Inside ESPN’s New Virtual Innovation Center

By Collin Robisheaux |  September 28, 2021

In its 42-year history, ESPN has consistently pushed the boundaries of innovation and technology in the sports realm — from cable television to TikTok. Now, the Disney-owned sports media company is partnering with other large companies to take its tech stack to the next level.

Kevin Lopes, Senior Director, Content Business Development & Innovation, ESPN

ESPN and Disney recently announced the launch of ESPN Edge Innovation Center, an innovation lab focused on enhancing the experiences of sports fans everywhere. 

“The objective is simple – it’s to continue to advance the future of sports media,” says Kevin Lopes, Senior Director of Content Business Development & Innovation at ESPN. “We want to stay on the forefront of how sports are presented… Whether it be technology expertise or connectivity, we want to find partners that can help us do that.”

To execute on this vision, ESPN Edge has established founding partnerships with three major technology companies: the professional services firm Accenture; Microsoft; and Verizon, one of the pioneers of 5G wireless networks.

ESPN is hosting its inaugural virtual event, the ESPN Edge Conference, on Wednesday, September 29. Ahead of the event, we sat down with Lopes to learn about ESPN Edge and go behind the scenes into the project’s development, aspirations, and current partners.

Virtual or Physical? Establishing ESPN Edge’s Home Base 

Innovation centers often are physical places for innovators to brainstorm, prototype, and get creative. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, more and more innovation labs are moving online. What about ESPN Edge?

“Originally, we viewed this as, ‘Alright, we’re going to build a physical innovation center. Maybe we house it in Bristol, Conn. [where ESPN is headquartered], maybe we house it down in Orlando, or in New York,'” Lopes explained. “We came to the realization – let’s have a virtual center to start, and then see if we need to evolve into a physical center.”

A screenshot of the ESPN Edge virtual innovation center.

To mitigate the loss of in-person interaction, the virtual innovation center can be accessed using several different platforms.

“You can access [the virtual center] through a smartphone or through your computer, or you could throw on a VR headset, and communicate with other folks in that area and run meetings,” Lopes says. “We’re really focused on building out that first and deploying it, and then deciding if we want that physical center, which might come maybe in a year or so.”

Finding New Ways to Gather Data — and Using it to Tell Better Stories

Lopes says that each of Edge’s partners makes a “multi-year commitment” to contribute to the center, with financial and other resources. That gives Edge “the flexibility to do an 18 month or a year-long or two-year test,” he says. Though there are “some things that could come out in three months.” There is work underway to add additional partners, in virtual reality, gaming, and camera technologies, Lopes says. 

Assessing new sources of sports data, whether gathered by humans or intelligent software, will be job for Edge — as well as finding ways that data can be used to tell more compelling stories during live broadcasts, or in post-game analysis. 

Another view of the virtual Edge Innovation Center.

“We should be announcing a partnership soon with a data analytics company that collects and tracks player movement on a basketball court… In the Edge center, we think data is certainly a growing presence within how people consume sports, learn about sports, and talk about it.” ESPN also has its own stats and information group, with more than 100 employees who work on collecting data and using it to “tell better stories on air.” 

Lopes says he is also “really excited” about technologies like augmented reality, virtual reality, and blockchain — especially non-fungible tokens, or NFTs. And he notes that sports betting may be an area for Edge to explore: “A lot of traditional sports leagues are embracing sports betting,” Lopes notes.

How ESPN Edge is Measuring Success

How does a brand new innovation lab like Edge measure success, and where do they hope to be in three years?

Lopes says that a key early measure for the center will be its pipeline of new concepts. 

“How many proof-of-concepts can we iterate on?” Lopes says, adding that the intention is to create “a consistent pipeline of ideas and concepts that are coming through the center.”

We will all have failed if we haven’t come up with some really tangible, fan-facing innovations that we all can be really proud of.

And over the long run, the number of concepts that get deployed in a way that fans can experience — and that strengthens their bond to ESPN — will be important.

“When you’re working with partners like Microsoft, Accenture, and Verizon…we will all have failed if we haven’t come up with some really tangible, fan-facing innovations that we all can be really proud of,” Lopes says. “Given our leadership position in the industry…innovation is in our DNA, and it needs to remain there. We need to keep moving the ball forward.”

Lopes says the inaugural ESPN Edge virtual conference, which includes panels with NBA star Blake Griffin and US Olympian Lindsey Vonn, will serve as a chance to meet with potential new partners and begin reimagining the future of sports, streaming, and fandom. One key topic wil be the rights to stream sports content.

“We thought [the conference] was a good opportunity for us to leverage our connections within our current Edge partners,” Lopes says. “The primary goal is to [showcase] ESPN as a center for sports innovation in the industry. And it also gives ESPN the opportunity to announce publicly that, ‘Hey, we’re doing this thing called the Innovation Center, we’re open for folks to work with us!’ And people have already raised their hand and asked to be a part of it.”