX fleet, and Bexel’s BBS One mobile support unit for game coverage, as well as Game Creek’s Yankee Clipper for the studio show.

Going Virtual
Virtual graphics and augmented reality have played a major role in Fox Postseason coverage, and that will only continue in the World Series.

Sony-owned Hawk-Eye advanced tracking technology creates a three-dimensional on-screen graphic displaying the ball passing through the strike zone along with real-time data, including speed of pitch and hit speed. The technology is available on three cameras — main centerfield, first base, and third base —  feeding Fox’s SideTrax feature, which provides a side angle of the ball passing through the strike zone.

“Every game has given us more experience with Hawk-Eye on the baseball stage, and we have been able to develop new features on the fly, such as tracking the ball on a Phantom camera from the side,” says Zac Fields, VP, graphics and technology, Fox Sports. “We have also been able to gain more experience with using their ORS [Official Replay System] directly, rather than bringing that video into an EVS and burning an EVS channel. That frees up our EVS operators and resources to do other things.”

Fox is also using Sportvision’s ozone graphic to display defensive shifts and spray charts, as well as to create ball-trail graphics on the plate-side Diamond Cam to illustrate where the ball crosses the plate.

In addition, Fox has brought in ChyronHego’s Paint virtual-telestration system to create Home Run Tracker graphics on multiple camera feeds rather than being tied solely to the high-home camera.

Throughout its Postseason coverage, Fox has liberally deployed augmented-reality graphics in the form of player lineups, game summaries, and virtual videoboards through the use of the ncam camera-tracking system. The ncam system consists of a multisensor bar mounted on any variety of camera and driving real-time data (position, rotation, focal length, and focus) to a virtual-graphics platform (Vizrt in Fox’s case).

During the World Series, Fox plans to also use the ncam system to debut WindTrax in-stadium wind-representation graphics.

“The key to the wind is getting it to the point where, when we put that augmented graphic inside the stadium, the viewer understands exactly what they are looking at almost immediately,” says Fields. “When we first create these wind models, we are overloaded with the amount of raw data, so we have to refine it. We are at the point where we are trying to perfect that workflow to make it easy to understand for the viewer.”

Game 1 of the World Series begins at 8 p.m. ET tonight on Fox.