NFL Draft 2020: NFL Media Deploys iPhone Production Kits, Coordinates 600+ Live Feeds To Bring Virtual Draft to Fans
In absence of a physical Draft, NFL Media teams with ESPN to serve fans with unique experience
Each year, the NFL Draft production somehow gets even bigger and more complex than the year before. As the grandiose plans for the 2020 NFL Draft in Las Vegas came together at the beginning of March, NFL Media VP of Production Dave Shaw believed it could be the most challenging operation to date for the league’s media arm. Little did he know that the coronavirus-pandemic lockdown would wipe the slate clean and force his team to come up with a plan to create a virtual workflow for the Draft production that would entail managing hundreds of feeds from players, coaches, GMs, fans, and the commissioner across the country.
“When we first started planning for the Draft, obviously, it was going to be this massive event in Las Vegas unlike anything we’ve done before. And to see how this Draft has morphed into something totally different — but just as challenging and unique — has been really interesting,” says Shaw. “This has all come together in just a few weeks, and it’s truly unlike anything I’ve ever seen in my career. Everyone has come together to bring the [quality] level up as high as possible and make this happen for fans.”
NFL Media worked with the NFL’s IT team to develop custom iPhone 11 production kits deployed to nearly 200 homes of prospects, coaches, GMs, owners, and college coaches across the country. In addition, video feeds of more than 300 fans will be incorporated into the Draft telecast, and another 100 more will be featured in the NFL Draft-A-Thon social-media show.
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“In all, there is going to over 600 video feeds that will be on-air in some fashion at some point. And don’t forget, it’s all live,” says Shaw. “Typically, most of our infrastructure is behind the scenes so we can fix any issues without [the viewers] even knowing. But, right now, when something goes wrong, everybody can see it [on-air]. In the past, we were always so worried about having extra-redundant technical infrastructure, but now we’re dealing with all sorts of issues that wouldn’t have been imaginable a few months ago. It has been exciting but terrifying all at the same time.”
In the Field: 100+ iPhone Production Kits and an At-Home Podium for the Commish
NFL CIO Michelle McKenna and the league’s IT team worked closely with NFL Media to deploy more than 100 video-production kits to 58 Draft prospects, all 32 NFL head coaches, 32 NFL general managers, eight owners, and six college coaches. Each kit comprises iPhone 11s (courtesy of Verizon Communications) with external boom microphone and tripod, Bose QuietComfort 20 noise-canceling headphones, and lighting kit.
Players will have two iPhones — one “Interview” camera running native apps (Facetime, WebRTC) controlled by The Video Call Center for TV interviews and the congratulatory “virtual hug” with the commissioner and one “Always On” camera running the Larix Broadcaster app and coordinated by Amazon Web Services that will display players waiting to be drafted and their reaction once their name is called. Prospects have also been asked to get in touch with their internet provider to try to increase their bandwidth.
“We’re relying on people’s bandwidth at home: if you’ve got a player at his house about to be drafted and then someone at his home decides to go play a videogame, suddenly he’s got no bandwidth,” says Shaw. “So we’re trying to minimize as much risk as we can in those situations.”
The NFL is taking no chances with the “podium” for the Draft; Commissioner Roger Goodell will be connected via onsite satellite uplink as he announces each of the Day 1 and Day 2 picks from his home. A single broadcast camera will be used to cover Goodell’s pick announcements, and a second interview camera will be used for him to talk to the draftees (it will also serve as backup should the main camera go down).
The small crew at the commissioner’s house consists of a single camera operator in the room with Goodell, an audio operator in a separate room, an operator in the uplink truck, one IT person, and a handful of key NFL personnel — all separated by at least 6 ft., wearing masks, and having their temperature taken each time they enter the house. In addition, a virtual mosaic will be displayed on the backdrop monitor behind the commissioner as he announces the picks and will feature 320 live video feeds of hundreds of fans from around the country.
“The commissioner has all the players’ phone numbers, and, when a player is picked, he’s going to do a one-to-one FaceTime with them,” says Shaw. “After he makes the pick, he’ll do a hug via FaceTime from his home so we can still capture that emotional moment.”
Dawn Aponte, chief football administrative officer, and Dave Gardi, SVP. football operations, NFL, will be announcing the Day 3 picks on Saturday via an always-on camera managed by AWS (they will also serve as backup emcees should Goodell’s feed go down).
Crazy Coordination: Three Call Centers Managing 600+ Video Feeds
To coordinate the swath of feeds from around the country, NFL Media and ESPN have set up three “call centers” to handle three types of feeds.
The Video Call Center is managing the “interview camera” feeds from the 58 prospects and ensuring that they are integrated into the coverage once they are picked.
Van Wager Sports & Entertainment (VWSE), which typically handles the in-venue production at the Draft, is managing the video feeds for all coaches, GMs, and owners.
