From helmet cameras to data-tracking snowboards, X Games tech pulls fans into extreme sports by testing devices that are later used in mainstream sports.
When X Games Aspen begins at the end of January, action sports fans will tune in to ESPN and ABC to follow the world’s top extreme athletes. Since 1995, the X Games have been a testing ground for ESPN — a place for the network to experiment with cutting-edge technology.
This comes into play in the broadcasts, which feature new and innovative ways of displaying the events’ sights, sounds and statistics. Months later, fans of more mainstream sports like football, basketball and auto racing — people who couldn’t tell a triple cork from a double backside rodeo — could benefit from technologies debuting on the Aspen slopes.
Extreme Sports Beget Extreme Innovation
There are several reasons why pioneering technology melded effortlessly with extreme sports. One is that the event was brand new in the mid-90s, and there was a steep learning curve to televising the competition for the first time.
“In the more mainstream sports, ultimately, the game is the game,” ESPN senior coordinating producer Amy Rosenfeld said. “But in the X Games and action sports world, anything can happen. You never know what trick someone will pull or what new innovation an athlete may demonstrate.
“We’re constantly trying to keep up with what the athletes are doing and trying to translate that to an audience that maybe isn’t completely up to speed on things like rotation and g-force upon landing,” she said.
The attitude of the competitors, and their fans, also lends itself to innovative ways of broadcasting the events. Rosenfeld said snowboarders and skateboarders tend to think of themselves as outsiders, so it only makes sense that their televised competitions require something other than your father’s sportscast.
“They’re always looking to push the envelope,” Rosenfeld said. “We try to catch up with them. Their outlook is that anything’s possible, and why not? They don’t think that they have any limitations at all. They’re making up their own rules, self-defining. It really is the perfect match.”
There’s another reason for the experimentation, which has a little bit more to do with logistics than attitude.
“The key to all this is that X Games is an ESPN property,” said Paul DiPietro, a coordinating director of ESPN event operations who is one of 25 people left who has been with the network since it went on the air in 1979.
“We own it. We don’t have to deal with the league or the stadium. We’re it. That gives us a huge advantage in terms of testing technology,” he said. “We can go with it without having to ask permission.”
DiPietro said the daring use of technology is great for fans, and the athletes and venues are happy to comply with the network to try something new.
“They always buy in,” Rosenfeld said of the athletes, who in previous years have been fitted with helmet cameras and carried equipment sewn into pockets of their clothing. “They ask very few questions. They just say, ‘When can we start?’”
Extreme to Mainstream
When an X Games tech experiment is a success, it doesn’t take long for the innovation to be incorporated into more traditional sports.
Developed on the slopes and big air jumps, helmet cameras and cable-mounted sky cameras debuted at previous X Games events. These technologies are now part of most mainstream sporting events, from MLB games to the Super Bowl.
Olympic broadcasts include specially generated data elements like first-place and world-record pace lines during live events or simultaneously superimposed videos of two skiers’ runs. Many of those innovations had their genesis in extreme sports.
“People from other ESPN departments will watch and say, ‘Wow! That was cool,’ and it circulates around the building,” said Rosenfeld, who would like to use this year’s X Games data tracking for soccer matches and Indy Car races.
“Suddenly people are like, ‘Hey, that thing you did on snowboard pike, I’d really like to try that out on football, or ‘That would have an application on my basketball game.’”
Rosenfeld said the ultimate goal for any broadcaster is to keep audiences on the edge of their seats.
“We’re all trying to now provide new and interesting data points, camera angles and visuals because the audience gets bored a lot faster than they did 25 years ago.”
Some of the innovations, however, are less noticeable to the average viewer than new angles and 3D technology. X Games locations often require more nimble equipment, such as the Spider Cam, which is a 4-wheel cart-mounted camera that replaced much of the scaffolding that the network previously needed to build.
New methods of remote video transmission also needed to be developed, since it wasn’t feasible to construct a TV studio at X Games events.
“It was prohibitive to bring all that gear,” DiPietro said. “So we came up with a way to ship the camera feeds back to Bristol [ESPN Headquarters in Connecticut] and produce it there.” The technology eventually became known as remote integration or REMI, and it’s become a staple of sports broadcasting.
X Games technology crews also invented something called an Xducer, which is a contact microphone. Instead of picking up sound waves through the air, like traditional mics, the Xducer is mounted on or near the competition surface, and it picks up vibrations though solid material.
The hair-raising scrape of a figure skater’s blade on the ice as she lands a jump that’s become a part of Olympic coverage? That comes from an Xducer that was buried under the ice, while they were flooding the floor days earlier.
Pushing the envelope
The X Games turns 20 this year, but they show no signs of slowing down or becoming more conservative. Just last year, ESPN introduced two revolutionary new ideas to the broadcast. One was RF GoPro cameras, which allowed viewers to get point-of-view shots of the athletes as they go off the big air jumps.
The network used tiny, nimble cameras in the past, but 2015 was the first time ESPN was able to integrate live feeds from them into the broadcast, rather than a post-race look at what the athlete saw.
In keeping with X Games tradition, despite all the planning prior to the event, the RF GoPros ended up needing some on-the-spot improvisation.
“They showed up with a suitcase of equipment that had never been built before,” Rosenfeld recalled, “and they were tweaking it on the side of the hill right up until the time we went on the air. It was like a James Bond movie — Here’s the briefcase, and off we go.”
The RF GoPros will be back in Aspen this year, and mainstream sports broadcasters are lining up to get them.
“The nimbleness of small cameras is starting to move into other areas,” Rosenfeld said, “because ultimately, we’re always trying to deliver new and innovative shots. You’re able to execute some shots you could never do with a hard camera.”
The second innovation from last year still needs a little tweaking. ESPN unveiled drone cameras at X Games Aspen, marking the first time a sporting event was able to include drone shots.
The drones won’t be at Aspen this year, but they’ll surely be back in the future.
“We’re working out the restrictions and limitations in terms of where you can fly and how close you can be to people,” Rosenfeld said. “Broadcasters will keep pushing the FAA to broaden the rules because that is an innovative look you’re not getting from a chopper or a blimp.”
With drones out of commission in 2016, this year’s big innovation will be incorporating Intel’s Curie microchip in the athlete’s equipment to provide a real-time data feed for two snowboarding events: Men’s Snowboard Slopestyle and Men’s Snowboard Big Air.
A chip embedded in a snowboard will be able to give viewers a real-time, on-screen report of the athlete’s jump height, in-air rotation and the g-force generated when he or she lands.
“The ability to deliver some of this data is really going to elevate a lot of sports to the next level,” Rosenfeld said. “We are really interested in trying to deliver more information to the viewer, to have them truly appreciate how amazing these athletic feats really are.”
— X Games (@XGames) January 25, 2016
With all these data points and biometrics readily available, Rosenfeld joked the network will eventually have live DNA readings available for viewers.
“I think soon, there will be no secrets,” he said.