College Football Kickoff: ESPN Begins Road to Championship Game

The 900-game schedule will involve nine vendors, 45 trucks, 750 people

August 24 signaled the official beginning of the 2018 college and high school football seasons for ESPN, and the network is in the midst of a huge effort through Labor Day to deliver 70 games from 25 states to millions of viewers. And that’s just the beginning: the network will produce 900 college football games (200 to be delivered via ESPN+) between now and the 2019 College Football Playoff National Championship, which will be held on Jan. 7 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, CA.

“It’s a large group effort as we look to get off to a clean start,” says John LaChance, director, remote production operations, ESPN. “It’s a collective departmental effort between our crewing, mobile units, and remote-traffic group for that type of a launch and a great partnership with our production teams.”

ESPN’s John LaChance, on the start of 2018 football coverage: “It’s a collective departmental effort between our crewing, mobile units, and remote-traffic group.”

This week’s effort is also tapping into ESPN’s deep relationships with its mobile-production-unit partners. Nine vendors are supplying 25 units, which are joined by more than 20 uplink trucks and more than 40 fiber/IP transmission circuits. More than 700 technicians will work alongside more than 50 remote-operations–management staffers to make sure things go smoothly.

At the center of ESPN’s efforts during the season will be ABC’s Saturday Night Football, which kicks off this Saturday when Alabama plays Louisville in the 2018 Camping World Kickoff in Orlando.

New production enhancements include a new Yard-to-Gain PylonCam from 3G Wireless and RefCam from Vicareo Systems.

“3G Wireless helped with the MarkerCam at last year’s Championship Game, and the MarkerCam will be back in selected situations where the venue doesn’t give us cart access behind the bench,” says LaChance. “The Yard-to-Gain PylonCam gives us another unique vantage point as it will move along with the chain gang.”

The RefCam will be worn by side judges for selected games. Senior Coordinating Producer Ed Placey has played an important role in getting conferences and teams to sign off on the system, which is being used on four games this week: Northwestern at Purdue, Washington vs. Auburn, LSU vs. Miami, and Virginia Tech at Florida State.

“Our push for NCAA approval this offseason],” he says, “was to be able to use it on other positions besides on the umpire [working behind the defensive line]. Our intention was to move past a ‘cool shot’ to those that have the chance to be meaningful to the officiating of the game. Like with PylonCam, we expect the primary benefit will be to the replay review process — in this case, for plays along the sidelines and looking down the line of scrimmage.”

Placey notes that, once ESPN gave the NCAA rules committee and the conferences an understanding of how it would be used, the request received unanimous support.

BSI will again provide the PylonCam systems.

ESPN worked with Marvel to create promos based on classic comic books for the opening slate of college football games.

New this year will be embedded audio. Says LaChance, “Now we [will] be able [not only to] see when someone is crossing the pylon but also feel it through sound.”

The first week of ESPN college-football coverage will conclude with a Megacast production that will make its Labor Day debut and include a new feature: the Goodyear BlimpCast. Announcers Marty Smith and Ryan McGee will be stationed inside the Goodyear Blimp for the entire game, providing live commentary from more than 1,000 ft. above Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee, FL. Fans watching on ESPN3 via the ESPN App will experience a three-box presentation, with the majority of the screen showing the typical TV vantage point and a smaller portion of the screen fixated on Smith and McGee. The third box will show the aerial view that fans have grown accustomed to over the years. This is the first time a game telecast will be available exclusively from the blimp angle.

Also returning for the MegaCast will be the Coaches Film Room; the Command Center split-screen experience; DataCenter with graphics, stats, and analytics; a SkyCam feed; and the All-22 feed.

During the season, ESPN will also continue to do more REMI/at-home productions, increasing from about seven a week in Week 1 to 11 per week. ESPN’s “GREMI” model — whereby the Vizrt graphics operator and EVS replay operators at ESPN’s broadcast center in Bristol, CT, control the hardware at the compound remotely — won’t be part of the process given the potential for campus connectivity issues.

LaChance reports that the opening week has gone smoothly, thanks to a six-week planning process to ensure that resources and personnel are all in the right place for the large number of games.

“Football’s back,” says LaChance. “To be part of this is an honor. We are all passionate fans and want to help deliver the best video and audio to all the football fans watching. It’s about the department and the team here at ESPN, as well as our production partners, and seeing how everyone comes together and has a great time.”

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