NFL Kickoff 2017: RFID Player-Tracking Data Marks ESPN’s Focus on Elite Graphics for Monday Night Football

Network will also continue removing scorebug from screen while ball is in play

As has become tradition, Monday Night Football kicks off this Monday with a doubleheader of games to wrap up Week 1 of the NFL season, and it promises to feature some new looks, particularly on the graphics side, an area ESPN has been committed to for the past few years.

Play-by-play announcer Sean McDonough (right) is back for his second year in the ESPN Monday Night Football broadcast booth with analyst Jon Gruden.

At the forefront of MNF innovation this year, the network is looking to make greater use of the real-time RFID player-tracking data that the NFL has been gathering for its Next-Gen Stats project. The league has been working with Zebra Technologies to place chips in the players’ pads since 2014, and ESPN producers spent the summer working with NFL brass to formulate better ways to access and use that data in on-air graphics.

“We’ve worked really hard on mining what we think is some interesting data that will lead to interesting storytelling and documentation throughout the season,” says ESPN VP, Production, Jay Rothman, who has been lead producer of Monday Night Football since the property moved to the cable network in 2006. “Much of [this data] really hasn’t been on the air thus far, and we’ve spent a lot of time with [the NFL] … to grind through that. We think there’s some really interesting data that … will be of use to fans. Timely and relevant [data]: we’re excited to dig into that.”

ESPN’s graphics team, which took home this year’s Sports Emmy in Outstanding Post-Produced Graphic Design (for the third consecutive year), will be working that real-time data into full-screen, augmented-reality, and standard lower-third graphics throughout the broadcast.

“We’re always looking to add some tweaks and wrinkles here and there, so I am very proud [of our graphics team],” says Rothman, who has been with ESPN full-time since 1988. “We’re very proud of the presentation and look of Monday Night Football, and that hasn’t changed. We’re not standing pat, and this next change-up I think will be really smart and interesting.”

Also on the graphics front, ESPN last year tried something a little different with its on-screen scorebug, which it strips across the bottom of the screen. When the ball was in play and game action was happening, the scorebug was faded out to give the game more space on the screen. According to Rothman, the network has “had no pushback,” and it appears the practice will continue this year.

“We’ve tried to keep the screen clear of clutter once the ball is snapped,” says Rothman. “We beat ourselves up when we were first starting it. It was annoying to be in and out and in and out all the time, but we really have had no pushback from fans. It’s meant to be there when play is not in action and drop when the ball is snapped. We like keeping the screen as clear as possible during action.”

This year marks the 48th season of Monday Night Football (the 12th on ESPN), and it kicks off Monday at 7 p.m. ET with the New Orleans Saints visiting the Minnesota Vikings. Play-by-play caller Sean McDonough enters his second year as lead voice on the iconic brand and will be reunited with analyst Jon Gruden and sideline reporter Lisa Slaters. Producer Rothman is back with longtime directing partner Chip Dean.

The second half of the opening-night double will feature a bit of history: Beth Mowins will become the first woman to call a nationally televised NFL game when she teams up with analyst Rex Ryan and sideline reporter Sergio Dipp (of ESPN Deportes fame) to call the San Diego Changers at the Denver Broncos at 10:15 p.m.

Throughout the season, ESPN Deportes’ Spanish-language version of the game broadcast will be simulcast on ESPN2. All games will stream live across all platforms on the ESPN app.

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