ESPN had one simple request, which was to have a frickin’ laser beam attached to the first down marker for its Monday Night Football coverage.
This past week, for the Week 6 clash between the Buffalo Bills and Tennessee Titans, the network unveiled its new feature for a crucial play with less than 30 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter when Bills quarterback Josh Allen dove for the 2-yard line on a third-and-six attempt to get a first down.
Allen was ruled short of the marker, which ESPN’s replays showed to be the correct call thanks to what producers call its new “Line-to-Gain Virtual Plane,” an extension of the Pylon Cam technology used to show whether or not a ballcarrier crossed the goal line for a touchdown.
Here at Awful Announcing, we certainly noticed the new feature and tweeted out a clip:
A first down line laser into the sky is something you don’t see often pic.twitter.com/H6Kzj9Cljn
— Awful Announcing (@awfulannouncing) October 19, 2021
“We have been leaders in the pylon technology for a long time, starting with the goal line pylon cams and then evolving from there,” ESPN senior coordinating producer Ed Placey said in an article for ESPN Front Row.
“Over the years, the Line-to-Gain Pylon has become commonplace among networks and this virtual line is the next step. We will continue to evolve the technology and utilize it where it benefits our viewers.”
As ESPN explained, Monday Night Football producers had been waiting for an opportunity to use the new feature. When Allen’s third-down dive made the spotting of the ball crucial, replay system operator Luke Boden and replay producer Kyle Brown quickly decided this was the time to break out the Virtual Plane technology.
— NFL Officiating (@NFLOfficiating) October 19, 2021
According to ESPN, the process involves adding the digital first-down marker to the replay, then layering the virtual plane on top of that. Then Brown looks at the result and decides whether it should go on the air.
“When the play ended, knowing the stakes and situation, instantly Boden asked ‘Do we want to use the virtual plane?’ as I was preparing to cycle through the assortment of replays,” Brown explained to ESPN communications director Derek Volner.
“This was exactly the situation we had in mind when we brought the technology on board and instantaneously, I felt it would be right. I gave approval and then we were on the same page, knowing we had just a few moments to bring the technology to life.”
Brown and producers questioned whether the feature would add to the telecast. But anything that makes a replay and ruling by the officials more clear is always welcome. This wasn’t a bell or whistle that simply made the presentation fancier. There was value added here and will likely be something we see more often on future MNF telecasts.