Live From Little League World Series: ESPN Grows the Game With 4DReplay, Kidscast
The network is producing the tournament in 1080p for the first time
Grab your cardboard boxes, because it’s time to take a trip down The Hill at Howard J. Lamade Stadium. As players from eight regions across the U.S. and eight countries around the globe once again make the annual journey to the small town of Williamsport, PA, for the Little League World Series, ESPN is bringing both top-of-the-line technologies used on Sunday Night Baseball, such as 4DReplay and 1080p, and new creations, such as the Kidscast second-screen experience.
“The partnership between ESPN and Little League has been very strong for many years, and it’s forecast to go long into the future,” says Joe Rainey, senior remote operations specialist, ESPN. “We’ve always got a pretty strong technical commitment to raising the bar. We’ve made a number of changes in our workflow. Although we might look a little smaller than we used to look, we’ve gotten more efficient, using more-powerful equipment, and working a little bit smarter.”
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A Clearer Vision: The Network’s First 1080p Production
After years of producing sports events in 720p, the network has begun pushing out telecasts in 1080p. And the crew is applying that same procedure to this year’s action in Central Pennsylvania.
“We’ve been in a relatively low-resolution sort of world for a while with 720p, so 1080p 59.94 is our next sort of sweet spot,” says Rainey. “It’s going to provide better quality and scaling, and it’s a plan that looks more towards the future.”
ESPN has experience with 1080p. Since 2013, its Monday Night Football telecasts have been offered in this format. And, more recently, the Sunday Night Baseball series adopted 1080p about a month ago. Despite its experience with this type of transmission, there is an added challenge when simultaneous games are involved.
“We’ve been doing Monday Night Football in 1080p for several seasons now, so we’ve gotten our feet wet, but doing [1080p inside a] multi-truck compound is much more complicated,” he points out. “Passing the signals back and forth and making sure everything is working properly is a taller challenge.”
Down in the Dirt: 4DReplay Resides in Foul Territory
Following other tentpole events on ESPN’s baseball calendar, such as the Home Run Derby and College World Series, 4DReplay is being deployed for the Little League World Series for the first time. The 100-camera setup inside Lamade Stadium provides 180-degree replays with a two-sectioned approach: 50 cameras focused on the batter’s box for dingers; the other 50, on the pitcher’s mound to witness kids testing out their nasty curveballs.
Although the 4DReplay provides the same perspectives for the other ESPN telecasts, there are two major differences in Williamsport. In MLB and collegiate stadiums, the cameras are usually spread out at a higher angle near the second tier of the facility. In a smaller venue, the operations team is at an advantage: these cameras can be installed along the lower bowl section of the field above the dugouts for an eye-level view. In addition, the operator who usually sets up shop inside a designated production truck is situated beneath the stadium for quick retrieval of footage.
In another first-year deployment, the UmpCam will be used during the quarterfinals on Wednesday, Aug. 21 and the semifinals on Thursday, Aug. 22.
Youth Movement: Teenage Broadcasters Headline Kidscast
As professional baseball struggles to keep up with the tendencies of the younger demographics, ESPN will stroll down a new commentary path on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. ET. Telecast on ESPN2, the inaugural Kidscast alternative experience will place Eddie Kalegi and Aiden Blanc, two 16-year-old recruits from the Bruce Beck Sports Broadcasting Camp at Iona College, inside the broadcast booth to call a game in the U.S. winner’s bracket. In the stands, 15-year-old reporters Zoe Alter and Rahill Jaiswal will provide unique takes on the fanfare surrounding the game, including the best ice cream in the complex and the thrills on The Hill. 2014 Little League Worlds legend Mo’ne Davis will make her homecoming to Williamsport as an analyst.
“Little League is always looking for a way to attract younger fans [to these games] and get a younger audience in front of our screens,” says Rainey. “We’re doing a simulcast alongside the broadcast that’s happening in Lamade — we’ve got our normal ESPN broadcast as usual — but we’ll have the kids calling the same game right next to [the ESPN broadcasters].”
Compound on a Hill: Dome Production Mobile Units Lead the Way
Although the action within the foul lines has remained the same, the location and structure of the truck compound have changed over the years. The compound used to be a lot closer to the stadiums, with the trucks parked right outside Lamade Stadium. When the concourse was expanded and congestion caused the operation to relocate (the overall number of onsite staffers is more than 300), the network decided to hit the higher ground and placed everything on a perch overlooking the concourse.
Inside the current layout, Dome Productions has an overwhelming influence, with its new Silver truck maintaining the games in Lamade and the Journey truck facilitating the international contests across the way in Volunteer Stadium. A Dome Productions B unit is onsite for other duties, including replay with 12 12-channel EVS machines and eight XT4K servers.
For onsite editing, Creative Mobile Solutions has provided a trailer on the far side of the lot. ESPN’s Bristol, CT, campus is adding some edit help via its REMNAS file-transfer server. To ensure a smooth production, CAT Entertainment Services is supplying two generators in the case of a loss of power.
Outside the compound and within the ballparks, the camera complement is anchored by 12 hard cameras and 12 handhelds, including three super-slow-motion versions. With a big emphasis on the national games, the specialty cameras in Lamade are not the same as those in Volunteer.
“Lamade is by far the bigger operation. We are adding a second RF handheld for the Kidscast; normally, we have just one,” says Rainey. “Lamade already comes with a techno-crane and a jib. We also add another jib to Lamade for championship weekend. We’re up to 29 or 30 cameras by the time we get to the championship game.”
From the sky, an aerial camera is capturing sweeping shots of the entire complex as well.
Down the Road: BB&T Ballpark at Historic Bowman Field Hosts Flurry of Events
Although both Lamade and Volunteer Stadiums are the centers of the Little League baseball universe, BB&T Ballpark at Historic Bowman Field, five miles away, has its own set of activities. Captivating both young and old fans, the third consecutive installment of the Little League Classic brought the Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago Cubs to town for a regular-season matchup on Sunday, Aug. 18.
The operations team constructed the Baseball Tonight studio on the concourse for a three-camera shoot. Host Karl Ravech, analyst Mark Teixeira, and reporter Tim Kurkjian spearheaded the special 90-minute pregame show. After first pitch, the SNB crew of Matt Vasgersian, Jessica Mendoza, and Alex Rodriguez called the game, while Buster Olney patrolled the stands. Mike Couzens and Chris Singleton handed duties up in the radio booth.
Prior to the Little League Classic, the first-ever T-Mobile Little League Home Run Derby Championship took place in the same stadium. In two individual softball and baseball competitions, the eight best Little Leaguers squared off for the inaugural trophy. Aubrey Clark of Johnston, IA, and Everest Ouellette of Palm Harbor, FL, were the event’s winners. Kevin Brown joined Kurkjian for the broadcast. The Sunday Night Baseball team produced the event.
A Gem of the Summer: ESPN Maintains the Spirit of the Game
The Little League World Series has turned into a yearly phenomenon that has become engrained in the fabric of our society. During these 10 days in August, the sports world stops and fondly remembers joyous memories of their youth. ESPN sits in a fortunate situation as caretaker of this event, and its importance is rarely forgotten.
“ESPN has a very deep commitment to carry forward the spirit of the Little League World Series and continuing to make it as good as it could possibly be,” Rainey says. “It’s a tremendous property for us because we fill two networks for days on end. Almost everywhere you go, when people hear that you work on the Little League World Series, they either get teared up or get excited, because it’s very popular with our audience. Before I started working the event, I really had no idea about it. Over a year or two in, it just completely won me over, and now I couldn’t imagine my summer without it.”