After 2020 Off, ESPN’s X Games Are Back in L.A. at a Trio of Iconic Training Facilities
With no fans on hand, coverage will span four networks, digital, social media
A year after the cancellation of X Games Minneapolis, X Games returned to its roots in Southern California this week for an iteration of ESPN’s signature action-sports event unlike any before it. Instead of hosting X Games 2021 (July 14-18) in one central location, ESPN and production partner Echo Entertainment are producing live X Games broadcasts from three training facilities around Southern California: BMX events at medalist Pat Casey’s Dreamyard in Riverside, Moto X at medalist Axell Hodges’s Slayground in Ramona, and Skateboarding at the CA Training Facility (CATF) in Vista.
“For 25 years, we’ve primarily been in traditional venues and stadiums,” says Tim Reed, VP, X Games, ESPN. “This year, we’re going to take advantage of existing athlete-training facilities. That puts us in a really good place to create engaging content, because the athletes have created these progressive playgrounds and training facilities for their own use. It’s a cool way to take advantage of some amazing courses that have already been built, and athletes are in an awesome position to create memorable moments and engaging content for fans.”
Although X Games 2021 is closed to the public due to the pandemic, ESPN is bringing the action to fans with 15+ hours of coverage on ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, and ESPN App. In addition, all competitions will stream live on @XGames digital and social-media platforms.
Non-Traditional Venues Pose Unique Challenges
To accommodate live shows across all three venues, ESPN and Echo are staggering crews and production facilities from day to day. After producing BMX Dirt and Park at Dreamyard on Wednesday out of Dome Productions’ Atlantic mobile production unit, the crew and truck shifted to CATF in Vista for the weekend Skate events. Meanwhile, Dome’s Pioneer mobile unit was parked at Slayground in Ramona to handle Moto X events on Thursday.
COVID protocols are in full effect at all three sites, with crew members required to show proof of vaccination or negative COVID test and masks mandated in most areas. Graphics and a handful of other positions have also been moved to office trailers to prevent overcrowding on the trucks.
ESPN and Echo also parked satellite trucks at the three facilities, with all feeds downlinked to Echo’s production/edit team in Vista, where the content is packaged and delivered to the three sites. Feeds are also sent to ESPN HQ in Bristol, CT, to meet social-media, ESPN.com, and archiving needs.
With events taking place in non-traditional venues this year, ESPN and Echo had to get creative in deploying cameras and parking trucks.
“Pat Casey lives in a cul-de-sac, so we had to maneuver our truck around a lot of random things and eventually parked it in a somewhat precarious position just to get close enough to run all the cable we needed [to the Dreamyard],” says Pierce Williams, technical producer, Echo Entertainment. “For Moto X [at Slayground], our truck is a couple miles up a hill on a dirt road with a cliff on one side. We were literally going through trees just to park the truck. To be honest, it’s a miracle we were able to do it.”
Echo allotted a full day just to park the trucks at the respective sites to allow plenty of time to deal with any unforeseen issues, and it has encountered challenges. Because of high midday winds in the mountains at Slayground, for example, morning events were held on one course, and evening events were on another (Slayground has three courses), complicating the production operations.
“Anytime you move that much gear during a show,” notes Hugh Arian, president, Echo Entertainment, “it’s a challenge and a little scary, but we were able to get it done. Of course, anytime you go into a production, you obviously have a plan. For this event, we had a plan, but we didn’t know if we could execute it until we actually got here and did it. It definitely kept us on our toes.”
CondorCams, Drones Headline Camera Complement
The camera arsenal at Dreamyard on Wednesday was led by a pair of point-to-point aerial CondorCam systems covering BMX competitions: one on the Dirt Course and one on the Park Course.
“CondorCam was definitely a challenge at a place like [Dreamyard]; we had to get the neighbors to play along with us because we had to rig out of their backyard,” says Arian. “The CondorCam on the backside of the park course not only gives us some unique looks but is also very efficient because we would have had to send three cameras to cover the back part of that course. CondorCam gives us a great shot all by itself.”
At Slayground, ESPN and Echo deployed dual drone cameras to cover the Moto X action yesterday: one heavy-lift system with a Sony HDC-P1 camera for scenic shots of the course and a lightweight DJI FPV racing drone with a Dream Chip Atom One SSM500 to cover the competition.
Since the Dream Chip camera provides multiple outputs, Echo used it to deliver not only a live video feed but also 240-fps slo-mo replays. Both signals were delivered via RF to the truck, where slo-mo replays could be triggered by the EVS replay operator. The lightweight camera also allowed pilots to get extremely close to the athletes during competitions.
“We are flying very aggressively and as close as the riders will allow us,” says Williams. “X Games [athletes], you can imagine, will let us get pretty low. And having slo-mo from the drone is amazing; I think it’s going to change the way we think about drones for live broadcasts.”
Dome’s Atlantic rolls with primarily Sony HDC-2400 cameras, and Pioneer (a 4K-capable truck) is outfitted with mostly Sony HDC-4300’s. Four wide-angle lenses have also been deployed at each venue.
“There are a lot of smiles out here; we’re so excited to be back,” says Reed. “At [X Games], we have a cool community between athletes and the production team. It really feels like a family. It’s great to be back doing what we do after what all of us have lived through for the past year. And I think doing it [at athlete- training facilities] is a cool concept that allows us to produce an event and allows athletes to be part of that event. I couldn’t be more thrilled to be here with the whole crew; it’s very uplifting to see everyone back.”