ESPN’s New Monday Night Football Dashboard Will Dash Beyond Football
By: Carolyn Braff, Editor
Tuesday, August 18, 2009 - 10:52 am

Last season, ESPN unveiled a brand-new scoreboard graphic for Monday Night Football. Doing away with the standard mini-scoreboard, ESPN created a dashboard, a horizontal information panel anchored to the bottom of the screen, eliminating some of the obtrusive graphics that had been taking over the on-screen action.

“Last year, we started the new concept, which was trying to give the screen back to the viewer,” says Mike “Spike” Szykowny, of ESPN’s creative-services team. “We moved to a more functional dashboard, which is a living, breathing element that opened up to show information, then closed up again, therefore being a better presentation for the viewer.”

From a functionality standpoint, the new dashboard was a slam dunk — so much so that ESPN integrated it into its coverage of the NBA Finals.

“Basketball is a sport where play is never stopped, so being able to flood the screen with linear information without having to stop or change shots really worked out,” Szykowny says.

With a solid foundation in last year’s package, he and his team set out to tweak the look for this year, the 40th-anniversary season of Monday Night Football. In addition to in-house critiques, ESPN put together two think tanks, in which fans and creative executives were asked for their opinions on the show, including the graphical look.

“In our own self-evaluations, the word that kept coming up was utilitarian,” Szykowny says. “It worked, but we felt like we could add a little more design to it, streamline the functionality, and make it even better for the viewer.”

To accomplish that, he did away with the extra elements that anchored the graphic to the bottom of the screen, so that the dashboard now takes up only the amount of screen space that is absolutely necessary.

“It’s refined to make it easier to read,” observes Chip Dean, director of Monday Night Football on ESPN. “It’s less obtrusive on the screen.”

Szykowny says, “From a design perspective, we think we’ve improved the readability of it, both in the dashboard stage and when it goes to the lower third. We thought that some of the font was a little small last year so we wanted to beef it up a little bit. We’ve added some new functionality. Whereas, last year, the dashboard only went to lower thirds, you can now see it growing and turning into other things: possibly full-screen graphics, starting lineups, even the replay wipe will most likely be generated as a starting position from the dashboard.”

The dashboard was built native to the Vizrt platform, but ESPN develops all of its graphics in house, utilizing a team of 15 people from the strategic-design, graphic-design–development, and emerging-technology departments.

“We can’t go out-of-house anymore,” Szykowny explains. “We’re so integrated between departments, as far as building a frontend and automated data coming in, that, by bringing in outside providers, we end up taking their stuff but then having to rework it anyway.”

For this week’s Monday Night Football game, viewers at home saw the 2008 graphical look. Inside the NEP SS25 production truck, Szykowny’s team watched the live game with the new graphical look above, tweaking it throughout the broadcast. The new dashboard will make its regular-season debut on Sept. 14.

“All the scripting and functionality that we learned last year definitely gives us a head start on building this one out this year,” Szykowny says. “Having it under our belt for a year in two sports, it’s definitely a smoother, less stressful build, but it’s still coming down to the last four weeks, and here we are huddled in trucks sweating out the details.”

Adding to the stress level is a software upgrade. The old graphical look, which is being used throughout the preseason, runs on Viz 2.8, but the new look has been upgraded to Viz 3.2. The upgraded software offers some changes to the on-screen look — new shader plug-ins, for example — but the biggest difference comes on the backend, where the workflow has become far smoother. Advanced animation tools allow the team to develop a more unified style, and the addition of options like “undo” make the shift to 3.2 the equivalent of moving from a palette of six colors to 120.

“It is really important that we nail this because, after Monday Night Football, this look will go to our college bowl championships starting in December and to the BCS championship,” Szykowny says. “This will eventually turn into the new event-production look for many of our other sports as well. You can possibly see it this year on NBA and Major League Baseball, depending on how fast we can work.”

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