Live From CFP National Championship: ESPN Readies a Camera-Filled Feast for the Eyes in the Big Easy

100+ cameras, 180 channels of replay, 74 paths of transmission power a title-game production for the ages

Each and every year, ESPN’s production of the College Football Playoff National Championship is a sports-video–production nerd’s dream. If you are in that class of people, this year’s edition in New Orleans will not disappoint.

Director Derek Mobley sits inside Game Creek 79 preparing for the 2020 CFP National Championship Game in New Orleans.

While ESPN is offering a whopping 15 unique ways to watch the showdown between LSU and Clemson through its MegaCast, most eyeballs will be fixated on the main game broadcast on ESPN. The production is as massive as ever. A total of 76 cameras will work the game alone, with more than 121 cameras set up inside Mercedes-Benz Superdome (when you count in cameras for three studio sets and MegaCast exclusives).

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“What makes this event unique is just the sheer volume that the company puts behind it,” says John LaChance, director, remote production operations, ESPN, “not to mention the shortened time frame that we have versus other standalone marquee events. It’s big time.”

Camera Highlights
In terms of camera specifics, there are some specialty cameras of note, including the popular PylonCam, of which there are an incredible 20 this year. Four of them are new rear pylons in the back of the end zone. Along with the Line-to-Gain Cam and MarkerCam on the sidelines, many of these strategically positioned 180-degree robotics from a company called C360 now have the ability to pan/tilt/zoom, a critical feature introduced this season but making its debut at the CFP National Championship Game.

This season, ESPN has used a new and improved version of PylonCam, with a camera capable of pan, tilt, and zoom. There are 20 PylonCams in various positions inside the Superdome for the 2020 CFP Championship Game.

“We had a 1.0 version of that last year with a fixed lens,” says Ed Placey, content innovation lead, ESPN, “but now, we have the ability through its internal optics to pan, tilt, and zoom throughout the entire scene so we get to see everything that happened in a play. Last year, we had to hope that the right things fell inside the frame. In the last couple of weeks, we built a back-corner version, [which will be used] for the first time by this crew on Monday.”

Ten standard hard game cameras will be deployed, along with eight hard and two cabled super-slo-mos (Sony HDC-4300’s). Seven cameras in the arsenal will be shooting in 4K. Sixteen cameras will be operating as RF, including typical game handhelds, as well as a Steadicam, a MōVI rig, and hat cams on four of the game officials. Canon has also supplied the DIGISUPER 86 and 95 among other DIGISUPERs and portable zoom lenses to assist on the glass front.

Two Skycams are set up inside the Superdome. The low Skycam is outfitted with a camera shooting in 4K.

There are two Skycams inside the Superdome. The lower one is paired with a Sony HDC-4300 shooting in 4K. That 4K feed will be used to program a native-4K distribution as part of the MegaCast, and the image will be downconverted to be part of the primary feed on the main telecast. The higher Skycam, meanwhile, carries a Sony HDC-P1.

“Since we have so much here, the most challenging is making sure the best stuff makes it on the main show,” says Placey. “A number of the things that we’ve created for the MegaCast are to make sure that you have some dollars and interest in the resources and to get them additional exposure so they can get more than the handful of shots that they may get in the main telecast.”

Close Call With the NFL
Logistics narrowly avoided being a nightmare for ESPN, thanks to, of all things, the final play of the NFL regular season in Seattle.

ESPN’s John LaChance: “To put this size of an event together and bring this amount of talent together, you can’t but be proud.”

ESPN narrowly avoided the scenario of a host stadium’s NFL team earning a playoff home game that would fall on the weekend prior to the CFP National Championship Game. The situation has never been this close. A Saints home game this weekend literally came down to the final play at the one-yard line on the last game of the NFL season to determine whether the Saints would have a first-round bye and, thus, have that home game this weekend at the Superdome. Fortunately for all involved, the 49ers beat the Seahawks and knocked the Saints to the No. 3 seed, freeing up the Superdome. Sometimes, even life is a game of inches.

“Regardless of what that outcome was, though,” says LaChance, “we needed to have multiple technical blueprints. How are we going to do this? What is our load-in? What is our park?”

A Collaborative Compound
Part of the compromises made during the preparations for the event was ESPN’s willingness to put the entire stadium production compound in a parking lot at the Smoothie King Center across the street from the Superdome. The main truck dock for the Superdome is essentially empty, left open in case Fox Sports needed to be in town for that potential Saints playoff game.

A compact and crowded production compound in the parking lot of the Smoothie King Center hosts 12 television production trucks, all provided by Game Creek Video.

The CFP Championship Game compound hosts 12 television trucks, all of them Game Creek Video units. The crew has access to 180 channels of replay: 32 channels of Evertz DreamCatcher to support any 4K efforts and 148 channels of EVS.

With so many ESPN entities onsite (SEC Network, ACC Network, and the various MegaCast shows) and the native-4K production adding unique wrinkles, it should be little surprise that the transmission plan at the Superdome is a hefty one. There’s a total of 74 transmission paths. Fifty of those are outbound and include J2K fiber paths and satellite transmission for UHD/4K delivery. ESPN has added just under 22 miles of fiber and SMPTE cable to the Superdome’s existing infrastructure.

The vendor list is impressive. BSI, CP Communications, CAT Entertainment, Illumination Dynamics, SMT, 3G Wireless, Kaufman Broadcast, Fletcher, The Switch, and AT&T Video Services are among the companies helping on this production.

“I am so proud of the collective group that we have here,” says LaChance. “The vendors, the technicians, our staff in both operations and production. To put this size of an event together and bring this amount of talent together, you can’t but be proud. It is a complete team effort.”