As for the hundreds of live fan feeds that make up the “Inner Circle” digital mosaic displayed behind Goodell for each team’s pick, design production planning and execution was led by The Famous Group (which oversaw the NFL100 mixed-reality production at Super Bowl LIV) and its VIXI technology. Quince Imaging was the overall inner circle technical systems architect, providing custom control software and automation to moderate and animate digital fan feeds. Production took place from Quince Imaging’s remote production studio, located at their Northern Virginia headquarters, that fed inner circle content to ESPN and Roger Goddell’s home basement studio. LTN Global provided the cloud infrastructure and cloud video architecture to manage the 480 fans. LTN Global’s Live Video Cloud enables fans to seamlessly connect their video feed to the production chain, while receiving audio and video return from producers. LTN Live Video Cloud API driven workflows allow producers to route each fan’s reaction instantaneously to generate each team’s unique mosaic being presented behind the commissioner and reacting in real-time to draft picks.
The 199 camera feeds (not including fan cams) are broken down into 79 feeds sent to ESPN, which is handling the actual production and integration of the live Draft telecast. However, since ESPN is also limited in the use of its facilities in Bristol due to the pandemic, NFL Media enlisted DTAGS and its control room in Tulsa, OK, to manage the central transmission. DTAGS has set up 16 circuits between Tulsa and Bristol: six from VCC, eight from VWSE, and two from VIXI/LTN. Should ESPN go dark for some reason, NFL Media has also established the infrastructure via DTAGs to provide Draft coverage using NFL Network’s own remote-studio resources. ESPN is also receiving the 58 always-on cameras from AWS.
NFL Media has also arranged for several special live feeds that will be used leading up to picks from locations like Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
All NFL Media talent featured in the pre/post-Draft coverage throughout the week on NFL Network, as well as in the Draft telecast itself — including Kurt Warner, Michael Irvin, and Danielle Jeremiah — is being captured and transmitted via AzzurroCam remote-production systems.
In addition to the linear telecast, NFL Digital has also partnered with BC Live Production on the Draft-A-Thon, a live-streaming show for NFL Digital properties and social-media channels that will incorporate more than 100 video feeds. The fundraising-campaign show will be hosted by NFL Network’s Rich Eisen and Deion Sanders and feature a wide variety of athletes, celebrities, and personalities. ESPN will also have access to feeds from the Draft-A-Thon to integrate into the linear telecast.
Beyond the Draft: How NFL Network Got Back on Air Live
Of course, the next three days are just the culmination of weeks of pre-Draft programming on NFL Network and NFL Digital platforms. And, before NFL Media could even think about the Draft, it had to get the NFL Network and NFL Digital operations back up and running after their Culver City, CA, studios were essentially shut down in mid March due to shelter-in-place orders.
“When the pandemic started,” says Shaw, “we pretty much shut down all our control rooms or studios, so we had to figure out the workflow to get our own network and shows back up live. I think our entire team deserves a lot of credit for finding creative ways to get us back up live.”
First, Brad Boim, senior director, asset management and post production, NFL Media, and his team created a cloud-based workflow that allowed remote editors to access virtual playout servers in AWS and produce content using BeBop Technology virtual-computer software. In addition, much of NFL Network’s talent already had AzzurroCam systems installed at their homes (and more have been installed in the weeks since). NFL Network combined this cloud-based postproduction and AzzurroCam to produce recorded editions of NFL Total Access, Path to the Draft, and NFL Mock Draft in early April.
“We were able to bring those those pieces together to get a few of our key shows back on-air,” says Shaw. “Then we started looking at how to get back live.”
Since then NFL Network’s marquee studio shows have gradually come back live on-air. Two weeks ago, NFL Now Live became the first show to get back live on NFL Network’s air, using a NewTek TriCaster at a producer’s home, AzzurroCams at talent’s home, and transmission via DTAGs. Last week, Good Morning Football went live using a decentralized workflow that featured talent on AzzurroCams, the director directing remotely from New York, and the transmission center at DTAG’s facility in Tulsa. The rest of the production and operations crew is also tied into the show via Zoom.
With this new workflow in place, NFL Network is rolling this week with live editions of Good Morning Football and NFL Draft Preview all week, as well as NFL Draft Kickoff and NFL Draft Recap Thursday-Sunday.
On the NFL Digital side, Senior Manager, Technical Production, Zack Sail and his team built out a production workflow using the vMix virtual-production system and StreamYard live-streaming studio software to handle their primary shows, including Around the NFL and Move the Sticks.
Shaw says getting the NFL Network and NFL Digital back up and running, as well as coordinating the most complex NFL Draft ever has been a true team effort. He specifically cites McKenna, Boim, and VP, Football Technology Solutions, John Cave on the league’s IT team, as well as VP, Engineering, Bruce Goldfeder (who delivered systems to crew’s homes, came up with DTAGS hub system, and is “non-stop backbone,” according to Shaw); Director, Technical Operations, A.J Wainwright; Senior Remote Technical Operations Manager Bjorn Estlund; Chief Engineer Jim Naughton; as key to the monumental effort.
The NFL Draft begins at 8 p.m. tonight on ABC, ESPN, NFL Network, and ESPN Deportes.