Player Tracking, Virtual Graphics Take Center Stage at FutureSPORT

Once considered technologies reserved solely for hardcore stat geeks and Moneyball evangelists, player-tracking systems and virtual-graphics platforms have hit the mainstream in recent years. From leagues like Major League Baseball and the NBA to nearly every major sports network, these tools have become essential to fans and coaches alike in viewing a player’s performance. Technologies like Viz Libero and ChyronHego Paint are now standard for national and regional sports telecasts, and league entities like MLB Advanced Media and the NBA (working with STATS) deploy player tracking to provide personnel and coaches a deeper look at player performance.

The final panel of the day at FutureSPORT centered on the growing role of player-tracking and virtual graphics.

The final panel of the day at FutureSPORT centered on the growing role of player-tracking and virtual graphics.

“What makes a good [virtual-graphic] enhancement is something that is typically hard to see, happens a lot, and is important to the outcome of the game,” said Sportvision President/COO Mike Jakob during a panel at SVG’s FutureSPORT event in New York last month. “If you can create something that does all that, you’re off to a good start.”

Keep It Simple, Stupid
Although pulling deep data from a play and displaying it visually is all well and good, the element is pointless unless the average fan at home understands the information in the context of the game. For example, in 2006, Sportvision’s PITCHf/x technology was deployed during Fox’s World Series coverage to illustrate the break of pitches. The graphic essentially displayed how far a pitch moved versus one at the same speed with no spin. Although the data was interesting, the physics meant little to the average fan, and the graphic failed to resonate with viewers.

“The lesson from that and other situations like it was to simplify and focus on things that add to the storytelling of the event, rather than getting carried away with putting analytics on the screen,” said Jakob. “When it comes to the viewer at home, you really have to be careful not to overcomplicate the situation. [Fox Sports President/COO] Eric Shanks once told me in a meeting, ‘I don’t want to put a math lesson on the screen.’ That is really important, because you don’t want to overwhelm the fan.”

A prime example of Sportvision’s efforts to help tell the story with graphics without overwhelming the viewer was seen during coverage of the 34th America’s Cup in San Francisco last year, when its LiveLine helicopter-based augmented-reality technology not only showed viewers real-time race information but was also used by race officials to enforce the rules and set the course boundaries. The LiveLine created embedded graphic technical aids for viewers, such as ahead/behind lines, so that audiences could clearly see who was leading the race.

ChyronHego's Kevin Prince (left) details MLB Advanced Media's new player- and ball-tracking system as Vizrt’s Nick Jameson (center) and SMT's Gerard Hall look on.

ChyronHego’s Kevin Prince (left) details MLB Advanced Media’s new player- and ball-tracking system as Vizrt’s Nick Jameson (center) and SMT’s Gerard Hall look on.

Vizrt Sports Product Specialist Nick Jameson agreed that keeping virtual graphics simple is key. However, he also noted that the production truck should still receive the most data and graphics elements possible so that the final decision of how much content populates the screen lies with the primary production team.

“You only have so much screen you can fill up with the ticker and fonts and scorebug, so we want to show these [additional graphics] on the field of play instead,” he pointed out. “For World Cup, we have the ability to plot those graphics on the actual field of play without interfering with how you are viewing the game. We don’t want to limit the amount of information we are giving to broadcasters. We want to give them everything and then let them determine how it should be presented in each unique case.”

STATS Takes the Analytical Reins for NBA
After working with several NBA teams for three years, STATS reached a new pinnacle during the 2013-14 NBA season, when the league opted to install its SportVU tracking system at every arena league-wide. At each venue, six Prosilica gc1600ch cameras are mounted on the catwalk above the court to capture images that are then passed into the STATS ICE (Interactive Collaboration and Evaluation) software. Deploying two operators to tag players on the screen so they can be tracked as moving objects on the court, the system gives coaches, players, media, and even fans greater insight into the performance, plays, and strategy that can mean the difference between victory and defeat. The SportVU system provides detailed player and team statistics, including speed/distance, shooting information, passing details, touch breakdowns (drive, elbow, post, etc.), and new defensive statistics still being developed.

Sportvision’s Mike Jakob (left, with STATS’ Brian Kopp) preached the importance of keeping virtual graphics easy to understand by the viewer at home.

Sportvision’s Mike Jakob (left, with STATS’ Brian Kopp) preached the importance of keeping virtual graphics easy to understand by the viewer at home.

Kopp cited the recent NBA Finals, in which the now world-champion San Antonio Spurs made a high percentage of “contested shots,” according to the SportVU system. In other words, it wasn’t the Miami Heat defense that was failing but rather the Spurs offense that was overcoming the intense defensive pressure.

“What we like about the way our data is being used is that it’s not just data; it really helps to tell the story of what’s going on in the game — and not in too detailed a way but rather the way that the game was always talked about,” said Brian Kopp, SVP, sports solutions, STATS. “As the season went on, you would see a lot of the writers on Twitter start to explore more, and I think that’s a testament to [the system].”

MLB Gets in the Game
The NBA isn’t the only league interested in player-tracking, of course. MLB Advanced Media introduced optical tracking at three MLB ballparks (Citi Field in New York, Miller Park in Milwaukee, and Target Field in Minneapolis) this season. The system — developed with graphics innovator ChyronHego and European radar-tracking specialist TrackMan — pours in data related to player speed, defensive routes to the ball, and such metrics as pop time (measured from when a catcher receives a pitch to the point it leaves his hand to throw out a would-be base stealer). The non-invasive system requires no chips or materials on uniforms because the TrackMan Doppler radar-based technology (derived from its golf system) tracks the ball itself.

“Different sports require different methods of tracking,” said Kevin Prince, EVP, North American sales, ChyronHego. “For baseball, it’s relatively straightforward to do optical tracking of the players because there aren’t that many inclusions. But tracking the ball is much more difficult because it’s a very small object moving very fast. So we partnered with TrackMan to sample the ball at 20,000 times per second to get spin rates and very accurate positioning.”

Picking the Right Horse From the Pack
With all three Triple Crown races back under the Peacock umbrella, SMT has been a staple in NBC networks’ telecasts, providing a full suite of real-time statistical and visual products: Live Leaderboard System, ISO Track System, Autograph Ticker, SMART System (distance-to-the-finish graphics), Track Map System, and the backbone for all of SMT’s data-driven applications at the Kentucky Derby, the Data Matrix (DMX) Switchboard.

“The challenge in horseracing is, a lot of horse flesh looks like other horse flesh. So, when you have a tight race, it’s tough to differentiate where [Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner] California Chrome is,” said SMT Founder/President/CEO Gerard Hall. “Our system used on the Triple Crown is an image-based system, so we are able to track horses by moving cameras using the aerial shot of the track to identify the horses. It is a simple enhancement for the viewer that just shows where the horses are at any given point.”

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