Live From CFP National Championship: ESPN’s MegaCast Adds New Technologies to Already Packed Arsenal
This year’s highlights include options in 4K, PTZ PylonCams
ESPN’s traditional telecast of the College Football Playoff National Championship Game is one thing, but the alternative and often tech-laden behemoth known as MegaCast is in a whole different area code. Despite more than a dozen options for fans on either side of the Battle of the Tigers, the network has continued to serve up a wealth of new offerings, include one feed in 4K, the debut of Refcast, and flexible PTZ PylonCams.
“We have a great relationship with the conferences, schools, and officials, so it’s an area where we’ve been most productive with getting things approved,” says Ed Placey, content innovation lead, ESPN. “Our relationship has allowed them to trust that we’ll be bringing things to the forefront for all of the right reasons and not just to make a quick splash but to make a difference and show how the sport is officiated, with things like replay. The MegaCast has influenced things that we do in the regular season, and it has helped the overall perception of this event and our coverage.
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The Tech Freshmen: 4K, Refcast Make CFP Debut in New Orleans
In the technological barrage at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome are a handful of notable appearances. For the first time in the College Football Playoff era, 4K feeds will grace the airwaves. With more efforts on this front in the regular season and during the recent Sugar Bowl, a partnership with Samsung QLED TV will bring Field Pass in this particular format for customers with Comcast, Altice, and DirecTV. For the showing on ESPN2, a pair of duos will call a casual, free-flowing game from field level. Using fan interaction via polling technology from Sparx Technology, Adam Amin and Pat McAfee will man the sidelines of LSU while Steve Levy and Dan Orlovsky reside on Clemson’s.
Bristol, CT-based Refcast will be leveraging technologies seen in past years but will also provide a new flavor of commentary.
“We had done something in 2015 when we re-created a mock replay booth with real replay officials and the exact equipment and feeds that they used,” says Placey. “We liked that so, in the last couple of months, we spoke about different possibilities. John Vassallo [senior coordinating producer, ESPN] has taken a bit more time with Rogers Redding [officials coordinator, SEC], the officiating community, and the different conference coordinators and got us talking about how interest about the work of officials has never been higher. John Parry from the NFL has really been a talented guy that has taken to putting on a headset and talking about officiating, so we decided to bring four of them [Matt Austin, Judson Howard, Parry, and an additional official] together and give them our cameras that focus on the officiating.”
Some of these feeds include a RefCam mounted on the hat of four game officials, up to 10 active PylonCams (including one Line-to-Gain version on each side of the first down line), and a MarkerCam. With these features available to a staff seasoned with officiating knowledge, Placey wants fans tuning into this game to hear an authentic, real-time conversation about the rules being showcased on the field.
“We’re not going to have a host there to ask them questions,” he says. “We want them to talk at the officiating level instead of teaching audiences abut officiating. It’s about how they communicate and interact with each other rather than if they were being interviewed by someone else. The people who are going to watch this are really into officiating, so we want [the commentators] to use the jargon.”
Up, Down, and Around: PTZ Enhances Visual Dimensions of PylonCam
The PylonCam system has slowly become a mainstay on all college-football productions. When Placey and the technical crew were seeking a bit more from this application, they approached a familiar vendor.
“We’ve been working pretty aggressively with C360, who we’ve been working with for a couple of years when they first demoed some of their products for us,” Placey says. “We liked the basics of what we saw, but it needed other elements to really make it productive for a live television show. We said, ‘Hey, if you added this and made it capable of doing these things in a quick-turnaround fashion, we’d have a good product.’”
In a development that will ultimately benefit both main and secondary experiences, ESPN will be using another iteration of the device.
“They accomplished [an upgrade],” says Placey, “and we ended up putting their camera systems into wireless pylons, which have become Line-to-Gain PylonCams. We had a 1.0 version of that last year with a fixed lens, but now, we have the ability through its internal optics to pan, tilt, and zoom throughout the entire scene.”
