MLB 2022: ESPN To Debut ‘K-Zone 3D+’ Replays, Leverage Multiple REMI Models in First Year of New Rights Deal
Both main and ‘Kay-Rod’ SNB broadcasts will be produced out of Bristol PCRs this season
In its first year of a new MLB rights extension, ESPN is bringing a whole new strategy that puts the focus squarely on Sunday Night Baseball. With 25 exclusive Sunday Night Baseball games (as well as five additional exclusive windows throughout the year, plus the new MLB Wild Card series), ESPN is pulling out all the production stops. This includes a host of new and improved production technologies and, of course, the much hyped Kay-Rod alternative broadcast featuring Alex Rodriguez and Michael Kay in the booth for eight SNB games.
Although ESPN will serve as the exclusive home of tonight’s Braves-Reds MLB Opening Night Thursday telecast, the network’s days of presenting weekday baseball on linear TV are now in the rearview (although plenty of MLB games will still stream on ESPN+). With that in mind, ESPN plans to use new content offerings like the Kay-Rod simulcast and new technology like K-Zone 3D+ pitch-tracking and “ESPN Multiview” synced-camera view to make Sunday Night Baseball feel more epic than ever for viewers.
“We are really excited to be back this year with a robust baseball-coverage plan and a chance to grow the product with some unique new ideas and lots of new technology,” says Phil Orlins, senior coordinating producer, MLB, ESPN. “We are looking how to optimize everything we can get out of Sunday, meaning not only technology but also how we can add from a programming standpoint. And the Kay-Rod [alternative broadcast] is a great example of that.”
CLICK HERE for SVG’s in-depth look at ESPN’s production plans for Kay-Rod broadcasts this year.
K-Zone 3D+: Pitch Tracking for the Modern Age
Since debuting in 2015, K-Zone 3D has become a staple of ESPN’s MLB coverage, and these graphic replays can now be turned around in a matter of seconds. This year, ESPN is kicking it up a notch with K-Zone 3D+, which compares every single pitch in the game to the MLB average for spin, vertical drop, horizontal drop, and other key Statcast metrics.
“This is the biggest evolutionary change in our K-Zone in a long time,” says Orlins. “We’ve been wanting to do it for quite a while. We feel it adds a whole new layer to our [broadcasts].”
Based on MLB Statcast tracking data, K-Zone 3D+ was developed by the Media Technology team at DMED (Disney Media & Entertainment Distribution) and was spearheaded by Christiaan Cokas, Brian Rooney, Jeffrey Bradshaw, and Griffin Rhodes. Since the system is fully automated, Orlins says, K-Zone 3D+ segments can be turned around in roughly five seconds and can be inserted almost immediately into the broadcast for any given pitch.
“The complexity of what we’re showing here and yet the limited amount of clutter that’s actually on the screen is absolutely amazing,” he says. “I think the average fan will pretty easily understand it. We spent a lot of time cutting out all the extra [information] and making sure that every visual component on the screen enhances the viewer understanding.”
In the near term, Orlins believes, K-Zone 3D+ will be provide a valuable new tool for ESPN’s analysts in the booth, especially new arrival and pitching guru David Cone.
‘ESPN Multiview’: Quick-Turnaround Multi-Angle Looks at Close Plays
In addition to K-Zone 3D+, ESPN is debuting ESPN Multiview, which features up to four synced cameras on-screen at the same time in split view. This will allow multi-angle review of close plays in a matter of seconds. To pull it off, ESPN brings all camera feeds into its Evertz DreamCatcher replay system, synchronizes them, and then displays them in two-, three-, or four-box on-screen layouts, which can be turned around as quickly as 10 seconds.
“It’s actually a pretty simple concept, but think it’s going to have a huge impact,” says Orlins. “We’ve been messing around with this for a long and finally just turned it over to the DreamCatcher room, and they built out a plan for it. It provides an entirely new experience for something as simple as a close play at first base or a game-changing play like a play at the plate. For a huge play like in last year’s AL Wild Card game when Bogarts threw Judge out at home, this would’ve been a very powerful tool to have so quickly after the play. We’ve done this kind of thing before, of course, but always an inning or more later; now we can do it in seconds.”
Next-Gen Graphics: Defensive-Shift Virtual Animations, Pitch Sequences, Win-Probability Charts
ESPN will also be more aggressive in deploying virtual real-time animation graphics to illustrate defensive shifts in the field. Use of MLB Statcast data enables the positioning of the infielders and base runners to be translated into graphic overlays, which the broadcaster will use more frequently than before in MLB broadcasts.
“We’re going to use these animation graphics way more aggressively than anyone ever has,” says Orlins. “We won’t leave it up necessarily when the ball is in play, but I would expect it to be used for every batter of the game — both during pitches and between pitches — to see where they’re playing defensively.”
