Back on March 1st, ESPN presented an alternative broadcast of the Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks game “featuring live visualizations from the computer intelligence company Second Spectrum.” The graphic overlays were placed on top of the game telecast augmenting the viewing experience. The data centric broadcast – meant to be “more engaging and more informative” – alternated between 3 viewing modes (coach, player and mascot), giving fans a taste of what the personalized viewing experience will look like in the years come. The Lakers-Bucks game was the first time that the technology was used in real-time during an NBA broadcast (it had previously been used in highlights and replays), but the frequency of these “experimental broadcasts” is expected to increase dramatically in the coming years as pro sports leagues continue to work towards figuring out how to appeal to the next generation of fans.
Howie Long-Short: There’s been little to no innovation in the broadcast of sporting events since the 1970s, but it’s a pretty safe bet to assume that game presentation will look “dramatically different” (Adam Silver’s words, not mine) within the next 5 years. As the NBA Commissioner explained, young fans have an “infinitesimal number of opportunities to do other things with their time.” The league hopes that by offering young fans a more personalized experience and by using data to better tell stories, they can grow game viewership.
Many people who watched the Second Spectrum broadcast referred to it as a second screen experience, but David Anderson, one of the company’s earliest employees (currently with Gains Group) says that’s not the correct way to describe it. “If the goal is to use this data to tell a better story to fans, then I would argue what ESPN did with Second Spectrum was not second screen at all; if you were watching it, it was your first screen. I think that’s where the technology is headed.”
Pro sports leagues are using Second Spectrum technology on a trial basis at this point, looking for feedback and market fit, which helps to explain why 3 viewing modes were featured during a single Full Court Press broadcast. Ideally fans would have the ability to select the viewing mode of their choice as it’s unlikely hardcore fans want “NBA Jam” style graphics (mascot mode), nor does the casual fan want a “number heavy” analysis of the game (player mode). For informational purposes, coaching mode diagrams plays as they happen, identifies defensive switches and “points your eyes to” where the open player is.
Fan Marino: If there’s one feature I’m certain will stick, it’s the green-screen technology that enabled ESPN to display the heads of the broadcasters calling the game (and speaking at a given moment). The functionality isn’t new – it’s been used by gamers on Twitch for some time – but for sports fans often confused by a 3-man (in this case 4-man) broadcast booth it’s a welcomed addition.
The Second Spectrum digital feed encountered an error during the Lakers-Bucks broadcast that resulted in ESPN3 viewers losing sight of the game for several minutes. David says that’s going to happen with the burgeoning technology “becauseSecond Spectrum broadcasts are tied to the NBA schedule. The company just doesn’t get a lot of reps. Each stadium’s unique configurations also create their own sets of difficulties in extracting data. It’s early on. We still see issues with streaming and broadcasters have been using that technology for a long time. The augmented reality in-game viewership experience will get exponentially better as the technology continues to improve.”
David says that the experience will get better as broadcasters hone their ability to use the data to tell the game’s story. “Data is soul-less. It has no personality. You can’t just throw it up on a screen and hope people understand it. It needs some flair, which is why they use graphics like the classic cartoon boom/pow/bang. Fans see the technology being used by ESPN and there’s this perception that Second Spectrum is a mature business – it’s not; it remains a nascent technology. Remember, data and the storytelling coming out of it is going through an evolution. Artificial intelligence research professors and data scientists originally collected this information for a small group of people (like teams). It’s first being adapted to fit consumer needs.”
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