I work for NexGen.
This summer, my coworkers and I traveled to four different high level tournaments to produce live broadcasts of the action. We have one left.
If you were at a tournament, you probably saw us scurry around with expensive electronics or made detours around our elaborate set-up. It didn’t seem like we were doing all that much.
And if you purchased the feed and logged into your account, presto! Live-action ultimate.
I have been occasionally asked what the NexGen crew does. Besides the fact that we produce broadcasts, how exactly does NexGen work?
Just what do we do all day?
This is my perspective.
The Crew: Reoccurring Characters
Kevin Minderhout – Otherwise known as “Fresh” or “Dad”. The Boss. A direct, hard-hitting individual known for his bluntness and getting things done. His explosive, hair-trigger temper keeps his crew operating like a fine-tuned wristwatch. Without Kevin’s foresight, strict discipline, and logistical savviness, it’s safe to say there would be no NexGen Network.
Vinh Bui – “Vinhtern” is a puppetmaster of wizardly skill. Officially called the technical director, Vinh specializes in staring at four separate screens and mashing buttons at his fingertips which manipulate the live stream. As Dad’s disciple, Vinh is often heard berating the camera operators for sloppy work and late positioning. He’s all smiles and hucks after the feed.
Ian Lunger – The cameraman (or one of three, anyway). Frequently seen sprinting back and forth on the sidelines with rivulets of sunscreen-flavored sweat dribbling from his body as he attempts to capture the best angle of the action. A broadcast without Ian is a broadcast severely lacking in effort.
Xuny Haley – Attempts to work the Replay Machine. No previous applicable skills or knowledge of media operations. How did she even get on the crew, anyway?
Mornings: Up and At’em
Discs fly at 9 a.m., on the field by 7 a.m.
We all fly into the tournament city the evening before the games begin, and depending on our starting location, we suffer from jetlag. There is always at least one person whose flight was delayed and caught a pitiful few hours of sleep.
There’s no risk that this unfortunate soul will accidentally sleep in. In fact, this isn’t a concern for anyone traveling with the NexGen crew. If you are not up at least 45 minutes before it’s time to leave, Kevin will march into your room, turn on the light, and cheerfully insist you get out of bed. If you resist him, he’ll start to sing. As Ian says, “he loves to make it clear that it is morning and you should be joyous.”
I hate it.
To avoid this, and also to ensure adequate morning ritual time, I awake 30 minutes before everyone else to shower and groom. In our weekend rental house, there is usually only one bathroom to split between all of us.
My shower invigorates me. It is 6:15 a.m. I am peppy. I question, I chatter, I hum, I laugh. They ignore me and grab the gear they’ll need for the day. Sunscreen, obviously. Rain clothes if clouds are on the horizon. Granola bars and raw corn to snack on. Water bottles for hydration.
Mornings are typically sleepy and slow. There is no general feeling of anxious competitiveness, no pre-game jitters or nauseating adrenaline rushes. For us, the tournament is a weekend of typical work. We’ve all moved through these steps before, and barring unforeseeable mishaps, this broadcast should run as any other.
If anything, the morning is a peaceful precursor to the hectic hours soon to come.
By 6:50 a.m., we have loaded up the cars and are out the door.
Setup: Important… but Unexciting
The fields are bare, save for the 15 feet scaffolding that Kevin painstakingly set up by himself the day before. We park as closely as we can to our tent, and in several trips, we lug the pounds of equipment over.
Prepping for broadcasts is like assembling an intricate puzzle. The most minor details must be properly oriented or the broadcast could go wrong. For example, I remember being intrigued by the system Ian and Kevin created for storing the camera batteries. If a battery has been used for any length of time, it is placed right-side up. Fresh batteries are stored upside down (this actually might be incorrect, but for the purposes of this example, play along). The cameramen must comply with the system, or they run the risk of not knowing which batteries are dead. If they get it wrong, it might mean not knowing which batteries to charge at night or which to use when they need a quick change during the day.
Ian and Vinh are currently the most senior members on the crew. Kevin tries to hire the same individuals for each tournament, but due to varying availability, he occasionally is forced to find new recruits. When there are beginners on the team, Ian and Vinh will step up and show them the how-tos of the broadcast.
Ian and the other cameramen unroll yards and yards of cords for each of the cameras. NexGen uses three: one with an eagle’s eye view 15 feet above the field, one stationary in the back of an end zone, and one which is heaved up and down the sidelines at the cameraman’s discretion. The stationary cameramen stack the cameras onto sturdy tripods to prevent camera shake. If the clouds foreshadow rain, they tape plastic garbage bags around the cameras so nothing gets damaged.
