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The Art of Live Stream and How it’s Changing Sports

A racer coming through Gorilla during the 2020 Green Race. Marc Hunt photo.

This year has changed the ways we, as a society, interact with each other in more ways than I can count. The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic to the United States in March seemingly halted life. Suddenly, we all had to stay at home, we couldn’t travel, hug our friends, and so on. Things we’d looked forward to for months, even years, were just cancelled. What even seemed like the simplest of activities in normal days - going kayaking with friends, driving an hour to go skiing, riding bikes outside our zip code, we weren’t allowed to do anymore. Many of us found solace in a walk around our neighborhood, but even this felt like it was just trying to replace the normalcy we so craved. As event after event was cancelled, sometimes I still held out hope that we’d be able to figure out something by summer, maybe even by fall. But as 2020 has continued on, so have the disappointments. However, I felt a long lost zap of inspiration and hope when I saw that the Green Race, an extreme kayak race, was going to be live streamed from Saluda, North Carolina this year. As the organizer of Green Race John Grace says, ‘the show must go on,’ and he’s right. Even though the smallest pieces of our lives look different, we have to keep on living them. So, how do we do this in the face of a pandemic? Speaking with Grace as well as Accomplice director and livestream master Jeremy Grant yielded some answers, and it gives me hope for the future of action sports.

One of the biggest changes to our lives this year is that suddenly everything is online. School, work, happy hour, conferences, yoga classes, you name it, it’s all over video chat. This video technology has allowed us to achieve what we crave most, a little human interaction, in one of the strangest times of our lives. Although it feels so new, this video technology has been around for almost twenty years and used by some of our favorite action sports events.

Red Bull Rampage is one of the most iconic and gnarly events in freeride mountain biking. Every October, the bike community begins to whisper about what will happen in Virgin, Utah this year, knowing that each athlete puts his best foot forward for this event, making it absolutely epic. My first impression from speaking with Jeremy Grant (who's the man behind the epic event livestream we get to enjoy every year) is that Rampage is so much more than just a gnarly freeride event that we think of it as. Grant has collaborated with Freeride Entertainment and Red Bull Media House on every Rampage since its inception. As director, Grant is responsible for a lot more than just the technology that goes into live streaming the event. He talked about the whole thing as a cohesive, moving, living being where each little piece is essential. His role is a kind of symphony conductor for the world’s most technical, high speed orchestra. “My main role is like an overarching blanket in making sure the sport’s represented along with those technical elements because it’s so nuanced,” says Grant, his thoughts seemingly somewhere in the Utah desert.

Thomas Genon throws a suicide no-hander during Rampage 2019. Photo from Red Bull Content Pool.

One of the things that sets Rampage apart from other downhill and freeride bike events is that riders not only choose their own line, but they sculpt all of the features in the ten days leading up to the event. Given this, it’s up to Grant and Rampage Director of Photography, Cory Horton to figure out the best way to broadcast twenty-one different lines, and make sure he’s doing all the biggest features justice for the audience watching. The trickiest part here is trying to figure out exactly what each athlete is planning without putting too much pressure on them.

Grant explains his strategies when setting up the event. “I spend the ten days leading up and running around doing interviews and talking to each guy trying to find twenty one unique stories and in the meantime, as gently as possible, trying to learn about their lines. I don’t often ask about tricks because that can get in the athletes heads. You’ve gotta read the terrain.”Asking them straight up, ‘hey, you gonna throw a backie off this year?’ has the potential to completely throw off their mental game, so it’s up to Grant to do so tactfully. This is a skill he and the crew behind Red Bull Rampage have learned over the years. In the first few days of Rampage, it’s just the athletes, their close friends, and a select few from Freeride Entertainment's film crew out in the desert as the riders build their lines. It's during these days that the relationships needed to put on a successful Rampage stream are created. 

Ethan Nell flips off the cliffs of Virgin. Photo from Red Bull Content Pool.

On top of just capturing the biggest tricks on film, there are other aspects to streaming the event that the team has to think about while setting up every year. With something like Rampage, according to Grant, you pretty much know that anything off a 40-foot drop is going to be ‘absolutely spectacular.’ So, it’s really those nuances of capturing the absolute scale and steepness of the mountain that are just as important. The crew that films Rampage has been doing so together for quite a while now, and it’s their collective learning curve and cohesiveness that make the live stream on such a large physical scale so good. Viewership for Red Bull Rampage's livestream passes a million and is also streamed on Fox Sports, adding a few million more viewers.

As much as the riders, the lines, and the team have grown throughout the years of Rampage, so has the technology used to capture the event. While the event coverage started with a bunch of 16mm cameras, its evolved dramatically since its humble beginnings. IndyCar’s live director Terry Lingner is an essential part of this evolution with his background in filming live sports events. Lingner, Horton, and Grant collaborate to refine cutting patterns and camera angles for each section. The crew also uses hand held lenses from the top of the mountain in order to achieve a ‘man vs the mountain’ effect for viewers. One of the biggest technological advances Rampage used in 2019 was VR incorporated cameras. “We had a digital camera that they had sent drones up and got satellite images and traced to the mountains. We had 100 percent accurate representation of the mountains. We could trace it onto one of the cameras or create 3D maps to show every athlete’s line. General stabilized cameras, satellite scanned images that allow for 3D mapping,” Grant tells me, sounding excited. 

This new technology was huge for the event, and took home a 2019 Sport's Emmy for Outstanding Technical Innovation for the team. Rampage actually uses its live stream for the judges at the bottom. Because they are unable to see every part of a rider’s line from one spot, the live stream footage is essential for determining the actual results of the event. Lastly, the crew has created their own language that helps them to communicate throughout the event. This shorthand allows them to prepare for shots as the action is in play without getting lost in the semantics of ‘riders right? No, rider’s left!’ at the last minute.

