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'Axis' Spins Into the NFL

ESPN will bring virtual, freeze-frame replays of game action to its Monday Night Football franchise this season.

ESPN Axis, first deployed during the Euro 2008 soccer tournament this summer, will kick off on the total sports network's MNF opener Sept. 8 when the Minnesota Vikings visit the Green Bay Packers. ESPN executives said in July that they were considering using the technology during the upcoming American football season.

Bob Toms, ESPN's vice president of production enhancement and ITV, said the graphic enhancement, developed by Swiss company LiberoVision, was tested internally — not on the air — during ESPN's coverage of four NFL preseason games.

“We always talked about 'Wouldn't it be cool if we could get shots of certain plays from other angles?' ” he said. “Well, with [ESPN Axis] we'll be able to provide fans with access to different analysis of some key moments.”

These angles can tilt upwards by 90 degrees — from field-level to direct overhead shots — leading to three-dimensional, bird's-eye views of plays from multiple vantage points. Within the 3-D frame, ESPN analysts will telestrate various player locations and movements to depict and explain how the action developed and its consequences.

Toms said most of the replays figure to focus on passing plays.

“We can get a look from the QB and the passing lanes he sees,” Toms explained. “Then, viewers will be able to see where the receiver makes the great cut, or the defender breaks down.”

Whereas ESPN took IBC's world feed from Euro 2008 and then calibrated and stitched together the images at its headquarters in Bristol, Conn., it will be creating the replays on-site from its trucks for MNF.

To produce the replays, ESPN can draw from its 30 regular camera positions, including its “all 22” view and sky cam, as well as Axis's virtual cameras.

It's not an easy process, one that involves, among other things: finding the play; plotting the appropriate action; freezing the frame; getting the right camera angles; building the image; and then having the analyst telestrate over it.

All in all, the process can take some 20 minutes. That span may or may not give ESPN enough time to use Axis, for example, with a touchdown, and then showcase its multiple-angle replays when the scoring team gets the ball back (commercial pods and the length of the opposition's next possession are the immediate variables).

“That's what we'd like to do, but it would also be OK to show a key first-quarter play in the second quarter,” said Toms.

Ideally, ESPN would like to deploy Axis once a quarter, but in all likelihood it will be displayed two or three times per game. It will also be used in pre- and post-game analysis, where it could find a sponsor attached. (NFL rules prohibit in-game telecast entitlement.)

“We're doing this to bring fans more insight to the game,” said Toms. “If a sponsor comes along, that would be great for us.”