No longer the quiet younger brother to its raucous summer sibling, the Winter X-Games have blossomed into a full-fledged event with its own rabid set of devoted followers and superstar athletes.
In the 14 years since its inception, the Winter X-Games have grown from a small-time exhibition to a visually impacting, 300-athlete event that's jumpstarted the careers of more than a few Olympic athletes.
This year, ESPN, the creator and broadcaster of the X Games franchise, plans to roll out a host of new technological offerings and revamped tools for the 14th annual winter event, scheduled to take place for the eighth time at Buttermilk Mountain in Aspen, Colo., from Jan. 28-31.
In response to the games' widening appeal, ESPN plans to broadcast 24 hours of live coverage on ESPN and ESPN2, nearly double the number of hours broadcast last year. The network will lug nine remote trucks up the mountains of Colorado, including three NEP trucks with Sony cameras, and a dedicated RF unit. A total of 63 cameras will be used in this year's coverage, including an intriguing mix of jib cams, mini cams strapped to the hood of skimobiles, platform cams, miniature shoulder cams and aerial cameras.
J. Schiller won X Games gold in Men’s Skiing Slopestyle event at Winter X Games XIII. ©Zach Ornitz/Shazamm ESPN Images CAPTURING THE JUMPS
It's the otherworldly athletic tricks captured by those cameras that seems to define X Games coverage. This year, to get up-close-and-personal with athletes as they back flip and somersault through the air, ESPN will install a JitaCam, an 86-foot jib positioned near the biggest jumps on the racecourse. Short for Jib In The Air, the JitaCam is mounted to a nearby roof truss—not on the ground like a normal jib—thereby putting the camera above the action and giving the network 360-degree arm rotation.
By using the JitaCam, "on a big, big jump, you've got athletes jumping at the camera from 30 feet in the air," said Phil Orlins, coordinating producer for ESPN Production.
Evolutions in technologies are also allowing, for the first time, for the network to install HD cameras on the front and rear of snowmobiles. "In the past, HD transmitters had been large and heavy," said Severen Sandt, operations manager for ESPN Production. While those additional 5 pounds might seem insignificant to an athlete driving a 200-pound snowmobile sled, that's not necessarily the case. "[That extra weight] might seem relatively minor, but anything extra can be significant when you're flipping a sled," Orlins said.
In the past, the network had been shooting from the sleds in SD and the upconverting to HD, but it wasn't creating the exact images ESPN was looking for. Now, the network is set to give it a go with lighter-weight HD transmitters. "The perspective [it gives] is that you're flying through the air, giving you the ultimate sense, the intimate sense of being part of the competition," Orlins said.
A last-minute upgrade may include a robotic camera installed at the front of the sled, with a fixed camera at the rear. "Many athletes suggest we just mount their camera at the rear of the sled," joked Orlins, "so you can see the competition trailing behind them."
There's a lot to cover in the four days of competition, including two new disciplines: Skiing Super Pipe High Air and Snowmobile Knock Out. Akin to the virtual line technology used during football season to highlight the 1st down marker, ESPN will use similar technology to determine how far a snowmobile rider flies when jumping off the take-off ramp. Riders who fall short will be eliminated in each round; so it's that so-called 1st down line that will decide who stays and who goes.
"We will have an additional challenge," Orlins said. "In football, you've got the perfect geometry of the field. We have added challenges due to the bumpy terrain and lighting. Stability is going to be a huge issue."
Catching the intricacies of spins and tail grabs will be the goal of the Mega Mo, built by Fletcher Chicago, a proprietary extreme slo-motion system that will be used on the snow pipe during day and night events.
"A lot happens in a small space of time—rotations, grabs," Orlins said. "You can't really appreciate it at full speed." The clarity that appears when the images are running at 20 percent of normal speed show hard a landing really was, or how difficult an aerial trick turned out to be.
"At a lot of these events, the clarity is in the details," he said. "It's truly remarkable how difficult and beautiful [these performances are.] With high motion, the subtlety is sometimes lost."
If the Summer X Games are any indication, one of the most visually impacting technologies will again be the Huck Tower, named for a skateboarder's ability to pull a trick, high in the air, off a ramp. The Huck Tower is a 24-foot LED tower designed to track an athlete's ascent up into the air. The athletes wear ultra wideband transmitters—which are discretely sewn into two pockets at the front and back of their bib—so that the corresponding signals can be sent to four receivers on the truss towers built on each side of the racecourse. When a high-jump skier or boarder attempts a leap, a certain number of the 40 vertical LED tiles on the tower will illuminate, thereby tracking his progress up into the air. Those LEDs are activated via a custom hybrid system using ultra wideband, real-time multicamera photogrammetry, making this the first time the ultra wideband technology has been used at a Winter X Games.
"It's a technology that's had a tremendous impact," Orlins said, because it answers a question that viewers and attendees are asking each and every time and athlete takes to the air: How high did he get?
"It changed the event, really, when we realized how big of an impact it was having on viewers," Orlins said.
New technology has also transformed work behind the scenes. "When we went HD, we moved away from tape," Sandt said. The network set up a more sophisticated workflow using technologies from EVS and Avid to smooth the process of prepping and organizing material before and during the broadcast.
In addition to its broadcast component, ESPN also plans to stream live programming on XGames.com and ESPN360.com.