ESPN’s Home Run Derby coverage on Monday night will feature new 3D home run spray charts and an analyst-controlled immersive replay for better dissection of hitters’ swings.
The 3D spray chart builds off the network’s three-dimensional K-Zone that debuted during last year’s American League wild card game. That recurring rendering of the strike zone only required digital recreations of the pitch’s path from mound to plate. What ESPN will debut Monday is a 3D production of Nationals Park in its entirety so that home runs leaving the bat at upwards of 120 miles per hour and traveling up to or even exceeding 500 feet can be tracked.
The technology powering this real-time rendering is called Unreal Engine, and was developed by Epic Games to power video games such as its blockbuster hit Fortnite. ESPN will use the game engine with live Statcast data to produce an animated trajectory of each home run, including its exit velocity, launch angle, and distance.
Unreal Engine “drives that environment,” ESPN’s senior coordinating producer for MLB coverage, Phil Orlins, said. “It’s the ability to capture data from Statcast in virtually real-time, and transition that into unlimited animation possibilities with almost no meaningful render time.”
The design of each ballpark’s 3D environment is onerous, so this technology will not be immediately deployed in the rest of ESPN’s baseball coverage any time soon. That said, Orlins envisions such a future, saying, “Everything gets faster and easier to build—part of it’s the experience, part of it is the technology is always improving.” He added that the full Statcast dashboard contains an enormous amount of underlying data from which “there’s just massive potential to grow this into a virtual environment.”
The other technological tool viewers should keep an eye out for is the use of 4D Replay, which will enable producers to spin and shift the vantage point of the camera within a clip. It creates an experience similar to the 360-degree replays used during NFL broadcasts, and powered by Intel’s True View technology.
4D Replay is based in Korea and made its MLB debut with an installation at AT&T Park earlier this season. That setup uses 140 4K cameras, according to The Athletic, with varying numbers trained on home plate, the mound, and each base.
Orlins said ESPN debuted this technology in late June for three Cubs-Dodgers games in Los Angeles. That installation used 100 cameras—50 for the plate, 50 for the mound—with the lenses aligned in a semicircle to capture the necessary angles.
For the Derby, Orlins said the alternative viewing option on ESPNews will rely heavily on Statcast data and graphics. That feed will use former big league player and hitting coach Eduardo Perez as analyst. Perez will be given some autonomy to control the 4D Replay as he analyzes the Derby contestants’ swings.
“Our plan is to give Eduardo Perez a tablet where he can spin it himself, stop it and draw, move in, move out, things like that,” Orlins said. “I think he’s a really good guy to try it.”