iPhones, satellites and AWS: Inside the super ambitious virtual NFL draft
ESPN could have staged an enormous Zoom call. But it wanted to do more — and the result could change sports and TV forever.
Over the last couple of weeks, more than 100 football coaches, general managers, players and executives have received a similar package. Inside: two iPhones, two tripods, two microphones, a couple of lights, a couple of Bose headsets, and a whole mess of cables. It is — hopefully — everything they'll need to set up two broadcast-quality camera feeds from their homes. Because when the NFL draft kicks off Thursday night, that's exactly what ESPN, the league and millions of fans are counting on.
In a normal year, the draft takes place in a stadium or theater filled with jersey-wearing fans, anxious prospects and teams — this year's event was set to be in Las Vegas. (If you've never watched one, imagine a really large college graduation, complete with lectern and stage and really large men whose names are called.) Those who aren't there are either in conference rooms at teams' headquarters or at home, surrounded by friends and family. This year, thanks to coronavirus, everyone's just home. Alone.
The simplest way for ESPN to tweak the draft would have been, in effect, to stage an enormous Zoom call. Which probably would have worked fine. But for a sports-starved community unusually excited to tune in to the broadcast on ABC, ESPN and the NFL Network — a show that seems likely to top last year's record 6.1 million average viewers — the team wanted to do more. "We want to provide the best experience for the fans, the NFL and the Disney organization," said David Johnson, the VP of engineering and media distribution for Disney's Direct-To-Consumer & International (known as DTCI) Technology team. So they thought bigger. Much bigger.
After years of rethinking the way ESPN transmits and handles data, and a weeks-long scramble to adapt to the new world order, the network says it's ready to handle what might just be the most ambitious virtual event ever put together. It'll spend the draft's three days sending vast amounts of data all over the country, bringing hundreds of feeds, camera angles and important moments into a single broadcast. The result could be more than just the best-possible version of coronavirus TV. This kind of interactive, intimate, in-every-living-room-everywhere content stew could be part of the future of sports — and TV — long after the arenas open up again.
The process started only a few weeks ago. On March 30, Mike Feinberg, a coordinating director at ESPN, emailed Johnson with what seemed at the time like a simple thought. "Historically, your team has brought in numerous feeds to support the draft," Feinberg wrote," and I expect that number to go up this year." (Feinberg noted, reading the email back to me, that he may have understated things slightly.)
The draft is always slightly more complicated than your average sporting event, because the show cuts from the stage to the crowd to someone's home to an analyst to a team's conference room and back to the stage. In a normal year, said Maureen Barend, an associate director on DTCI Technology's transmission team, she'd be dealing with 13 fiber and satellite feeds from the main event, plus a number of TV feeds coming from camera crews in other places. Barend described that as "pretty small." The transmission team's job is to take all those feeds, make sure audio and video sound and look great, and then route them to the production team. ESPN is, of course, well-versed in handling lots of data from remote locations and juggling many feeds and events at once.
But this one's on a different level, Johnson said. They're bringing in about 150 sources, "whether it be coaches, team sites, individual prospects, commissioners," he said. "And they're coming in now over several different methods of transport: We've got fiber and we've got satellite, we're using the cloud. And then we've got several different call centers that are effectively stub-switching for us," routing feeds to different places so things aren't gumming up the same paths. It all requires three different vendors, including AWS, to keep running. On top of that, the team at ESPN managing the data has to do so from home, over the Citrix VPNs the company uses.
The biggest change for ESPN — and one of the reasons it's able to cope — has been the company's move to internet-based data transport. "Over the last several years," Johnson said, "it has become less and less costly, and more effective and reliable." Even a few years ago, capturing live feeds from two iPhones in hundreds of homes all across the country would have been both technically and financially impossible.
It's still not easy, of course. ESPN and the NFL have even been encouraging participants to upgrade their home broadband speeds, to avoid the dreaded blurry-blocky camera feed coming out of a newly minted pro's home. And there's a real risk in sending camera gear to someone's house and hoping they'll know how to use it; the team included a tip sheet in the kit, instructing users how to set up one camera to grab a wide shot of a room and another to be closer, more interview-style, plus how to light and capture and send it all seamlessly.
Coronavirus made a lot of things harder for ESPN and the NFL, but it did provide one benefit: very little competition for resources, because there aren't any other sports to document. "Normally with something like the draft," said Vinny Thibeau, another associate director on the transmission team, "you still have the NBA going on and MLB and everything else that would keep us really busy and tying up those resources. What allows us to float as much content as we're going to do is the fact that we'll almost be the only show in town."
If all goes to plan, here's how the draft will go when it starts at 5 p.m. PDT. Commissioner Roger Goodell will run the show from his home, with a satellite truck outside beaming everything to Bristol, Connecticut. He's the only one who gets that treatment: Nearly everything else will come from the remote-kit-created feeds. Some of those will get sent via the three network vendors to a site in Tulsa, Oklahoma, then sent via fiber to Disney's main capture building on the ESPN campus in Bristol. Others will be sent directly over the internet to Bristol.
Once the transmission team ensures the quality of the feed, it'll be routed to ESPN's production team, which is spread among four control rooms on the network's campus so as to have as many people in-studio as possible but in a socially distant way. The production team will work with almost two dozen anchors and reporters from ESPN and the NFL, some piping out commentary from studios and some from home.
To coordinate everything, the team is using tools like Unity Intercom, an app that replicates the push-to-talk tools production teams are used to. Just in case, everyone's set up to fire up Skype and FaceTime, too. Because you never know.
In some ways, Disney has been building the infrastructure for this for years. In particular, as ESPN+ has become a bigger part of the company's plans, it's gotten better at ingesting and streaming data over the internet. Crews have spent the last month helping reporters, producers and everyone else figure out how to work from home. And fundamentally, they still see it as a TV show — just with a few more camera feeds.
The teams working on the draft spent this week testing every part of the process, making sure things move and operate as seamlessly as possible. Still, they won't really know what's going to happen until the draft starts, because there's no playbook or history for how something like this might come off. The NFL held a mock draft this week, set up much more like a normal Zoom webinar, and it was riddled with connectivity and communication issues. (One general manager texted a reporter that "there are early communication issues because 32 of us GMs are on conference call and we didn't hit mute. Sounds awful.") With so many moving parts, many of which ESPN can't quickly fix, everything feels a bit tenuous.
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Feinberg said he's excited nonetheless: "If you strip the draft down to its simplest form," he said, "it's capturing not only the business-meeting aspect of it, but the emotion of it." This draft might feel less like a capital-e Event and more like an intimate gathering.
There are only a few things this year's draft can't even attempt to do. There won't be throngs of live fans booing or cheering their teams' decisions. (Though one enterprising coder built a way to boo online.) And what about the requisite onstage hug between drafted players and the commissioner? No, ESPN can't replace it virtually. But that's probably a good thing.