ESPN Launches New X Games Era in Aspen With Echo Entertainment in the Fold
In ESPN’s ‘reimagining’ of the brand, Echo produces youth-friendly coverage at Winter X
There’s a changing of the guard atop Buttermilk Mountain in Aspen, CO, this week. After two decades producing the Winter X Games in-house, ESPN has brought in Echo Entertainment to lead the production charge this year as part of a brand overhaul of its venerable action-sports property. ESPN’s coverage of the 21st Winter X Games, which kick off tonight in Aspen and run through Sunday, will put greater focus on the music and lifestyle elements of X Games in hopes of serving the younger audience typically drawn to action sports.
“For a few years, we have been thinking about reimagining the X Games brand and our presentation overall to focus on the young audience that the brand typically attracts,” says ESPN VP, X Games, Tim Reed. “We know younger audiences enjoy content that has personality and authenticity, and we also know that action-sports fans typically enjoy music, film, photography, art, technology, and social media. So you’re going to see all those elements come to life both at the X Games events [onsite] and as part of the [telecasts]. Ultimately, the drive behind this reimagining is to better serve the young audience that consumes our content.”
More Short-Form Features, Emphasis on Music-Festival Feel
X Games Aspen 2017 will feature 16 hours of extensive coverage and live content across ESPN, ABC, WatchESPN/WatchABC/ESPN App, as well as an additional seven hours of competition exclusively on the X Games YouTube Channel (a first in X Games history) and XGames.com.
The reimagining of ESPN’s coverage will feature more short-form athlete-profile pieces, a greater emphasis on the lifestyle and music-festival elements onsite at X Games, and a concerted effort to create a more up-close feel of the competitions themselves by deploying more handheld cameras and unique camera positions. Echo Entertainment, which has also been enlisted for July’s Summer X Games in Minneapolis, has more than two decades of experience producing action sports and aims to bring a fresh, authentic style to ESPN’s X Games coverage.
“In terms of our approach to the coverage, we pride ourselves on knowing the athletes and being able to get up-close and personal with them,” says Echo Entertainment VP, Production, Phil Smith. “We don’t want to have to a 100X lens 50 yards away. We want to be on the snow right next to the athletes, capturing their personality as well as the feel of the event. The other important aspect is the venue itself: the SuperPipe and its giant rails or Slopestyle and the 70-ft. gap on the bottom jump. We try to put the cameras in the right positions to be able to show the scope of each of those elements.”
This year’s Winter X Games will also feature a new host set, dubbed XHQ, occupied by a pair of new hosts: Jack Mitrani, former pro snowboarder and previously the host of X Games Extra, and Allison Hagendorf, a veteran TV host and music journalist who is global head of rock for Spotify and official host of the New Year’s Eve celebration at Times Square.
Inside the Production: At the Compound
Echo Entertainment has rolled out four Dome Productions trucks in the compound at the base of Buttermilk Mountain. Atlantic will cover Venue A (Ski/Snowboard Slopestyle and SuperPipe), and Silver is covering Venue B (Ski/Snowboard Big Air and snowmobile events). Meanwhile, Thunder will serve as the ESPN domestic truck, taking line cuts from Venue A and Venue B and integrating them with coverage from the host set to produce the ESPN/ABC telecasts and live streams. In addition, Dome’s Expando B mobile unit will house the ESPN Event Productions staff (producing the onsite coverage) and various functions for the TV production.
Longtime X Games vendor BSI is also on hand, with one of its mobile units providing RF equipment, services, and coordination.
All features will be produced and postproduction done onsite — a departure from previous years, when ESPN located the bulk of these activities at its Bristol, CT, broadcast center. Echo and ESPN will have five edit bays at their disposal connected via a dedicated network that interfaced the trucks’ EVS IPDirector content-management system. The ESPN Digital and Event Productions crews also have full access to all content.
Five feeds will be transmitted from Aspen: a dirty world feed with sponsored elements, a clean world feed (with all the scoring/graphics but no sponsored elements), a dirty ESPN domestic feed, a clean ESPN domestic feed, and clean English-language world feed for international partners that want English commentary without sponsored elements. All feeds are backhauled to Bristol for domestic and international distribution.
Inside the Production: On the Mountain
ESPN and Echo Entertainment have deployed a total of 50 cameras (many of which will be relocated each day), including a Condorcam point-to-point aerial system, four Sony HDC-4300 high-speeds, four FollowCams, three robos, four POVs, four RF cameras, and five jibs.
“We want to get up-close and personal at the event and what the athletes are doing,” says Echo Entertainment Technical Producer Pierce Williams. “That’s why we have a low number of hard cameras, and the majority of our cameras are handheld — so it feels like you’re in the jump and you can realize the sheer size of the jumps.”
Condorcam will make its X Games debut, primarily providing swooping aerial coverage of the bottom of the Slopestyle course. The Colorado-based Condorcam team will also use the system to provide ancillary coverage of the SuperPipe and snowboard courses.
FollowCam systems have become a staple of ESPN’s X Games coverage over the years, and that tradition continues. Four FollowCam systems have been deployed: a pair of GoPro Herocast systems featuring Vislink RF technology on the Big Air course (outfitted on one skier and one snowboarder, respectively) and another pair of BSI-designed systems on the Slopestyle course.
Tying it all together are 365 strands of fiber spread across the compound and the mountain (more than 350,000 ft. of cable in total). Echo has also deployed more than 150 mics to capture audio, and that number continues to grow.
On the features-production side, leading up to the event, ESPN produced a series of X Game Gear Check pieces focused on the equipment used by various athletes that will be integrated into the X Games telecasts. In addition, Echo has deployed three ENG teams working with two producers and an executive producer to produce short-form features and create content that captures the atmosphere in Aspen.
“X Games is a big event with a lot going on. On top of the [competition], it really is a fun, unique, youth-oriented festival,” says Reed. “So one of our overall goals is to bring that energy that’s at the venue to the viewer at home and showcase that throughout the broadcast.”