TBS, Sportvision Offer HD Viewers New Angles With PITCHf/x
Baseball fans watching TBS’s coverage of the MLB playoffs will feel closer to the batter’s box than ever before, thanks to a graphics enhancement provided by Sportvision. The new-look PITCHf/x system uses tracking cameras that TBS had previously installed in every MLB ballpark to create three graphics for every pitch as it travels through the hitter’s zone: a head-on view, an overhead view, and a side view.
Sportvision has had tracking cameras installed in every ballpark since the start of the 2008 season. The three cameras are permanent, placed in mid-first-base, mid-third-base, and center-field positions. The center-field camera is used primarily to size the strike zone for each hitter, because the zone changes as each batter steps into the box. Together, the three cameras track every pitch from the time the pitcher releases the ball to when it crosses through home plate, measuring nearly 60 pieces of information.
“We’re able to determine velocity, location, break, movement — basically everything about the pitch you would ever want to know,” explains Ryan Zander, GM of baseball for Sportvision. “From that data, we can produce the graphics that you’ve seen before: the trail on the ball or the strike-zone box that shows where it crosses the front of home plate. What we’ve done with PITCHf/x is extend that.”
That extension creates three graphics: one showing the pitch from the overhead view, looking above the plate; one from the pitcher’s view, looking head-on; and one from the batter’s view, from the side.
“What’s interesting about this is, it shows a new perspective of how the ball can move through the hitter’s zone,” Zander says. “It can enter at one spot and be caught at another spot. I really think it will give fans a new perspective as to what the hitter is actually seeing. It’s not just a ball that’s coming straight at you; it’s a ball that’s moving quite a bit through the zone.”
TBS is placing the PITCHf/x enhancement in the 16:9 portion of the screen, only in the center-field camera angle and only for HD viewers. As an at-bat continues, the lower portion of the PITCHf/x box tracks every pitch that the batter has seen, so viewers can see how a pitcher is throwing to the hitter.
“When you’re watching a particular at-bat, you can see in what part of the strike zone the pitcher is working the batter,” explains Steve Fiorello, coordinating director for Turner Sports. “If he’s trying to work the batter inside, you can see the majority of the pitches on the inside of the plate. From a fan’s point of view, it’s really interesting, especially in a long pitch sequence. You can really get a sense of what’s going on.”
Safe for 16:9
The way the graphic is integrated into the screen, he adds, fans can either choose to focus on it, or not. “The way it lives in the 16:9 frame, it’s not obtrusive. It adds to the game purely based on how you can see the pitch sequence develop.”
In fact, Fiorello points out, in baseball — particularly from the center-field camera — the additional area afforded by a 16:9 frame does not add anything to the shot.
“When you’re shooting in 16:9 from center field, you have all this left-hand side space,” he explains. “You can see the batter’s on-deck circle, the grass on the infield, and the fans, but you don’t really gain anything. It’s not like football, where you can see the safeties, or basketball, where you can see all the way to half court. In baseball, you don’t gain much, so we thought about what we could do in that real estate without making it an issue for the viewer.”
Key, Fill, Repeat
To get the information from the Sportvision system into the TBS broadcast is not a matter of key and fill.
“For the live version of the graphic, which stays in the HD wings all the time, we’re just sending the graphic to TBS, and they just key and fill whenever they want to pull it in,” Zander says. “We have a replay version where we take their center-field camera, feed it through our system, overlay the trail and the graphic, and send it back to them, and they usually put that into an EVS [server].”
For its 20 regional-sports-network clients during the regular season, Sportvision typically has one operator on-site at each ballpark, working from a Sportvision workstation wherever the ballpark finds space to accommodate it. For the playoffs, however, a second operator is usually on-site to help with the extended workload. The data from the PITCHf/x system is also being used by MLB’s game-day product, and team front offices and scouts are also using the data for analysis and scouting, so the Sportvision team is doing more than just preparing a graphic for broadcast.
“This was a very challenging product to develop, but we’ve been doing this for a long time,” Zander says. “It’s always a challenge dealing with a live event and tracking pitches, but it’s something that we’ve gotten very good at.”
Direction as Usual
The PITCHf/x graphic is used only from the center-field camera, so Fiorello is instructing his team not to change the way the game is shot. The graphic sits in space that was not otherwise used, so he sees it as a way to use open real estate to add value to the production. All of the other camera angles — close-ups, wide shots, etc. — will still be used for the telecast and will not bring in the PITCHf/x graphic, so TBS will still be able to tell the stories it wants to tell without changing the viewer’s experience.
“A big part of what we try to do is maintain the pictures and not clutter the screen with graphics,” Fiorello says. “This gives you the opportunity to add to the game but only from that center-field-camera perspective, so it doesn’t really change how we tell the stories. We’re adding more to the game without really taking anything away from the viewer. Sometimes, it’s the simplest things that make the most sense, and I think that’s the case with this HD PITCHf/x system.”