Inside ESPN’s New 4K-Capable Video Content Factory on the Las Vegas Strip
Earlier this week, ESPN opened the doors on a brand new video production studio in Las Vegas with an eye on churning out a wealth of live and VOD sports betting-themed content starting this fall.
The studio, which will be run full time by ESPN Director of Operations Nestor Cora (who relocated to Las Vegas after running ESPN’s facility in Coral Gables, Fl. for many years), is located in The LINQ Hotel + Experience through a partnership with Caesars Entertainment and is positioned right in the heart of the Vegas Strip. The space is more than 6,000 square feet and includes three studios.
“What we tried to do was build the maximum amount of flexibility for content creation into this space and opportunity,” says Mike Foss, Senior Director, Remote Production Operations for ESPN, adding this space in Vegas is very much inspired by the learnings that the network picked up from the South Street Seaport facility that it opened in New York City in 2018. “I think a lot of that reflects much of the sensibilities that we’ve come to appreciate from [South Street] Seaport.”
While it launched on Monday in 1080p, this is also the first ESPN studio built fully capable to support native 4K.
For Chris Calcinari, SVP, Remote Operations for ESPN and ABC Sports the decision to build the space with 4K in mind was purely a strategic one.
“If you are going to build a new facility today, why would you build it any other way,” Calcinari says, noting the network’s early efforts to ramp up its 4K initiatives (last year, ESPN produced a weekly college football game and a weekly college basketball game in UHD). “We are going to operate the facility in 1080p, but we wanted to have the technical capabilities to upgrade.”
Foss agreed, saying that when the operations team looked at all the scenarios, they wanted to take the opportunity to future-proof the space.
“Where we exist today in technology,” says Foss, “the delta between building a 1080p facility and building a 4K facility is negligible and…when you throw that all out onto the table and look at the differences, the choice to make it 4K-ready was quite simple.”
The gear on site reflects that vision to upgrade as the industry progresses. The primary studio is outfitted Sony HDC-5500 cameras, which will shoot in 1080p HD but can easily upgrade to 4K. A second studio at the facility also has is outfitted with Panasonic AW-UE150 4K 60p PTZ Camera and a Simplylive ViBox infrastructure is full upgradable.
In addition, the support the backhaul delivery back to Bristol, ops took the opportunity to upsize the router and add additional bandwidth to deliver these larger . From there, the question became: IP-based or 12G-based? It was a factor that took a lot of the planning time to decide.
“Since truly sending 4K IP over long haul just isn’t doable to this day,” says Chris Strong, Senior Remote Operations Specialist for ESPN, “we actually went the 12G route. What that does in 1080, it affords us even more outputs in and out of the router, and then when we switch over to 4K we are all set up. It afforded us to go with a larger router than we normally would have if it was 1080p only and protect 12G for 4K. In doing so, now our whole facility is built around that and we’re ready to go.”
While the studio will mostly garner attention for its objective of creating betting-themed content, ESPN has larger aspirations for the space. In fact, there are plans to utilize the studio on the Monday Night Football programming schedule which is set to include the Las Vegas Raiders’ first home game at the new Allegiant Stadium on Sept. 21. Also, the original plan was to launch the studio back in March (prior to the COVID-19 outbreak) and for it to be heavily used for the 2020 NFL Draft, which was originally scheduled to be hosted in Las Vegas before the event went virtual. Throw it UFC and major boxing events taking place in the city and other major sporting events, ESPN brass plan to utilize the space in many other circumstances.
“We’re really hoping to turn the Las Vegas studio into a content creation facility,” says Calcinari.
In terms of drawing the lines between which production and operations staff are on site versus back in Bristol, ESPN outlined it as a pretty distinct dividing line between what one would expect to find on the studio set floor versus in the control room. ESPN is partnering with Gravity Media, who is providing both equipment rentals and on-site technical crew in Las Vegas. Above the line production and talent are ESPN employees, as are the control room positions staffed in Bristol.