When we watch a live football game on television, it’s easy to forget about the people and technology that help make it all happen. They are hidden from the viewer — the cameras; the miles of wiring; the storytellers that string live video together into one smooth package that fans enjoy on TV at home.
That’s why it was fascinating to get a behind-the-scenes tour of ESPN’s Monday Night Football production infrastructure last week in Seattle.
GeekWire visited CenturyLink Field a few hours before the Seattle Seahawks hosted the Buffalo Bills for a primetime, nationally-televised Monday Night Football game on Nov. 7. We spoke with several long-time ESPN veterans who shared insight into what makes the production tick, and how technology has changed their workflow over the past decade.
Perhaps the most thrilling moment came inside the main truck — there are eight that ESPN brings to each stadium every Monday, all connected by fiber optic cables — which acts as the nucleus of the entire 4,000 square-foot production.
That’s where Chip Dean, coordinating director for Monday Night Football and a 37-year ESPN veteran, is posted up with his colleagues for more than four hours, calling the shots that fans ultimately see at home on TV.
Seated in the front row of the production trailer, Dean is like an orchestra conductor or an air traffic controller, calmly instructing camera operators and show producers for what angles he wants shown on TV. Communication is extremely crucial with the folks inside the truck; with staffers working inside ESPN’s seven other trucks that deal with instant replays, audio, and more; and with camera operators and commentators on the field.
“Hold … standby … set 10 and zoom … dissolve … set 3 … dissolve … get the USA graphic … wide 4 … 15 flyover … nice job, everybody!”
This is a small snippet of what you’ll hear inside the truck when the cameras are rolling. It can make for a hectic work environment, but Dean and his team have been producing Monday Night Football for a decade now. That’s why, despite so many moving pieces, there’s a feeling of calmness.
Dean and his lead producer, another longtime ESPN vet Jay Rothman, work in tandem to help manage the whole operation. Just before the Seahawks and Bills kicked off this past Monday, ESPN aired the singing of the national anthem, juggling shots of the singer, the crowd, the players, the coaches, the fans, the stadium, and the helicopter flyover above.
There can be hiccups and mistakes throughout a live broadcast; everything is happening fast and in real-time. But when it works to near-perfection with cadence — when all the cogs are working together in harmony, like an orchestra moving through a score — it can give you goosebumps to see it happen in person.
As Retired Petty Officer First Class Generald Wilson finished the national anthem on Monday evening — which marked Seattle’s “Salute to Service” game — Dean wanted a shot of the two Black Hawk helicopters flying above the stadium. It was a poignant moment that certainly set the scene at a high-energy CenturyLink Field.
Dean told GeekWire that since ESPN won broadcast rights for Monday Night Football in 2006, technology has influenced a number of enhancements to the overall production. He pointed to high-speed cameras, pylon cameras, and more.
“The vantage point of what the viewers want to see and how they see it has changed a lot,” Dean said.
The Pylon Cam is one of the more innovative aspects of the entire production. ESPN’s R&D team began developing the product several years ago and first introduced it in January 2015 during the College Football Playoff Championship. It then worked with the NFL and began using it for Monday Night Football last season.
The product, which features four tiny 1080p cameras with 12mm lenses embedded inside the four traditional orange pylons that sit at each corner of an end zone, offers viewers new angles and perspectives. It gained fame this past December when the cameras captured Odell Beckham Jr.’s incredible toe-dragging touchdown catch during a Monday Night Football game in Miami.
The pylons magnetically connect to four small wires that are buried underneath the field along the sideline, allowing the feeds to go back to the production truck. ESPN video engineers have full pane control of the cameras.
Dean said the Pylon Cam has proven to be valuable for important scoring plays.
“It was all based around did they score did they not score; the difference between a win or a loss; if a team made the playoffs or not — it’s all based on the red zone,” he said. “It’s been a really unique shot.”
Steve Carter, an ESPN senior operations manager who oversees the Monday Night Football technical crew, told GeekWire that he didn’t think something like a Pylon Cam was possible when he joined ESPN more than three decades ago.
“It’s a pylon with a lot of tech,” he noted.
Carter said the biggest overall impact he’s seen from technology is the quality of video. He noted that ESPN’s Monday Night Football is the only NFL proudction to air in 1080p. There are also around 50 cameras that ESPN uses for Monday Night Football, six of which utilize high frame rates that allow for smooth slow-motion replays, and a handful of robotic cameras operated by folks in the production trucks.
Two decades ago, the company only used 15 cameras to film a game, Carter noted.
“The technology has become smaller and lighter, and now we have more of it,” he said.
ESPN is constantly looking at new technologies that help enhance the broadcast, with the ultimate goal of “getting the best product to the home,” Carter said. Newer examples include the Skycam, the Pylon Cam, or augmented reality technology that ESPN is testing this season.
We also spoke with Joe Durante, a 16-year ESPN veteran who manages the graphics and stats that you see on TV during a game. ESPN prepares a bevy of relevant statistics and information on-site and back at its Bristol, Conn. headquarters before the live production that it can show on air, but employees are also working in real-time when the action kicks off to gather in-game data.
“There is more of a focus on stats than there ever has been in the game, particularly with tracking,” Durante said.
“We’ll see more video packages with data tied to it,” he predicted.
Dean said that he’s excited to see if and when players start wearing embedded cameras in their jerseys. It’s similar to how NASCAR places cameras inside driver vehicles so fans can get an up-close look at the action.
“Every viewer wants to be in the huddle and next to a player,” Dean said. “At some point, when that technology is safer, smaller, and more reliable, then maybe it will go in that direction with the support of the leagues.”
This is also something Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer noted at the GeekWire Sports Tech Summit in July.
“The real opportunity is to, if you will, augment reality as people are watching the game,” Ballmer said. “Can you put yourself in the position of Blake Griffin? What does the game in question look like in real time from his perspective? Can you sit on the shoulders of Chris Paul or DeAndre Jordan or even someone who plays for the other team? Can we allow you to do that?”
Dean added that implementing new technology is a year-round process for ESPN, whether it’s attending events to see the latest and greatest innovations, or sitting down with the R&D teams to figure out the best way to integrate new tools and services.
“We love the challenge of trying new things,” Dean said. “We’re always re-inventing.”