Live From the NFL Draft: College GameDay Joins the Party for ESPN in Arlington
Among other innovations will be the Draft debut of the DigiBoom camera system
There’s a new kid on the block in ESPN’s NFL Draft coverage this year, with College GameDay added to the mix at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX. Now in its 39th consecutive year covering the Draft, ESPN will deliver its first dual-network coverage of tonight’s Round 1, with primary coverage airing on ESPN and a college-themed presentation on ESPN2. As a result, ESPN is rolling out its largest NFL Draft production to date, complete with several innovations, including a DigiBoom gimbal-stabilized camera rig.
“This is really a massive show. I don’t think people realize just how big the Draft really is,” says Senior Ops Manager Steve Carter. “Every year for us is a new chapter, in the sense that we come into these new facilities — whether it be Chicago or Philly or now here in Arlington — and we’re starting with a blank piece of paper. There are always new concepts, ideas, and things that the NFL is looking to do, and then we build out the show from there. It’s a huge challenge, but it’s also very exciting.”
ESPN Splits Compound in Two
The addition of GameDay brings essentially a second production to what was already one of ESPN’s largest shows of the year. The GameDay team has its own dedicated set in the NFL Draft Experience area outside AT&T Stadium (adjacent to ESPN’s outdoor set), which will be used for pre-Draft editions of GameDay Thursday and Friday (both at 5 p.m. ET) on ESPN, as well as its simultaneous Draft coverage — dubbed College Football Primetime at the NFL Draft — Thursday night on ESPN2.
Although the primary show is being produced out of NEP EN1 (A, B, C, D, and E units) and GameDay is operating independently out of its normal Game Creek Video Maverick unit, the two shows are still heavily intertwined.
“I think this is, by far, the biggest technical challenge that we’ve ever faced at the draft,” says Coordinating Director Mike Feinberg, “especially in terms of truck interconnects and the shared comms. We wanted both shows to be able to run independently yet also to communicate with each other at certain points when it’s necessary.”
EN1 is located in the traditional truck compound inside AT&T Stadium; Maverick is outside at the overflow compound in Lot 2. The two trucks are fibered together, enabling them to share 24 camera feeds and have fully integrated communications.
“We’re able to swing comms and tallies between the two,” Carter explains. “So [the GameDay production team] can have full control of these cameras at various times when the [primary] production agrees it is needed.”
ESPN is also using EN1’s second control room, located in its D unit, which is typically used for Monday Night Countdown, to produce live editions of NFL Live and SportsCenter on Thursday and Friday.
A Trio of Sets: Two for Main Show, One for GameDay
ESPN has deployed both an outdoor and an indoor set for its coverage, as has become customary at the Draft. The ESPN desk inside the stadium will serve as its primary host location during Days 1 and 2, and the outdoor set in the NFL Experience area will serve as its main home on Day 3 (Rounds 4-7), when picks will be announced from teams’ facilities around the country and the coverage airs on ABC for the first time.
“We have two matching desks on both sets because we wanted to replicate the look of the desk when we are outside on Saturday. We call them our Stealth desks, and they are used for many of our signature events.”
The GameDay set is located immediately next to ESPN’s outdoor set in the NFL Experience area, along with a demo-field set that allows the GameDay team to conduct demonstrations throughout the coverage. This set will serve as home to both pre-Draft editions of GameDay on Thursday and Friday and its simultaneous coverage of Round 1 on ESPN2 on Thursday.
DigiBoom Rig Headlines Camera Complement
ESPN has deployed 31 of its own cameras at AT&T Stadium and is sharing an additional five at NFL Network’s positions. In addition, GameDay has eight dedicated cameras.
Included in ESPN’s complement are two RF Steadicams and two RF handhelds (provided by BSI), two SupraCam two-point cable systems (one inside, one outside), five jibs (two integrated for AR virtual graphics), three robos (provided by Fletcher), and an aerial camera (provided by AVS).
The highlight of this year’s Draft camera complement is surely the DigiBoom gimbal-stabilized camera rig provided by RedRock Micro. Unveiled this month at NAB 2018, the system is designed to combine the best elements of a gimbal, jib, Steadicam, and handheld camera into a single tool. With the DigiBoom, which features a long pole with a powered gimbal on the end that keeps shots smooth and steady, the operator can shoot from ground level to more than 8 ft. (or up to 12 ft. with an optional extension). The version debuting for the Draft features a Blackmagic Video Assist and Micro Studio Camera 4K and is being operated by ESPN Coordinating Studio Operator Brie Michaels.
Feinberg demoed the DigiBoom at this year’s Rose Bowl and envisioned it as the perfect tool to provide intimate, up-close shots in the green room at the Draft.
“I instantly thought this one would be great in the green room – just to give a different perspective,” he says. “We think it will be able to get [shots] that a handheld-camera operator just can’t get. I’m envisioning the camera getting right into the scrum of a player and his family as he is picked, and I think it can give that moment a perspective that we haven’t seen before. That’s the goal; hopefully, we’ll achieve that.”
A Baker’s Dozen of Inbound Paths To Manage Remote Video Feeds
Of course, the Draft is about much more than just the onsite operation. ESPN will once again have live camera shots coming in from 30 prospects’ homes, several NFL Draft war rooms at team sites, multiple Draft-viewing parties (including in Alabama, Georgia, and Wyoming and with Raiders fans in Las Vegas), and at team-centric and iconic NFL-city sites on Day 3, when the late-round picks will be announced.
ESPN has 13 inbound paths from its broadcast center in Bristol, CT, to route these feeds, all of which will be integrated onsite in the truck this year.
“In the past, we have had to rely on our Bristol integration-control room to [integrate] those feeds], and it disrupted the flow of the Draft [coverage] a little bit because everything else is happening onsite,” says Feinberg. “This year, Steve’s team was able to engineer multiple paths, so we can actually route the feeds here and see them live. It has made the Draft a lot more seamless, so that’s been a huge win for us.”
Whether it’s a team in the war room deciding whom to draft or a producer at the front bench in the truck, a successful Draft comes down to one thing: preparation. ESPN’s production team has done plenty of that: the network will enter Thursday’s first round with more than 500 player-highlight packages, 50 player personality bumps, and 25 specialty technical breakdowns at its disposal.
“That’s really the backbone of the draft,” says Feinberg. “The production teams spend months and months working long hours, and what comes out is just amazing [content]. I think what differentiates our coverage are the highlights and the content that gets provided by those people. It’s very impressive to watch.”
In addition, ESPN has two 1-Gbps circuits connecting to its Bristol servers for file-transfer needs, should ESPN’s library of content need to be accessed in creating new packages on the fly.
“If anything comes up that [the production team] may not be prepared for (although I can’t remember the last time we didn’t have a clip or weren’t prepared for a clip),” says Carter, “we can actually pull it right off the servers in Bristol.”
In addition, ESPN is operating a redundant control room in Bristol in case any issues arise onsite, with all graphics and EVS clips being played out at home just in case.
“I’ve been doing this show for a number of years,” says Carter, “and I feel like this year is the most well-prepared we’ve ever been. I felt like we were really in a good place earlier than we normally would be. The setup went smoothly, so you have to give a lot of credit to Mike and the production team and then my ops team.”