ESPN Commits to K-Zone Live on Every Pitch for MLB Coverage
ESPN is going all in on K-Zone for its Major League Baseball coverage this year, displaying the live pitch-tracking graphic over the plate for every single pitch in every single game this season and debuting a new 3D K-Zone system to provide a multidimensional look on replays.
“We are absolutely, unequivocally committing to K-Zone live on every game for every pitch of the season,” says Phil Orlins, coordinating producer for MLB, ESPN. “We have had it over the plate for a batter here or there or even a full game in some cases, but we have never made this kind of commitment. We are always looking for new ways to differentiate our broadcast, and we think this is essential in doing that.”
K-Zone Live: Demystifying the Strike Zone
K-Zone Live has been seen on ESPN telecasts since 2011 and is based on Sportsvision’s PitchF/X system, which uses three tracking cameras located in every ballpark and integrates that data with ESPN’s centerfield game camera to create the virtual graphic. This year, a sleeker, more subtle version of the graphic will appear over the plate for every pitch, beginning with Opening Night this Sunday (St. Louis Cardinals at Chicago Cubs at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN2).
“Centerfield cameras are a little bit of an illusion since they are slightly off to the side. You might think you can tell when the ball is over home plate, but you really can’t,” says Orlins. “The shot is completely compressed from the pitcher to the catcher. This cleans that up and [displays] the exact location of the ball at the moment it passes home plate.
K-Zone 3D: A Deeper Dive Into Pitch Trajectory
Additionally, K-Zone 3D will be used on replays during most Sunday Night Baseball telecasts and will provide a three-dimensional prism graphic from behind the plate for both left- and right-handed batters, displaying the trail of the ball as it travels through the strike zone.
Although the system itself relies on the same Sportvision PitchF/X technology, the video for these clips is captured by two ultra-miniature Marshall Electronics cameras outfitted with 8mm lenses and attached to the backstop netting.
“It tracks the ball, so you can really see it drop and curve with a visualized trail,” says Orlins. “I have always wanted to see the strike zone from this three-dimensional look, but we were never able to do it, due to the size of the cameras. [The camera] has to hang on or near the [netting], so a camera as big as a conventional robotic would have some major challenges. It is really the improvement in camera technology that allowed this to happen.”
He sees the true storytelling potential of K-Zone coming to fruition when the Live and 3D technologies are used in conjunction as part of a sequence.
“It’s very impactful in combination with the live centerfield-camera K-Zone as a full sequence,” he says. “The centerfield clarifies for you where the ball is in the strike zone, and, with this side view, you see how it passes through the strike zone and continues into the catcher’s glove.”
More Virtual Graphics: ART Stays ‘At Home’
ESPN’s stable of virtual-graphics tools won’t be limited to K-Zone, however. ESPN Visual Technologies’ Advanced Replay Tool (ART) will deliver virtual graphics on replays to illustrate defensive shifts and other on-field analysis. For the first time, ESPN will deploy an “at-home” IP production model for ART, with the operator located at ESPN’s Bristol, CT, headquarters and able to access clips directly from ESPN’s mobile unit in the field.
Snazzy New Truck and Quartet of 4K Cameras for SNB
Sunday Night Baseball production will operate out of NEP’s brand-new EN2 mobile unit this season (CLICK HERE for SVG’s full report on EN2).
The average complement of 15 cameras (not counting the Marshall minicams) is headlined by four Sony F55 4K cameras, which will run at up to 360 fps to capture super- and ultra-slo-mo looks and will be located at low first, low third and tight center and down the first- or third-base line. In addition, ESPN has brought in a Dejero WiFi/cellular ENG transmission system to collect content from around the ballpark.
ESPN has also committed to two RF handhelds — one on the field and one roving the stands — across all three of its weekly MLB properties. NAC/Ikegami Hi-Motion II ultra-slo-mo systems will also be used on Monday and Wednesday Night Baseball.
Having Fun With Talent: Baseball Tonight
Baseball Tonight will take a new approach this season, rolling out a more active, less structured style in which commentators use the Baseball Tonight studio space with an increased number of demos and touchscreen segments, a more casual, free-flowing discussion among commentators, and a modified set desk.
“It is a more active and unscripted approach,” says Orlins. “We have broken away from the straight jackets-and-tie attire – though everyone will still be dressed well, of course. They will be standing a lot more and the desk looks more contemporary. There will be a variety of unpredictability and fun within the show.”
In addition, Baseball Tonight: Sunday Night Countdown will hit the road and produce the studio show from onsite at approximately 15 Sunday Night Baseball games this season, as well as at the Little League World Series.
For selected Wednesday Night Baseball telecasts, ESPN will strategically position five commentators — a play-by-play commentator and four analysts — in different parts of a stadium. Each analyst will be tasked with providing a different perspective from a particular vantage point (for example, Doug Glanville behind the dugout for the hitter’s perspective, Mark Mulder behind the bullpen for the pitcher’s).
ESPN has also selected four consecutive Sundays, beginning July 12, for the Sunday Night Baseball crew to call games from outside the traditional commentator booth at popular locations inside each stadium.