MLB Postseason 2021: After Chaotic Regular-Season Finish, ESPN Heads to Boston for Epic AL Wild Card Game
The broadcaster potentially faced multiple tiebreaker games
Even for the always chaotic final day of the MLB regular season, ESPN’s remote operations team had its hands full heading into Sunday. With the Blue Jays, Mariners, Red Sox, and Yankees all alive in the American League Wild Card race, there were 16 possible outcomes heading into ESPN’s AL Wild Card Game (plus a potential NL tiebreaker game between the Dodgers and Giants) — and the ops team had to account for all of them.
In the end, the simplest scenario played out with the Yankees and Red Sox advancing to the Wild Card game and avoiding any tiebreaker games. Now, with baseball’s marquee rivals set to face off at Fenway Park tonight, ESPN is focused on going out with a bang for its final MLB production of the season.
“We had three separate crews and multiple trucks ready to go at any moment, depending on how things shook out,” says Paul Horrell, remote operations manager, ESPN, “but we were thankful that the MLB gods were in our favor in the end. And now we’re focused [on the Wild Card Game], which is always really fun and exciting for us because it gives us a chance to show off the some of the things we’ve been doing during the season and also [explore] a few new ones.”
The AL Wild Card Setup: EN2, Bristol Join Forces
According to Horrell, ESPN’s production setup for the AL Wild Card Game resembles the model used for the Little League World Series in Williamsport, PA, in August — with multiple broadcasts produced from the ballpark.
NEP EN2 mobile unit (A and B) is on hand in Boston for tonight’s production — as it has been all season for ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball package. EN2 will serve as the home for not only the primary game production but also the Baseball Tonight onsite pregame show, the Statcast-driven Alternative Presentation on ESPN2, and ESPN Deportes’ Spanish-language broadcast.
ESPN will also deploy its REMCO (Remote Control) production model — previously known as GREMI (Graphics and EVS Remote Integration) — to integrate EVS and graphics operators located in Bristol, CT, with the truck. The still-evolving plan is to have six EVS and graphics operators in Bristol and three EVS operators in the truck. In addition, the three-hour Baseball Tonight will rely on Bristol and REMI workflows to avoid tying up the truck prior to the main game production.
The 20+-camera complement will include the addition of a drone to capture beauty shots and action surrounding the ballpark. ESPN will also have four Sony HDC-4300 high-speed cameras and one HDC-4800 ultra-high-speed system on hand. As is standard on all its Sunday Night Baseball games, ESPN will bury mics in the infield.
In terms of transmission, ESPN will be sending 15 J2K paths via fiber and two eight-path ASI muxes to Bristol, totaling 31 separate transmission paths.
The Statcast-focused presentation production, now in its fourth year at the Wild Card Game, will be allocated two unilateral cameras for its alternative broadcast.
Planning for the Unknown: ESPN Was Ready for Potential Tiebreakers
Although ESPN ended up with just the single AL Wild Card game, its ops team was prepared for possible tiebreaker-game productions in New York, Boston, Toronto, and Seattle, as well as in San Francisco if the NL West race resulted in a tie.
EN2 was ready for a potential tiebreaker game in New York or Boston, and NEP NCP 14 was on hold should a three-way tie result in multiple tiebreaker games on Monday and Tuesday. If a tiebreaker had been necessary in Toronto, ESPN would have collaborated with Sportsnet and Dome Productions on an enhanced-world-feed production (since traveling significant crew across the border for a full production would have been too challenging). ESPN also had another NEP truck ready to go in San Francisco in case there was an NL Wild Card tiebreaker game.
Logistically, it’s hard to cover every possible [scenario],” says Horrell, “but we were able to get it done. Whatever happened, we would have been ready.”
A Look Back: ESPN Weathers New Pandemic Challenges During 2021 Season
After partnering with local RSNs on a world-feed production model during the shortened 2020 season, ESPN opted to take a more hands-on approach in 2021.
For weekday games, ESPN rolled out its own truck onsite alongside the home RSN truck to create an “enhanced world feed” broadcast, which used the world feed from the RSN, a handful of iso cameras from the RSN, and two dedicated cameras out of its own truck.
“With somewhat of a return to normalcy,” says Horrell, “we wanted to put our own assets onsite and take back a little bit more control of the show. We took that approach on weekdays, and it wasn’t a very heavy lift [because] we had only one ops producer onsite for those shows. We came up with a good template because I like consistency and standards to allow repeatable performance. And that worked out really well for the weekdays.”
Meanwhile, for the marquee Sunday Night Baseball package, EN2 was onsite, but the production was a full REMI operation with crew located in Bristol.
“It was a single-day set/shoot/strike, which is a real challenge given the size of that Sunday show and having talent back in the booth beginning on July 4,” says Horrell. “It is a pretty heavy lift to do a big show like that as a full REMI every week — plus the Live From Home [remote on-air talent] setups, which has now become standard integration that we do on many games. But the team has been great. We’re reinventing ourselves based on these new hybrid models.”
He adds that, while the technology has been key to ESPN’s surviving the past two MLB seasons, the people have made the difference.
“We have the best remote support possible across the board,” Horrell says. “Over the last two years, nothing has been easy. There’ve been a lot of last-minute changes and last-minute pivots, but somehow we’ve found ways to get it done. There is new symbiotic communication between the REMI support-management team and remote ops. You have to have that because a lot of these models are so intense. My team has been fantastic keeping up with all of the changes of the last two years.”