Simon Berggren gets the shot. Photo from RedBull Content Pool.

For the last nineteen years the Rampage production team dialed in all the elements that keeps this event going, even in the most precarious of conditions. While the Green Race outdates Rampage by five years, this year marked its debut as a live stream. Although these two events are completely different in most ways, the thing that ties them and their coverage together is the drive, planning, and thought that filming and streaming in such remote locations demands. Whether it be a harsh desert, or, in the case of the Green River, the bottom of a canyon, a live stream in these places is no easy feat.

The Green Race is one of a couple extreme whitewater kayak races that happens every year and usually draws a crowd of around 3,000 to spectate. With social distancing restrictions in place, Green Race organizer and world class kayaker John Grace had to get creative about how best to bring the event to its fans. While much of a whitewater kayak race lends itself to social distancing in the sense that the racers are all a minute apart, the spectatorship does not. Class V rapids like those on the Green are created by gradients that don’t lend themselves well to large groups of people being spaced out around them. Grace wasn’t even sure they were going to put Green Race on this year until about sixty days before the event. It was then he knew he had to come up with a solution for the three thousand-some spectators that normally watch from the sidelines. Grace had some previous experience with live streaming and decided to go for it.

The tech team hard at work in the canyon. Marc Hunt photo.

Although Grace had the experience and most of the technology, he wasn’t sure exactly how to get the bottom of this remote river canyon connected to the outside world. While there were a couple of hotspots in the area, none would provide the connection needed for such a large event. “We found a friend of a friend, who had a piece of property down there and mapped out a route through the game lands to get it up to that person’s house. That was our link to the outside world….Live event coverage, actually sports events coverage is hard no matter what. But you do it down in there, and it’s epic,” Grace tells me, and by his voice, I can tell just how epic it is.

So, as most of us do when we’re in a pickle, we call our friends. Grace called up his friend Brad Roberts, a fellow paddler who happens to run live shows for Time Warner and CNN. They devised a plan that would involve fiber optic cable being run up the canyon and Brad operating all the technology - switchers, graphics, monitors, and so on, from the river. “You know, fiber optics is not cheap,” says Grace, “you don’t want to have a bunch left on your spool, you want to have as close to exactly as much as you need.” In order to figure out exactly how much this was, Grace mapped out the whole race course using GPS tracking software. However, due to poor service, the GPS doesn’t have great coverage in the canyon. So, he went back and plotted his route on Google Earth to find the linear distance, but he still didn’t have the vertical distance needed. Naturally, Grace decided his best course of action was to ‘bust out the old pythagorean theorem nonsense,’ to come up with a length that would represent the dimensionality of the canyon accurately. He ended up with 3,000 feet of fiber optic cable, and was only about 250 feet over exactly what he needed.

All the technology needed to live stream the Green Race was in place, and as kayakers often do, Grace thought, ‘how in the world do we fund this?’ They landed on using a pay-per-view style where watchers would pay and get a login. They had everything up and running, and tested all contingencies in place the day of the event. Grace recalls that all their focus was on the live stream itself, and all the plans set in place for the actual stream. So, when the website went down because too many people tried to login to watch day of, Grace was dumbfounded. What turned out to be any easy fix in the coding showed Grace just how much chaos can happen trying to communicate between the top and bottom of a remote canyon. It also doesn’t help having such a difficult location to produce these live streams.

Just like Rampage, the prowess of a live stream inevitably has some impact on the athletes as well. Grace himself has raced in twenty consecutive Green Races along with being the organizer. This year’s race saw the course record broken by Dane Jackson, as well as at least one swim in the formidable class V rapid, Gorilla. Racing whitewater is all about the mental game, and anything has the possibility to affect that. The Green Race is a whole different animal with its crowds, and I asked Grace how a live stream and spectator restrictions would change this. “I think, if anything,” he told me, “it took the pressure off. In a typical year, you come around the corner, and it really is like an amphitheater, it is loud, there are horns going off, bells, being rung, people in costume, people have placards. I really feel like from a racer standpoint, from a year when all the spectators are in there, you have more sense of being watched than what you have with the live stream. I know that with being a racer, when you come through Gorilla, you have the racers cheering for you, in one little spot. But from a typical year, from the time you hit Go Left, all the way to until you finish the race, you have a wave of noise following you down the river.” For Grace, the most difficult part of this year's race was figuring out how not to miss his own race lap.

Only racers and their families were allowed to spectate the Green Race this year. Marc Hunt photo.

Chatting with John Grace and Jeremy Grant showed me that this technology really is about more than just bringing an event to people at home. Live streaming is a collaboration, a team working together to bring an in person experience to a digital platform in a way that holds true to the event. It’s a way to show people these amazing, remote places in an entirely new way. Lastly, live streams like Green Race and Rampage are created through the relationships formed between the crew, the athletes, and everyone else working to put them on. So, while watching them from home may still feel funny to some of us, we can do so knowing that human connection is what makes these events possible in a time where just the opposite feels so true.

While Rampage and Green Race are only two examples, it was clear from talking with these two that the future of live stream is very real. Events like our own JHMR Kings and Queens may have been live streamed in the past, but how will that change moving into the future as spectatorship may continue to be limited? Will other events use live streaming as an alternative to cancelling or limiting the event? As Grant said, “you can’t put on an event that’s all about innovation without innovating yourself.” What other technology will be utilized to further incorporate viewers into the experience? Even though we hope the pandemic will be a short chapter in our lives, it’s clear that live streaming is here to stay. 

You can watch Kayak Session Magazine's Inside the Sights and Sounds of the Green Race, 2020 and the Highlights of 2019 Red Bull Rampage Below:

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