League Technology Summit: How Evolving Production Tools Tell Better Stories

As the technology behind live sports production continues to evolve at an almost exponential rate each year, sports-content producers have never been better equipped to tell the story that plays out on the field or on the court. At SVG’s League Technology Summit in New York this week, technology leaders from several national sports networks took the stage to highlight some of the most striking examples of these production tools during a morning session.

“The rate of invention in all these technologies is coming so quickly that you have to make smart bets and investments,” says ESPN Emerging Technology VP Anthony Bailey. “The way you do that is, bring in your production people and talent and you try to get them to understand what you’re trying to do. I think that is how you come up with compelling products.”

During the session, the panelists highlighted their respective networks’ most impressive use of production technologies with video clips of these tools in use during a telecast.

The 4K Question: Its Place in Sports — Both Today and Tomorrow
Fox Sports SVP of Field Operations Jerry Steinberg highlighted Fox’s use of Super Zoom in its NFL coverage, which uses a Sony F65 4K camera to zoom in on a 4K picture and still retain a near-HD image while examining a close play (say, a toe touching the sideline or a knee down before a fumble).

“In an effort to get clarity in replays, we began to experiment with 4K. It allows us to really get in close on controversial plays,” he said. “It’s a Sony F65 camera that goes through a digital recorder and proprietary workflow that we developed and a scaler that allows us to take the 4K picture and zoom.”

In addition, Steinberg showcased footage of Fox’s ultra-slow-motion cameras during the World Series and the use of “Top Font” during its NFL coverage. Using technology from Sportvision and Hego, Top Font tags and tracks players on a football field, allowing a key player to be identified with a graphic pointer before the ball is snapped.

Fox isn’t the only network experimenting with 4K within the HD framework. ESPN also is looking to integrate 4K cameras into its telecasts and is experimenting with 4K cameras and workflows at its Innovation Lab in Orlando. After some initial tests with a Sony F65 at Summer X Games in Los Angeles, the Innovation Lab is undertaking side-by-side-by-side tests of 4K, 1080p, and 720p footage (shot at an NBA game, college basketball game, and Pop Warner football game).

However, the question remains: will 4K become a legitimate end-to-end distribution format and, if so, when? Or will it simply be a valuable capture tool to be used within the HD-production ecosystem for the foreseeable future.

“That’s the question we’re all asking our own companies: what is the roadmap for [1080p and 4K]? Right now, the large percentage of viewers aren’t even getting Full HD anyway,” said Tom Sahara, VP, operations and technology, Turner Sports. “We need to at least start with Full HD and then maybe jump to 1080p from there. Also how to deal with the cost of twice the storage and transmission bandwidth for the backhaul? It is not a quick, easy answer. There is a dollar attached to all of that, and how can our businesses support that? So we need to start small and be ready if and when this does happen.”

Virtual Graphics Come to Life
The rise of virtual graphics for studio analysis has resulted in a variety of groundbreaking on-air tools. Bailey highlighted ESPN’s use of EA Sports Virtual Tabletop, which allows ESPN analysts to break down the tendencies of players and preview matches using virtual EA Sports-generated players, similar to those in the Madden and FIFA videogames.

“We had some of our analysts wearing suits trying to show how a Cover 2 defense works on the small field in our studio,” said Bailey. “We thought, wouldn’t it be cool if we used [virtual] Madden [videogame] players instead? The evolution of that was to allow the talent to interact with [the virtual players] in life-size form. But that started to become a very big production. So, when we were doing the Euro 2012 Cup [studio show] in Bristol [CT], we came up with Table Top.”

CBS Cuts the Cord on the Course
Meanwhile, CBS has upped the RF ante for its golf coverage, using BSI’s wireless-camera technology to allow camera operators to reach spots on the course and achieve shots that were never possible in the past. This new workflow deploys an arsenal of small receive sites mounted to trees and towers across the course to allow wireless cameras to deliver live video from almost anywhere on the course (without a bunch of unsightly cranes scattered around the course).

After testing the technology on a handful of holes at the Riviera Country Club and at the Masters at Augusta National, CBS used it for all 18 holes at the Greenbriar in West Virginia. CBS Sports is now comfortable enough with the workflow that it plans to use it at nearly every tournament it covers in 2013.

“We went down to the Masters, and it was fantastic because, in the past, there has been no RF at Augusta; you were always on cables,” said Steve Gorsuch, director of golf engineering, CBS Sports. “This year, we had a cameraman walking in places where we’ve never gone before because you couldn’t just drag cables around everywhere. That gave us the confidence to do 18 holes at the Greenbriar, and we’re hoping to do most of the year with this and think it’s going to be very successful.”

Nanotube Technology Boosts Pitch, Slam-Dunk Coverage
Turner Sports had a few tech innovations of its own this year, including the nearly full-time use of the PitchFX pitch-location graphic during the MLB Playoffs and the Dunk Intensity Meter during the NBA Slam Dunk content.

“We have had the pitch-location graphic for years, but it is all about getting the talent to buy in,” said Sahara. “They know where those pitches go, but the viewer at home doesn’t necessarily know that. They are now realizing that this is a tool that allows them to better tell the story.”

With the Dunk Intensity Meter system, a carbon nanotube implanted in the hoop measures the force of the ball on each dunk. That information is displayed as a graphic during the telecast.

“It was a different use and gave us something that we’ve never had before,” Sahara said. “One thing we did learn was that the amount of force does not necessarily lead to the winning dunk.”

Click here for SVG’s comprehensive coverage of the League Technology Summit!

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