Meanwhile, Vinh and I are in charge of all the equipment in the tent. First, we’ll select two sides of the tent and put up a wall for protection against the elements; this decision is based on the angle of the sun and the side from which the wind is blowing. Then, I’ll assemble the replay machine and two computer monitors while Vinh hooks up the video mixer and deftly sticks the vast system of inputs and outputs into their corresponding holes. When he finishes, he’ll glance over my work and help to set up electronics for the announcers.
The two announcers sit atop lower scaffolding during game play. The slightly elevated height allows them to watch game play without having their vision blocked by teams walking back and forth on the sidelines. Vinh hooks up one headset for each announcer. He also prepares a small monitor that streams the live feed, so the announcers can comment on the broadcast when necessary.
Kevin’s focus narrows intensely. He bustles around, building a technologically sophisticated base. He drags around power cables and extension cords, provides gas-powered electricity, and generates an internet connection. He has no time for laziness or idiotic questions, and needs to implicitly trust his crew to operate independently so he can squash potential kinks–problems only he can fix– before they come to fruition.
That insistence that we arrive two hours before games begin? Always a blessing. Camp is set up in an hour and a half, giving us a short period of relaxation before chaos ensues.
It is in moments like these that I understand why Kevin is “Dad”.
Players have long since arrived and sloughed onto the various fields. They claim areas as indicated by duffel bags and haphazard discs. Even though I will not be playing, I notice a new, subtle, electric tension in the atmosphere. The once temperate morning has given way to an energetic spark of athletic anticipation. Each team slowly gears up, lacing up cleats and working through drills to loosen muscles, warm up hands, and mentally prepare.
Ten minutes before games start and each member of the crew has taken up their post. The stream goes live in eight. There is a touch more prep work to be done. The two commentators discuss their key statistics and the crucial players most likely to impact the game. Vinh has a trusty Red Bull close at hand and helps the cameramen synchronize their lighting and select beginning shots. Kevin is in his own world, monitoring the progression of the feed on his laptop, scanning social media for NexGen related mentions, and responding to emails from stream purchasers. I sit and wait.
Clock ticks away. Vinh gives a countdown. Showtime.
Broadcasts: The Nitty Gritty
If you like knowing that you are expected to perform as closely to perfection as possible because people are watching your every move and there are absolutely no take backs, then you would thrive in a NexGen broadcast (or probably, any live broadcast).
Broadcasts are stressful. Broadcasts are unpredictable. Broadcasts are exhilarating. Broadcasts require 100% of your undivided attention at all times so you do not miss any of the action of the field. Fortunately, I prefer the intensity of this environment, so broadcasts are also a lot of fun.
As the technical director, Vinh is the glue that binds everyone together — a task that is deceptively difficult. Each of the three camera angles feed into his monitor, and he selects which angle the audience will see. Vinh’s job is to see all three camera angles at the same time. I’m fairly certain he doesn’t blink during the duration of the game. Furthermore, he is the only person with the ability to communicate with the other individuals, so he must constantly be speaking to all the members of the crew. He doesn’t stop talking for the entirety of the game. In his words, he “keeps the broadcast watchable” by guiding the cameramen to appealing shots and telling them which individuals to stick with.
He wears a headset to communicate, and his swift commands are moderately entertaining:
“Camera one, we’ve opened on you and are displaying a graphic over –
“No camera one STOP moving your camera, keep still. And camera three, take camera three.
“Okay camera one, zoom in on the players. Camera one, take camera one.
“Camera two, you need to lighten up. Camera two. Can you hear me? Get off the grass. What the heck are you – YES Ian keep that shot. Camera three, take camera three.
“Guys, the announcers are talking about Bailey Zahniser. Give me a shot. Someone find her. Is she hiding from us?
“Oh, she’s not wearing her jersey! What is the point? Great find, camera two. And we’re on camera two.”
Kevin surveys the opening sequences like an expectant sage. He taught himself how to use all of the equipment, and passed on the knowledge to his crew. He knows exactly what we are and are not capable of. He’s efficient with his words in that he only speaks if he thinks your work is top notch, or if he hates what you are doing. I equally crave and dread the sound of his voice.
The announcers talk at the invisible listeners of the live feed. I have never done this job, never will do this job, and have no desire to do this job. Talking about ultimate is cool, but their task is also to create an intelligent dialogue regarding statistics and plays literally seconds after they are relevant. It takes a special kind of person to talk entertainingly into thin air. This is not one of my fortes. I have respect for those who can coherently complete this task.
Being a cameraman is also more complicated than you might think. When clouds roll over the sun, their image is significantly altered, so they are forever toggling the lighting in search of a non-distorted coloring. From what I understand, there is zooming and focusing which takes some practice to seamlessly master. There is also a great deal of play prediction involved, as they are supposed to follow the disc around the field. While the stationary cameramen cannot do much about their angles, Ian is not tied down. So, he gallops up and down the periphery of the fields, yanking the cord behind him in search of superior shots. It works. He almost always captures the best angle.
