X Games Aspen: ESPN, Echo Entertainment Power Through Pandemic Challenges To Deliver 20th Winter X Games
Despite reduced schedule and smaller presence, ESPN will produce 17.5 hours of content
What should have been a historic celebration marking 20 years of X Games in Aspen this weekend is a toned-down affair sans spectators. Because of the pandemic, ESPN and Echo Entertainment’s onsite production has been scaled back, and the usually raucous X Games atmosphere featuring live concerts and festivals will instead be a largely virtual experience for fans. Nonetheless, the mere fact that the X Games are taking place at all in Aspen this weekend is testament to the will and perseverance of ESPN’s dedicated X Games team.
“I couldn’t be more proud and more grateful that we’re here [in Aspen], and that’s a tribute to all the teamwork,” says Tim Reed, VP, X Games, ESPN. “The amount of work that the ops and events teams have put into building out the plan we have in place is just unbelievable. You almost have two events going on at the same time: one is the actual competition, which we’ve been doing for a lot of the years, but then you also have this health and safety component that has added a significant amount of work and a whole other layer. I’m so proud of the team and the work they’ve done, and we’re all thrilled just to be here.”
Despite a reduced event schedule and a slimmed-down onsite presence, ESPN will be producing plenty of content: 17.5 hours of live content over three days on ESPN, ABC, and ESPN2 (ESPN’s Facebook and Twitter will live-stream competitions on Friday), as well as exclusive streaming content across @XGames social and XGames.com. ESPN has also created a virtual X Fest experience for fans and has teamed up with Psyonix on a Rocket League Championship Series (RLCS) X Regional event.
Smaller Footprint But Same Big-Show Mentality
ESPN and Echo have rolled out an A unit and B mobile unit — Dome Productions Silver and Unite trucks — at Buttermilk Mountain, to serve all three X Games venues. A third Dome truck was brought in to transport gear, and longtime partner BSI is on hand with a mobile unit to manage RF operations.
The X Games team also opted to go without a host set this year, after transitioning to a mobile host set in 2020.
“We have no set this year partially because of the safety protocol and partly because the benefit of having a host set was having host Jack [Mitrani] sit down with the athletes and get to know them and spend time with them. We felt like it that would be tough to do with social distance,” says Echo Entertainment President Hugh Arian. “From a production standpoint, we’re just thrilled that the event is happening this year. This is the premier action-sports event in the world. The fact that we’re actually doing it is the most important thing.”
Overall, ESPN and Echo have deployed 24 manned cameras – including 11 Sony HDC-4300’s and nine HDC-2400’s — which are repositioned among 55 camera positions throughout the competition. ESPN has also brought back the CondorCam point-to-point aerial system and will use it on both the SlopeStyle and Big Air venues. In addition, BSI is on hand with four RF POV cameras: three FollowCams and one attached to a snowmobile that takes athletes to the top of the course after each run. BSI has also scattered 18 RF microphones throughout the three venues.
Echo and its partners have laid 450,000 ft. of ST single-mode fiber and 20,000 ft. of SMPTE fiber across Buttermilk Mountain.
“The biggest change this year is obviously the COVID protocols, which do slow us down a little bit but keep everyone safe, which is most important,” says Echo Entertainment Technical Manager Pierce Williams. “Everything else is pretty much at the same level, just with a smaller footprint. We still have big numbers when it comes to technology and equipment.”
ESPN has a detailed health and safety plan in place in Aspen and required all personnel to produce a negative COVID test both before traveling to Aspen and when arriving onsite. Frequent testing is performed onsite on a variable basis depending on an individual’s role and which segmented group they are assigned to. All offices and production facilities at Buttermilk Mountain have been outfitted with proper filtration systems, and personnel are required to socially distance, wear masks, and maintain hand hygiene at all times onsite.
“We have all the critical components in place for our health and safety protocols,” says Reed. “A lot of details have gone into this, and we’ve been working on this for a long time with the best health and safety experts out there. It has gotten us to this point, and I think we all feel good about the protocols that we have in place here.”
Jam-Session Format, Active-Viewing Strategy Keep the Show Moving
ESPN has brought back the popular “jam-session” format this year, allowing more live competition with less downtime between runs. In this format, multiple riders compete for a clocked amount of time, and judges officially score each competitor based on overall impression (rather than waiting for judges’ scores to be delivered individually for each athlete).
“A lot of things that we implemented last year, in terms of production approach and competition format, we’re doing again,” says Arian. “The jam format is back, with every athlete getting a time clock, so we’re not waiting for scores between runs. We implemented that last winter here. We thought it made the event move quicker. We were all pretty pleased with it.”
Also back is ESPN/Echo’s “active-viewing” strategy, which aims to speed the cadence of the broadcast by increasing camera movement and relying on mobile cameras like the FollowCams and CondorCam as much as possible. The front bench will also cut cameras more quickly within the broadcast, and the production team has worked to make athlete profiles and sponsor spots shorter to make them easier to integrate into the broadcast in lieu of crowd shots.
“As part of the active viewing last year, we were not only doing a lot of camera movement; we were also cutting a little quicker,” says Arian. “We’re going to try to do even more of that this year because we don’t have a crowd to cut to; you’ll see us cutting more to short-form content as well.”
Although the operation in Aspen looks very different onsite, viewers can expect the same X Games style and quality — a boon for action sports fans starved for content during the pandemic.
“Obviously, the sports world has been hit hard,” says Arian, “but I think action sports [have been hit] even harder than other sports because we don’t have the deep pockets that the [major leagues] have. So it’s incredible to be here and get everyone back to work again.”
X Games Aspen kicks off today at 2 p.m. ET, with streaming on @XGames social and XGames.com, followed by coverage on ESPN2 beginning at 10:30 p.m. tonight. On Saturday and Sunday, coverage begins on ABC at 1 p.m.