Other key analytical elements in ESPN’s broadcast this year will include the return of pitch sequences for most batters, as well as Win Probability chart graphics that show the momentum of the game and the significance of big plays on the possible outcome.
Big-Game Feel for SNB: More Super-Slo-Mo, Drone Lifts Off, and BBTN Returns Onsite
ESPN’s SNB camera complement will comprise 10 hard cameras for games (six Sony HD-4300’s and four HDC-2500’s) with an additional two hard cameras added for all Kay-Rod games, four handhelds including RF and TVU IP systems, and two lock-offs. ESPN will deploy up to six super-slo-mos on any game, along with a mid-home robo and any in-house robos and POVs already in venue.
“Flexibility is the key, and this will change to some extent from game to game.” says Paul Horrell, remote operations manager, ESPN. “We’re also working on a drone for [a third of the] games this season. We used one on a few games last season, and it gives a nice look and perspective to the game coverage.”
In addition, ESPN will deploy buried field-effects mics, depending on the game, as well as the new umpire replay feed from MLB, RF ump mic, and, when possible, player mics for two-way interviews with announcers in the booth.
ESPN will take Baseball Tonight: Sunday Night Countdown on the road for a dozen onsite pregame shows before Sunday Night Baseball. Karl Ravech and a bevy of analysts and reporters will contribute to the show, which will be hosted from the existing announce booth at the ballpark.
Bristol at the Core: SNB Uses Mix of REMI, REMI PRO, REMCO Models
Both the primary broadcast and the eight Kay-Rod presentations will be produced out of a pair of new REMI control rooms at ESPN’s Bristol, CT, campus, using a mix of REMI (remote-integration) and REMCO (remote-controlled) workflows. NEP NCP11 (A and B units) will be onsite at the compound for all SNB productions, along with Illumination Dynamics’ C unit and generators.
All SNB production will leverage ESPN’s “REMI PRO” model with announcers onsite, the bulk of the production crew in Bristol, and isolated paths coming back to the control room for the game production.
Seven EVS replay operators will be deployed for games. For the games that do not include a Kay-Rod alternative broadcast, three will be onsite in the truck, operating a trio of 12-channel EVS XT VIA machines for SSMO, and the remaining four will be in Bristol. For the eight Kay-Rod broadcasts, only one EVS operator will be in the truck, and six will be in Bristol, two of them controlling two of the VIA machines in the truck via the REMCO model.
“When we do have Kay-Rod in place, it’s really a hybrid REMI/REMCO model,” says Horrell. “We’ve all gotten pretty comfortable with the models and hybrids. Integrations get a little tricky, but it’s all about the details and coordination with Bristol, and I think we’ve gotten much better at that over the last two years as well.”
ESPN’s ops team is working with the traffic department on a new transmission scheme in an effort to streamline the set-shoot-strike aspect of its MLB productions. The broadcaster plans to deploy an IP master-control (IPMC) solution that puts all 30 source-isolated paths through the same encoding and transport to Bristol. This all goes through the encoding equipment installed on NCP11 and leaves the truck on one Cat 5 cable going to the IO panel.
“The idea is to keep everything within the same time frame as it hits Bristol,” Horrell explains, “so that any latency experienced would be consistent across all paths and should ease setup to some degree. We may creatively use some of the J2K uncompressed fiber paths that we used last season if we need to exceed the 30 paths, but, predominantly, everything will ride on the IPMC solution.”
Behind the Scenes: Front Bench, Ops Teams Welcome Newcomers
When longtime SNB director-producer team Doug Holmes and Jeff Dufine shifted to ESPN’s new NHL package toward the end of the 2021 MLB season, Andy Jacobson took over as producer and will be back at the front bench this year, alongside director Ben Johnson (with Jeff Evers directing some games).
Kay-Rod broadcasts will be produced by ESPN lead Little League producer Joe McCoy (who handled the unique KidsCast last year), and veteran studio director Jim Ryan will be in the director chair. Both producer-director teams will be in Bristol control rooms throughout the season.
ESPN also has a new operations lineup for SNB this year with Brock Wetherbee and Jon Winders also sliding over to NHL. Veteran ops producers Chip Sego and Mike Miner are now playing key roles on SNB; Stephanie Santora has stayed on as ops coordinator, and Kevin Cleary remains in the mix as go-to specialist.
“The opener is always an exciting time and this year for sure,” Horrell says of tonight’s game in Atlanta. “[We had] two set days installing gear for the season at the Braves, preseason faxing as we always do to get everything set and avoiding any gremlins, but it’s going to be a great and much anticipated Opening Day.”