Inside the X Games — The Ultimate Live Event

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Type: Article, Report or Whitepaper

Topics: Live Events

Date: August 2012

By Dan Daley, Special to InfoComm International®

Live events these days take many forms. Few live events, however, match the sheer sprawl and complexity of the X Games, an annual spectacle put on by sportscaster ESPN featuring action (a.k.a. extreme) sports, from skateboarding to BMX bike riding. (The Winter X Games, which came along two years after the summer events began in 1995, are held in Aspen and are smaller, colder, but no less spectacular.)

The 18th edition of the summer event took place in late June, at L.A. Live, the 27-acre complex in downtown Los Angeles anchored by the Staples Center and the Nokia Theater. And as you might expect from an extreme sports competition, the 2012 X Games pushed the envelope for audiovisual nirvana.

The X Games franchise is going global. ESPN announced earlier this year that it would hold a total of six events in 2013, including summer stops in Barcelona, Munich, and Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil. With the announcement, organizers intend to export a P.T. Barnum-style live event template aimed a generation known for its ability to consume a plethora of entertainment at one time.

X Games viewers at home typically see a succession of events, from skateboarders speeding down the intimidating 100-foot Big Air ramp to Motocross jumpers inside Staples Center. But it’s those fans who attend the games live who really graze among a smorgasbord of competitions along a carnival-like main street through L.A. Live. And they don’t miss any of the action at any X Games venues, thanks in part to large LED video displays and sound systems that reach close to 100 dB at competition sites.

Here’s a first-hand account of the 2012 event.

The Big Picture

The X Games’ AV infrastructure is perhaps best represented by its video. Seven large temporary LED screens, supplied by NEP Broadcasting subsidiary Screenworks, were installed at key competition venues including the Park & Street course, Big Air and Rally Car venues. They were pulled into a mesh of existing screens at the L.A. Live campus, such as the six portrait-style LED screens that frame the Nokia Plaza.

In addition to being temporary, the event screens were also tentative — while some had predetermined sizes, others, such as the screen at the Rally Car venue, couldn’t be mapped out until the venues themselves took shape, which was at the last minute. In the case of the Rally venue, construction of the track itself, which took up much of Figueroa Street alongside L.A. Live, couldn’t begin until the Friday night before the X Games began when the street could be closed to traffic. But that’s the nature of the X Games, said Tony Sonnanstine, the engineer in charge of video for ESPN Event Productions. “The Park & Street venues are the same as they’ve been for a few years, so we know the dimensions we have to work with there,” he said. “But we had to wait at the Rally venue to see what the space would look like in the end.”

Fortunately, the screens that Sonnanstine’s crew used were modular, employing roughly 3.25-square-foot LED panels that allowed the final screen dimensions to fit the venues. The wildcard, however, for ESPN producers and live events pros everywhere: Modularity can result in uneven aspect ratios. At the X Games, one of the Park & Street screens ended up somewhere in between a 16:9 and 4:3 configuration. Engineers resolved the situation with a Folsom ImagePRO-HD processor to scale and resize the incoming signals.

The nature of those incoming signals is peculiar to the X Games. They were generated by a combination of high-end HD cameras costing thousands of dollars, and by dozens of GoPro consumer HD video cameras that go for as little as $200. The high-end cameras handled the broadcast feed, which combined with preproduced packages in NEP and Danali remote trucks across Figueroa Street. The GoPros? Those cameras, which are embraced by extreme sports lovers for their ease of use, affordability and ability to withstand crashes, got their video shots from just about anywhere.

“We’re using a ton of GoPros,” said Sonnanstine during the event. “Some mounted on [competitors’] helmets. We up-convert the feeds to HD-SDI and use them for point-of-view shots.”

Such a unique perspective might not be possible at every live event, if for no other reason than the consumer cameras lack any iris adjustment capability. But at the X Games, the bright California sunshine worked to producers’ advantage. “Any video noise gets buried because it’s so bright out,” Sonnanstine said.

The GoPro signals were sent to screens via a NewTek TriCaster 850, which was used as a router for venues other than the Staples Center (Staples uses its own production control center for signal routing). Feeds were distributed throughout the L.A. Live campus over multicore fiber cabling, which was necessary to cover runs as long as 3,500 feet between venues and broadcast video terminals.

Now Hear This

While the eyes might have it, there was a ton of sound at the 2012 X Games, from the songs that athletes chose to play during their downhill runs to the near-constant DJ-spinning, either at venues or in tents exhibiting consumer goods along the event’s main street. Competitions at the largest venue, the Staples Center, used the facility’s installed sound system, a newly integrated JBL VT4888 line array with a Soundcraft Vi6 live-sound console brought in for FOH by On Stage Audio, which has been the PA and related systems provider for the X Games for four years.

But the temporary PAs were equally effective. On a tower erected overlooking the Park & Street competition areas — the former a concrete swimming pool with jumps and rounded sides for BMX and dirt bikes, the latter a compact urban park for skaterboys — a Soundcraft Vi6 controlled 24 JBL SRX 712M monitors and VRX 932 biamped line-array modules, set up as a multi-point-source PA system. The system was managed by a dbx SC32 Digital Matrix Processor for DSP and signal routing between the Park & Street areas. The FOH position also handled two announcer booths — one for each area — part of the 14 zones of audio between the two. The 932s were positioned to blow directly onto the bleachers that ring three sides of both venues, while 20 JBL VRX 918 subs were located underneath the bleachers.

And so it went throughout the X Games sites: big events, big sound. A Yamaha PM5D console controlled components similar to those at the Park & Street for the Big Air ramp; the Nokia Theater’s JBL VT4889 house line array and another Vi6 console handled events there; the Rally Cars were covered by four stacks of JBL 4888 enclosures, assembled on scaffolds and run through another PM5D; and the awards stage, where winners receive their well-earned bling, used a JBL VRX 932-based PA system with VRX 918 subs going through a Soundcraft Vi1 mixer.

At one point, looking down on all the activity swirling around the Street’s concrete bowl, Cameron Grant, mixing front of house through a Soundcraft Vi6, said doing live-event sound at the X Games reminder him of mixing sound for a motion picture, except you never knew how the movie was going to end.

“This is all about staying ahead of what’s happening in front of you,” he said from his perch. “I can listen to the director over the intercom and get an idea of what’s coming up, but you’re never sure about how it’s going to turn out. It’s different from mixing sound for other types of live events. You have to constantly stay glued to what’s going on down there.”

The X Games may well set the standard for more complex live events down the road. But even for less ambitious events, it offers plenty of lessons, including how best to meld installed and temporary AV systems, or to seamlessly combine multiple types and formats (not to mention quality levels) of content into a single production.

Who knew the skateboard would play such a big part in the future of AV?