Live From the 2019 CFP National Championship: ESPN’s Technical Team Is Set To Innovate

More than 300 cameras fill Levi's Stadium to feed mega-menu of viewing options

The 2019 College Football Playoff National Championship concludes tonight at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, CA. Like every other football game, it will feature two teams — in this case, Alabama and Clemson — and one broadcaster. For its part, ESPN is once again all-in for the big game, deploying more than 310 cameras to cover all the action and providing 17 viewing options via the MegaCast over 11 TV and radio networks and via the ESPN app.

John LaChance of ESPN says the efforts for tonight’s National Championship game have been a multi-faceted effort involving staffers, service providers, freelancers, and more.

“The thing that makes this event is the volume and magnitude of what we put behind it but also the time frame,” says John LaChance, director, remote production operations, ESPN. “[There are] other marquee events, which stand alone, but, with the volume and viewer enhancements being done here in a 72-hour window to get everything installed, this event [is] in a unique classification. Trying to integrate everything into place was a herculean effort.”

The game wraps up a season in which ESPN’s production team delivered more than 160 games to ABC and ESPN and more than 1,000 games to various other ESPN platforms.

“To watch that volume and make sure all the pieces are in place is a highlight for all of us, [seeing] it go from plan to working,” says LaChance. “You always have things that are challenges, but it’s about how quickly you can recover, and I think we’ve done it well.”

The core of ESPN’s production efforts will be done out of Game Creek Video’s 79 A and B units with Nitro A and B handling game submix, EVS overflow, 360 replay, robo ops, and tape release. ESPN’s team creating 17 MegaCast offerings is onsite, housed in Nitro and Game Creek’s Edit 3 and Edit 4 trailers andTVTruck.tv’s Sophie HD. Game Creek Video’s Yogi, meanwhile, is on hand for studio operations, and Maverick is also in the compound. All told, 70 transmission paths (50 outbound, 20 inbound) will be flowing through the compound, and 40 miles of fiber and cable has been deployed to supplement what already exists at Levi’s Stadium.

Also on hand are Fletcher, which is providing robotics; BSI, handling wired pylons and RF audio and video; 3G, which is in charge of the line-to-gain PylonCam and the first-and-10–marker camera; Vicareo, with the Ref Cams; and CAT Entertainment, for UPS and power. SMT is on board for the 1st & Ten lines; PSSI, for uplink; Bexel, for RF audio and other gear; and Illumination Dynamics, for lighting.

“It’s a team effort,” says LaChance. “I couldn’t be prouder of the team we assembled here and the vendors, technicians, leads, and staff that have, over the course of the last several months and weeks when it gets to a fever pitch, put it all together.”

The Camera Contingent
A large part of the 300-camera arsenal is comprised of 160 4K DSLR cameras deployed for the 4D Replay system that will provide definitive looks at every play from every angle. Those cameras are mounted around the stadium and, combined, provide images that can be merged on computers and enable an operator to zoom around a play and show any angle.

One place where the 4D system is poised to shine is the Red Zone. The 4D Replay team and ESPN have created templates that can cut the time needed to synthesize the images for plays around the goal line and pylons to eight seconds.

Besides the 160 4D replay cameras, plenty of cameras are focused on the game action, including 90 dedicated to game coverage. Among those are 10 super-slo-mo cameras, nine 4K game cameras, 15 RF cameras, two SkyCams, and two aerial cameras in a blimp and fixed-wing aircraft. The vast majority of cameras are Sony models (mostly Sony HDC-2500 and HDC-4300 with one HDC-4800 in 4K mode) coupled with Canon lenses, including five 100X, two 95X, 21 wide-angle, and 14 22X and 24X lenses. Seven 86X lenses and a 27X lens are also in use.

The game-coverage cameras are complemented by specialty cameras. Four Vicario Ref Cams will be worn by the officials; a line-to-gain RF PylonCam will move up and down the sideline with the first-and-10 marker, which also has a camera; and eight PylonCams around the end zones provide a total of 28 cameras.

The RefCam is new this year, having been tested during last year’s final in Atlanta. The MarkerCam did debut last year, and LaChance says it has been improved: “It has a c360 Live camera in the target portion of the marker to give a 180-degree perspective in 4K. The operator can push in and get a great perspective; we are taking it to another level with the push in.”

A second c360 camera will also be in use on the second SkyCam, again giving the ESPN team the ability to zoom in and capture images.

Another exciting new offering is AllCam, a system designed by ESPN’s in-house team and ChyronHego. It stitches images from three 4K cameras placed alongside the all-22 camera position and gives the production team the ability to zoom in anywhere on the field to capture events that might have taken place away from the action. For example, in a test at a bowl game, the system was used to show an unnecessary-roughness violation that took place during a kickoff far from the other players, who were focused on the run-back.

“It’s another good example of the partnerships we have and working for a common goal,” says LaChance.

Beyond the game coverage cameras there are 20 cameras dedicated to the various MegaCast feeds, 29 for ESPN College GameDay, and nine for the SEC Network. ESPN Deportes also has two dedicated cameras.

All told the production team will have access to 320 sources via 170 channels of EVS playback as well as 32 channels of Evertz Dreamcatcher playback. There are also two Sony PVW-4500 servers in use, a Sony BPU-4800 4K record server, and two c360 record servers.

Non-Stop Action — for the Production Team
“The game wraps up a busy time for the production team as well as for those who work at Levi’s Stadium. LaChance credits Jim Mercurio, VP, stadium operations/GM, Levi’s Stadium, and Nelson Ferreira, director, technical operations, San Francisco 49ers, with being an important part of the process during the past year.

“It’s a solid venue and great group of folks to work with, and that helps,” says LaChance. “They have done the Super Bowl here, and they do a lot of great events, so they are well-equipped. We had to supplement with some fiber, but they had a great infrastructure to start with.”

As for the ESPN team, everybody worked on one of the two semifinals as well as an additional bowl game.

“Folks that did the Cotton Bowl headed on to the Sugar Bowl, and those that did the Orange Bowl headed to the Rose Bowl,” says LaChance. “A lot of the people here have been non-stop since the Christmas Day offerings for the NBA, then right into a semifinal assignment, then the second of the New Year’s bowl offerings, and then making their way here to Santa Clara for one of the largest events the company does every year.”

For anyone looking to see what the new toys will bring to the show, LaChance recommends tuning into the TechCast, which will have a sampling of everything that will be used, including 4D Replay, C360, and the RefCam.

“Besides the game itself,” he says, “tune into the TechCast. Hopefully, the weather is good for us, and we can offer the BlimpCast from the Goodyear airship, which is another opportunity to provide a unique look for viewers at home.”