These new robotic cameras will sit within the pylons along the back line of both end zones. In terms of replays, what used to be captured by luck will now be captured with skill.
“We get to see everything that happens in a play,” he notes. “Last year, we had to hope that the right things fell inside of the frame.”
A Fan Favorite: MegaCast Embraces Skycam
In 2019, the Skycam found a place with fans and sports-video–production pros alike. Although it will play a large role in 4K (on Comcast and DirecTV) on the main ESPN telecast, it will also have a purpose on the auxiliary channels as well as a unique shooting style.
“We look back on a couple of our takes on kickoffs,” says Placey, “and my conversation with our directors during the year was to not go so aggressively on a kick returner that we have to then pivot 180 degrees to follow them in the other direction. That [shot] loses some of the impact as opposed to taking the kick, holding off around the 40-yard line, and then, if he starts to break away, start backing up so you’re running stride for stride in front of him and you’re seeing people pursue him from the back. The real impact comes when you’re running with the kick returner.”
In a new wrinkle that will be integrated on the MegaCast, Skycast (a non-4K option) on the ESPN App will be run with more production value that includes replays, graphics, and scorebug.
“The headline that has benefited us and not others is that we have presented it as an option,” Placey explains. “That has been our focus.”
Others Join the Club: Coaches Film Room, Command Center, DataCenter, More
Amidst the newbies in the Superdome, a whole lineup of concepts will return for the final game of the college-football calendar.
With a room full of current college football coaches, Coaches Film Room (ESPNU) will break down the X’s and O’s of each play throughout the game. On hand will be bevy of head coaches: Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy, Boston College’s Jeff Hafley, Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason, and TCU’s Gary Patterson.
Also based in Bristol, DataCenter (Goal Line) will focus on the digital side of the game with real-time stats, analytics, social-media commentary, and player information.
Command Center (ESPNEWS) will be somewhat of a light version of DataCenter, providing up to four viewing perspectives at once with statistics and real-time drive charts on the side.
For Hometown Radio, radio broadcasts of the participating teams will be aired on the ACC Network (Clemson) and SEC Network (LSU Radio). The Clemson faithful will hear the voices of Don Munson, Tim Bourret, Brad Scott, and Reggie Merriweather; LSU’s will listen to Chris Blair, Doug Moreau, and Gordy Rush.
In an added auditory bonus, Sounds of the Game (ESPN Classic) will enable viewers to imagine themselves inside the Superdome: the game presentation will feature all the natural audio from the stadium, including the band performances.
As another treat on the ESPN App, All-22 will place 22 players within the same frame to track the development of each play.
Building a Bond: MegaCast Relies on Fan Opinions, Strong Partnerships
To prepare for college football’s crown jewel, some of the MegaCast’s finest pieces are exercised during the season.
“We do a couple of things for bigger games like the two last Labor Days and a lot more in the semifinals,” says Placey. “With the conference networks that we have, they’re constantly having situations where we’re covering a big game on ESPN and the SEC, ACC, or Longhorn Networks are available.”
And Placey, despite being in a new role this time around, is still heavily involved in the creative and developmental process of this major event.
“It’s fairly similar, but it has allowed me to expand what I continue to do in college football from a technology, innovation, and planning standpoint to other sports,” he says. “Steve [Ackels, senior coordinating producer, ESPN] has been a part of everything we’ve done in college football, so his role or my role hasn’t dramatically changed.”
At the end of the day, the MegaCast is informed by the opinionated takes of those who watch, the partnerships who help support this initiative, and the hardworking individuals like Placey who make it all come together.
“We’ve taken our cues based on how others were reacting to the MegaCast,” he continues, “because we have the opportunity to be mindful as we make decisions for the next year. We always want to carry new things but have things that people have built a following for and have found an interest in. It has always been exploratory of new possibilities and techniques, and it has kind of built enough momentum that there’s a business case for having it.”