Sportvision Gives Armchair GMs an Inside Look at the NFL Combine

At the 2010 NFL Combine, held this past week at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Sportvision graphical enhancements allowed NFL Network viewers to play scout from the comfort of their living rooms. Two player-tracking technologies, SimulCam and Feature Tracker, were used on coverage throughout the broadcast to help analysts evaluate technique, compare performance, and weigh players’ prospects in the 40-yard dash and quarterback passing drills.

“Technologically, the Combine is nice because it makes use of our existing technologies in a new way,” says Mike King, director of football for Sportvision. “Last year was the first time we did this, and it ended up being a nice application of the things we already had. For us, it’s throwing a powerful piece of software into a simple application, and it works very well.”

Suiting Up With SimulCam
SimulCam, powered by Dartfish, is featured during the 40-yard dash. It superimposes images of one athlete over another, creating a ghost effect. That allows analysts — and armchair GMs — to see the movement and speed of multiple players simultaneously.

“It basically compares multiple events on video and puts them all back into a single replay,” King explains. “You just need multiple shots from the same camera angle, which is relatively simple in the 40-yard dash, since they use roughly the same camera motions for everyone.”

The athletes are recorded, and a Sportvision operator chooses how many to include in the comparison frame. Although technically the software can handle as many athletes as the operator would like, with more than four, the players tend to get lost. Using background recognition, the system matches the video frame-by-frame, from the operator-indicated starting point through the slowdown point.

“The only technological difficulties are if the time gap is too big or the framing isn’t large enough,” King says. “Then that second person will drop out of the shot, since the system follows the lead runner.”

In terms of difficulty, SimulCam is a relatively lightweight system, requiring a single operator and minimal calibration.

Heavier Lifting
Feature Tracker, however, requires the use of Sportvision’s calibrated camera and base technology.

“Once the field is registered with our first-and-10 software,” King explains, “it’s able to use all the information from the camera movement to capture everything in the calibrated area, which includes the 40-yard dash.”

A tracking and data-gathering tool, Feature Tracker combines a 2D graphic with 3D player trails to provide such data as a player’s speed, distance traveled, and separation distance from other players.

“We record each dash and track the player from the starting point through the finish line, so we’re able to give instantaneous speed in miles per hour throughout the run,” King says. “We can show how quickly he gets to top speed and compare that to other players who reach their top speed farther along in the run.”

Pass-Tracking Featured
New for this year is an enhanced version of the system that tracks the speed, time, and distance of passes thrown by a quarterback. The graphics are rendered across multiple camera angles,

“We put together a four-quarterback package where four guys throw roughly the same pass, and showed the miles per hour and distance they got on the ball,” King says. “This is a new use for us.”

The idea was initiated by the NFL Network show’s producer, who has used the feature in the recap shows the network produces daily, following the 10 a.m.-2 p.m. daily live coverage from the stadium. The Feature Tracker takes about 10 seconds to put together, the time it takes to render the image; the SimulCam graphics take up to five minutes to complete.

“After a group of guys run the 40, we’ll take the people of interest and produce those live, so the analysts can go back and say these are interesting,” King says. “We do a lot of the features later, since there’s no reason to show the live un-enhanced version later, because it’s much more interesting to show side-by-side comparisons with other participants.”

An Integrated Part of the Production
The Sportvision operators at the NFL Combine set up shop alongside the tape operators in one of the four mobile-production units that covered the action.

“The NFL Network is still forming how you cover the event and what you use to tell the stories,” King points out. “I think we’ve benefited from them including us and giving us a chance to help write the script and show people at home what the scouts see.”

Sportvision is working on using on-site camera instrumentation for Feature Tracker, so that analysts could use the enhancement on footage of any game, not just games that a Sportvision operator happened to be working.

“That would be nice as a studio solution,” King says. “If NFL Network wanted to build stuff before the game, they could go back and diagram a couple of plays, put those into preproduction, and make it a worthwhile investment to have the Feature Tracker available.”

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