College Football Kickoff 2023: ESPN Ups Two Games a Week to 1080p HDR; Launches Game Creek Varsity for ABC Saturday Night Football

Schedule calls for 1,000 regular-season games across the broadcaster’s platforms

When it comes to mixing high-end productions and high volume in the business of sports production, it simply doesn’t get much bigger than ESPN’s college-football operations. The broadcaster will present approximately 1,000 regular-season games across all platforms (including a whopping 59-game slate to kick off Week 1) while rolling out one of the largest weekly football productions for ABC Saturday Night Football. Add in a 40-game Bowl season encompassing the entire College Football Playoff, and it’s clear that ESPN’s operations team faces a marathon over the next four months.

“For us, it’s a balancing act,” says Tommy Mitchell, senior operations manager, ESPN. “We want to prioritize those big games that are going to have the most eyeballs with the most toys and technology possible while also providing the highest possible quality to a game on ESPN+ because that’s still a game that many people want to see. To do that, we spread out responsibilities across our team so there’s always someone dedicated to every single show, and then we communicate amongst ourselves to solve any issues that come up.”

Upgraded Formats: Two Games in 1080 HDR, One From 720p to 1080p SDR

Each week, ESPN produces 13 games in-house (other games are handled from on-campus control rooms or by third-party packagers): six full onsite productions and seven REMI productions run out of control rooms in Bristol, CT; Charlotte, NC; and Orlando, FL. The onsite productions are handled from dedicated mobile units: Game Creek Video Varsity, 79, and Maverick; Lyon Video MU18 and Lyon 15; and F&F Productions GTX 16. REMI shows are served by Lyon MU 3, 6, 10, and HDX 30; Dome Productions Spring; and F&F GTX 11.

“We have core trucks for each of our crews — even our REMI crews — so that those folks can have a level of comfort from week to week,” Mitchell explains. “Production and programming [teams] make those decisions based on logistics and what the best games are. It’s a matter of being as broad in our coverage as we can be so that we can be as efficient as possible and allocate resources properly.”

Although ESPN will not be producing one game a week in 4K UHD as it has done the past two years, both ABC’s and ESPN’s Saturday primetime games will be produced in 1080p HDR. Live feeds will hit the Bristol plant in 1080p HDR, and distribution will vary from there.

In addition, all full-truck productions have been upgraded to 1080p SDR, except for the SEC primetime game, which will remain in 720p.

“Obviously, we’re very excited to have those two games in 1080 HDR, which we think is going to be a game-changer,” says Mitchell. “But I think we’re just as thrilled to have all those other trucks bumped up to 1080p SDR this year. It’s going to make for a great year.”

Making Varsity: ABC Saturday Night Football Welcomes New Game Creek Unit

Director Jimmy Platt (foreground) will transition from the MNF truck to the front bench of ABC Saturday Night Football this college-football season. (Photo: Phil Ellsworth/ESPN Images

A number of behind-the-scenes changes have been made to ABC Saturday Night Football, ESPN’s top-level weekly production. Most notably, director Jimmy Platt will shift from Monday Night Football to take over for Derek Mobley at the front bench. Platt will be calling cameras from a brand-new bench: ESPN will roll out a new IP-based mobile unit from Game Creek Video. Dubbed Varsity, the A- and B-unit truck will make its debut Sunday night for the much-anticipated LSU–Florida State game in Orlando.

“The Varsity trucks are purpose-built for producing a show on the level of the CFP National Championship Game,” says Mitchell. “We will run a big show every week during the regular season and then scale up even more for the Championship Game.”

ESPN’s previous A-game truck, Game Creek 79, has moved to the ESPN primetime window.

ESPN/ABC’s flagship college-football broadcast will add a shallow–depth-of-field cine camera on every game this season to go along with Skycam, end-zone pylon cams, a line-to-gain pylon cam, dual sideline carts (when the stadium can accommodate them), and a slew of super-slo-mo cameras.

“That show has pretty much all the bells and whistles across the board,” says Mitchell.

SEC on the Horizon: Prepping for Exclusive Package in 2024

Although ESPN operations are focused on the 2023 season, it’s hard not to peek ahead to the launch of ESPN’s exclusive SEC football package in 2024. Although SEC football has long appeared on ESPN, CBS Sports has held first-dibs on the SEC Game of the Week. However, the new deal means that the ESPN family of networks will own rights to every SEC football game over the life of the deal.

“It’s Week 1 of the 2023 season,” notes Mitchell, “so we’re definitely drinking from a firehose and focused solely on this season. That said, we certainly are very excited to have all of the SEC games exclusively on our platforms going forward. CBS has been a great partner over the years, but we’re excited to not have to wait for them to pick the best game. And then, obviously, being able to have those games on ABC is going to be huge for us in the programming world.

“We’ll follow production’s lead,” he continues, “in terms of whether there will be a crew specifically dedicated to the SEC [Game of the Week] or whether an additional game will just be folded into our [existing operations model]. Regardless, we are ready to scale up and follow their lead. We’re also excited to be able to plan since we know we’re going to have those [marquee] SEC matchups instead of waiting to hear which games another broadcaster is taking. Logistically, as the operations guy, I’m excited about not having as many variables.”

He adds that ESPN’s longstanding relationship with SEC schools’ on-campus facilities and personnel, as well as its familiarity with soon-to-be SEC members Texas (ESPN operates the Longhorn Network) and Oklahoma (one of the first Big 12 schools to produce an ESPN broadcast out of its own control room), will go a long way toward a seamless transition next season.

‘This 14-Week Sprint’: Ops Team It Look Easy

Mitchell credits his veteran management team for once again putting together a plan handling the onslaught of games this season. Among the key leaders are Operations Manager Jim Birch, Senior Operations Specialist Brian Ristine, Senior Operations Coordinator Kylene Hamulak, and Operations Coordinators Tatianna Montalvo, Charlie Skoog, Aaron Thompson, and Matt Garrison. Mitchell also notes ESPN operations’ senior leadership team, spearheaded by SVP Chris Calcinari, VP Rex Arends, and Executive Director John LaChance.

“People always ask me, ‘How do you deal with the volume of games?’” says Mitchell. “The true answer is, you can’t — unless you have talented people that you trust. We are very lucky to have a group of coordinators that have been together for a while; it’s no one’s first season. Those folks have been through this before, know what the expectations are, and execute at a high level. [It] is a huge benefit.

“When you have a team who consistently put in the effort all the way through this 14-week sprint and everybody has the right attitude,” he continues, “it puts you at ease as a manager knowing that you have people you can count on. I simply can’t say enough about our team.”

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