The NHL and Disney will take the trend of kid-friendly live sports broadcasts to a new level—and a new world—this March, when a fully animated telecast airs on Disney+ and ESPN+.
Using the league’s real-time player and puck tracking system, ESPN will recreate the March 14 game between the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers in the digital world of the Disney animated show “Big City Greens.” Animated versions of ESPN commentators will call the game, which will also air on Disney Channel and Disney XD. ESPN will carry a more traditional broadcast.
“With each pilot, more and more people at ESPN, and then Disney (showed interest),” NHL EVP of business development and innovation Dave Lehanski said in a video interview. “It just kept growing and growing with regard to the level of interest that everybody had once they saw it kind of coming to life.”
Rather than using augmented reality features to layer colorful imagery on top of the action, as past SpongeBob and Marvel-themed broadcasts have done, the so-called “NHL Big City Greens Classic” presentation is built from a foundation of positional data. Dutch company Beyond Sports helped the NHL convert those data points into three-dimensional figures, while ESPN’s Creative Studio and other experts from Disney’s corporate multiverse evolved the characters to fit Big City Greens’ world.
Big City characters will be shown on and around the rink, with the goal of integrating their story lines into the presentation. The commentators, who have not yet been named, will be animated using motion capture technology from Silver Spoon.
“While we’re in an animated fictional world, we want it to feel like, Hey if this was really happening in this fictional town, how would it play out?” ESPN VP, production Ed Placey said in a phone interview.
Given this technology, one of the NHL’s first goals for virtual recreations was finding a way to appeal to a younger audience. That was discussed with Disney during the most recent round of rights negotiations, and has become a point of emphasis for both broadcasters and properties given the various competitors that now exist for children’s attention. But the tech stack could have other benefits as well.
“What really caught my attention was how nimble the program was,” Placey said. “I mean, we created angles that don’t really exist but I was curious about in the hour before the game.”
Similar technology could be used to virtually create new viewpoint angles (such as above the goalie or in the bench), for instance, or to customize the presentation for additional audience niches.
“We’re excited most about where this can go,” Lehanski said. “The opportunities ahead of us are so exciting, you almost have to pull yourself back and be like, ‘Alright, one thing at a time.’”