I operate the instant playbacks. Replays are controlled by a wheel which lets me search through recorded film, and a lever which controls the video speed. Each of the cameras feed into my computer monitor, and at any point during the game, I can rewind what has been filmed and create a clip from any angle for Vinh to feed into the broadcast.
For much of the game, I am sitting and staring intently. As soon as something noteworthy happens – a handblock, a foul, an unforced error, a huck, a bid, a sky – I have anywhere from two to six seconds to queue it up for the audience to watch (preferably from a different angle). Most of the clips that I create don’t get played due to rapid continuation of game play.
The anxiety of my few first broadcasts was overwhelming. It took me about 15 games to become comfortable with the replay machine. I think that is probably standard — Vinh says that it took him the same amount of time to become comfortable as the technical director. After I found a groove, developed a confidence in my role, and knew generally what my tasks should visually entail, the work became simple.
I still make occasional errors. Most of them are not noticeable on air. When they are, I get flustered and begin to profusely apologize to Vinh and Kevin while attempting to amend my mistake.
Once, after a particularly brutal error, I exclaimed, “God, I’m sorry. I freaking suck. I-”
Kevin sharply cut me off. “Don’t say that about yourself. Okay? Just focus. Get your head in the game.”
I paused and floundered for a response. I didn’t end up saying anything, and neither did Vinh.
I’ll never forget that.
Between Broadcasts: That Sweet Intermission
“And we’ll see you for the next game,” the announcer finishes up. We wait for Kevin to take the feed off air, and then we are momentarily free.
We get a break when games finish early. When games hit hard cap, we roll right into the next broadcast. We’ll film three or four games in one day, usually without a bye in between the sessions. Naturally, towards the end of the day, there is the occasional wish for blowouts.
The times in between broadcasts are my favorite moments to be a part of the NexGen crew. Kevin handpicks a crew of college students and recent graduates who have flexible schedules and could use the extra cash. Since we are all in the same age range and share the same general interests, we have an easy time cooperating. I imagine that he also selects individuals who will get along well, as we spend just about every minute of the tournament together. During these times, we are just a group of friends. It’s a good vibe.
Another reason I enjoy my time off-camera: I really, really like ultimate. I like being immersed into the culture of its most competitive levels.
But here’s the catch: While I’ve been hanging out at these elite tournaments, I’m a pretty bad ultimate player.
I don’t play at the level below elite ultimate, or the level below that. Actually, for the past couple of years, I have been living in an area where all cuts are banana-shaped, flick throws are optional, and fakes are a joke. I am strictly a spectator at the more competitive scenes.
I delved into the ultimate world after a series of prolonged setbacks made dancing an expensive hobby instead of a professional reality. Some finagling on my end and a conveniently open spot on the crew landed me in the middle of the most competitive tournaments in the nation. I don’t keep coming back because I work for NexGen — rather, I work for NexGen because I want to be personally invested and involved at the elite level.
After a day of tournament play, Vinh, who played for the Stags, Kevin, who currently plays with Rhino, and the rest of the crew get antsy to play. Ian does not get this urge, however– he does camera work for a variety of high-level sports, and is unfazed by athletic excellence.
For me, watching is enough. More than enough, really. After a slew of elite ultimate, I feel fantastically content. Nothing pleases me quite like watching live ultimate games. I’m sure my keen interest in ultimate is shared by many, but most cannot travel to tournaments across the U.S. in order to watch. I’m extremely fortunate to work for a company that allows me to view the highest levels of my favorite sport.
Between games, while the rest of the crew is munching on pizza and chips, I’ll be covertly observing the various teams. I am still mostly awestruck into submissiveness when players I intensely admire walks within 15 feet of me. I imagine it is the equivalent of a recent NBA convert having access to the bench and the locker rooms in the middle of games. I outwardly geeked the first time I realized Beau was in my vicinity. When the other crew members were infinitely more unimpressed than I, I decided to pretend I didn’t care.
Jesse Roehm and his legion of dreads.
The holy quintet of Titcombs.
Sandy Jorgensen’s superheroic athleticism.
They get me every time.
While I am trying to non-creepily observe the various teams, hotshot friends of NexGen will occasionally wander through and lovingly heckle the crew.
Jimmy Mickle, that kind soul, never fails to make an appearance. Elliott Erickson has an enormous smile. Jay Clark swears he’ll make a Patagonia Play of the Game.
We lounge. We throw a disc. We laugh. The cameramen compare their strange sunburns – a con of having to face in the same direction for an hour and a half.
Ten minutes before the next scheduled game, the cameramen have liberally reapplied sunscreen, the announcers are talking strategy, Kevin is prepping game graphics, Vinh is practicing the opening sequence, and I’m waiting for the action.
You can check for NexGen’s coverage of the upcoming USA Ultimate Club Championships at ngnultimate.com.