ESPN Deploys Ultra-Efficient ViBox Workflow for Record Slate of Little League Baseball, Softball Games
Seven Gearhouse trucks with Simplylive ViBox systems produced 150+ games from 10 sites
Although the Little League World Series has been a staple of ESPN’s summer programming slate for decades, the network is taking its efforts to a new level this year. For the first time, ABC, ESPN’s networks, and ESPN+ are carrying every single Little League Baseball and Softball U.S. regional and World Series game — a record 345 games in all. ESPN has continued its push into the automated-production realm in order to produce this throng of regional Little League games over the past month, deploying production trucks outfitted with SimplyLive ViBox semi-automated-production systems to 10 different competition sites.
“These are games that were never covered before because it was challenging from a budgetary standpoint to find a model that made sense,” says Chris Calcinari, SVP, remote production operations, ESPN and ABC Sports. “We’ve now been able to create an efficient model that allows us to do these games for TV or streaming without sacrificing significant production quality. We’re excited to be able to serve Little League fans with content they never would have seen before.”
Seven Trucks, 10 Locations, Nearly 200 Games
ESPN deployed seven Gearhouse Broadcast production trucks equipped with ViBox systems to 10 locations to cover the Little League Baseball and Softball Regionals, as well as the championship events from all divisions (Intermediate, Junior, and Senior) for the first time — totaling about 180 games (primarily streamed on ESPN+) in less than a month. The trucks deployed were more compact units Gearhouse added to its fleet when it acquired Proshow Broadcast last year: its 40-ft. Prodigy and Maestro trucks, O-class REMI units Opus and Ovation, and two Sprinter-class units.
A Vibox system was temporarily installed in each truck in a two-person, two-screen operator configuration: director/TD on one screen and producer/replay on the other.
“The [Gearhouse] trucks are smaller than your average truck, and, with the automated touchscreen systems, an operator can do multiple functions at the same time,” Calcinari explains. “Not only are we minimizing the footprint, but we’re also combining some of the roles, like having a director also cut cameras on the ViBox touchscreen [instead of a TD at a switcher]. That’s going to be a big focus for us: how do we get really efficient inside the truck using the touchscreen to minimize the number of bodies onsite.”
ESPN deployed five to seven cameras at each site — a combination of manned cameras, locked-off POVs, and Fletcher robos — depending on the setup of each ballpark.
“These are primarily traditional camera positions that we use for Little League coverage anyway,” notes Dennis Cleary, director, remote production operations, ESPN. “We are just making it fit into the ViBox model. Where we’re at now is on the educational and training side for the operators: the biggest thing we’ve got to work on is increasing that pool of folks that can use the ViBox system. We have a great training setup with Simplylive at all of these venues to make sure it’s a success.”
In addition to the ViBox operators, the limited crew inside each mobile unit included a graphics operator using an AJT graphics system that feeds the ViBox via NDI (with some assistance from a graphics AD), a camera shader (provided by Gearhouse), and an A1 for audio. ESPN utilized the existing audio infrastructure in the Gearhouse trucks, including Calrec and Yamaha digital consoles and the usual complement of accessories and intercom systems. Audio to and from the ViBox was interfaced to the console for playback and recording functions. A team of 14 Gearhouse engineers leapfrogged around the country to cover the various tournaments.
“It has been a very successful project from our end and a really good learning opportunity to take a platform like this and work with the client to do an extensive proof of concept,” says Tim Lewis, VP, technology and design, Gearhouse Broadcast USA.
ESPN Plots an Automated-Production Roadmap
The Little League productions mark the latest chapter in ESPN’s automated-production efforts with Simplylive, following ESPN’s outer-court coverage of the 2018 US Open tennis tournament (which contributed to ESPN’s Sports Emmy win for Outstanding Technical Team Remote).
“We were very comfortable with [the ViBox] at the US Open, but that was nine courts being produced with a flypack set up in one room,” says Cleary. “By spreading this out from an operational standpoint for [Little League], [the effort] becomes more complex, but we know that the system is completely capable,”
ESPN also utilized ViBox systems for its productions of GEICO High School Basketball Showcase games in December and continues to use the system at its South Street Seaport studio in New York City.
“This is certainly our largest rollout of the ViBox to multiple locations,” says Calcinari. “Obviously, we used it extensively at the US Open and elsewhere, but to do it across 10 sites in seven different mobile units over a short period of time for almost 200 games, I would say there’s nothing that has been done on this scale from a live-event standpoint [in the U.S.]”
Gregory Macchia, VP, sales and operations, Americas, Simplylive, adds, “We’ve done a lot of events at this point, but this was probably the biggest test for us. We knew we were going on-air with hundreds of games from multiple [locations] no matter what. I think this shows how [ViBox] is not just a concept anymore; it’s a real product that can do real productions, and we can do it with less people and a smaller footprint. These are almost 200 productions that would not have been [done] in past, and that is our focus: doing more productions and getting more content out there that wouldn’t be available otherwise.”
The REMI Factor: Testing Control From Bristol
ESPN also conducted tests to integrate ViBox workflow into its REMI (remote integration) at-home–production model, further reducing travel costs for smaller productions like Little League. In this test, the ViBox operator was located at the network’s Bristol, CT, headquarters and controlled the ViBox onsite in the truck via a custom GUI.
“In theory, we could do the replays and cut cameras from the GUI back in Bristol,” says Calcinari. “That could be another iteration of our REMI model long-term, but we’re still in the testing phase of that. We’ve done some testing with that already at the Seaport studio: our LAPC [L.A. Production Center] can control the ViBox that is sitting at the Seaport for some of our shows, like Jalen & Jacoby. We’ve definitely proven the model, and we know it works. Now we’re just trying to figure out how to deal with it in a live-event scenario vs. a studio show.”
Looking Ahead: More ESPN+ Content May Mean More ViBox Productions
Calcinari says ESPN will continue to evaluate future opportunities to use ViBox on productions — especially as thousands of live events are added to the ESPN+ OTT streaming service in the coming years.
“We will continue to find places where this tool allows us to be more efficient. We think this is a big step forward, and we know that the number of events [streaming on] ESPN+ is only going to grow in the future,” says Calcinari. “Now that we have completed the ViBox run of games, we look forward to digesting our learning and focusing on the next opportunity for this technology.”