ESPN Brings Fans, Atmosphere Back to College GameDay With ‘Virtual Pit’
Ross Production Services created production portal for virtual experience
Although fans aren’t able to be onsite for College GameDay this year, that hasn’t stopped ESPN from integrating die-hard college-football fans into the show. College GameDay has created a new way for fans to continue to be a part of the show each week: the new Virtual Pit fan experience offers fans across the country the opportunity to join the show virtually, support their team, and hang out with the College GameDay crew.
“With coronavirus an obvious concern for getting fans to the show in a traditional fashion, we wanted to figure out a model for fans to join the show virtually, no matter the circumstances of the virus or the sport. This was a multi-month project figuring out how we could first get fans to the show,” ESPN Associate Manager, Sports Marketing, Alexa Dettelbach told ESPN Front Row. “Secondly, how could we make it an engaging and rewarding experience in the same way attending College GameDay on a college campus is?
As a college-football Saturday institution, College GameDay is known for big crowds, high energy, and clever fan-made signs — components that ESPN hopes to continue capturing and highlighting despite the lack of fans onsite. With that in mind, the College GameDay production team worked closely with Ross Production Services and Rocket Surgery (Ross’s advanced production design team) to create the Virtual Pit production portal, the key interface allowing hundreds of fans to join live every week.
“There is one factor that separates our broadcast: our fans,” ESPN Managing Producer Lindsey Lloyd told ESPN Front Row. “The signs, mud dives, surprise proposals, and beyond are all those moments we simply cannot live without. Following the success of the virtual NFL Draft, we quickly recognized we needed to find a way to keep our fans integrated into the broadcast. We wanted to make it our own and figure out how we could control everything from recruitment to execution.”
Virtual Pit gives production the ability to bring in hundreds of fans and show 32 of them simultaneously in a mosaic. Two composites are generated for display on-air at any time, with a multitude of layouts based on showing generic fans or a specific team, matchup, or conference. Other paths are made available for showing individual fans full-screen, allowing production to cycle through different sets of fans back-to-back as if they were onsite.
“I have never taken part or witnessed an initiative of this magnitude come to life,” said Lloyd. “More important [were] the collaborative efforts from so many different groups, internally and externally, that took pride in seeing through every step.”
ESPN opened up the Virtual Pit to 750+ schools across Division I, D-II, D-III, and FCS (whether their team is scheduled to play this fall or not) and saw more than 5,000 sign-ups in just the first 24 hours after the announcement.
Fans don’t have to install any software to participate. Each fan logs on to a website from their device and enters their name, location, and favorite team. Each fan speaks via video to an ESPN screener, who explains the process and lays out the ground rules. Then, the fans simply watch the show online and are picked to be on-air either randomly or based on a show segment related to the fans’ teams being discussed.
At a moment’s notice, the production team can view any fan in the audience and message them or speak with them individually via IFB. Production also can speak with a group of fans currently on-air or to the entire audience at any point.
ESPN staffers interact with the audience via a custom-developed web portal that allows them to screen fans and view them throughout the broadcast. This gives the show multiple layers of security by allowing as many staff as necessary the ability to instantly remove any fan displayed on screen.
“The GameDay Virtual Pit is one of the most interactive and versatile systems of its kind on television,” says, Logan McDonald, Broadcast Production Specialist at Ross, sentiment that is endorsed by Ross Production Services President, Mitch Rubenstein. “The flexibility of our end-to-end solution allows College GameDay to keep what makes it unique: the fan interaction.”