For years, sports video games did all they could to replicate the TV experience, from hiring the same announcers to adding authentic sponsorship placements around their virtual fields.
“Now it’s the other way around,” Fox Sports SVP for technical and field operations Michael Davies said. “You look at what you can do in video games, and sometimes you try to replicate it as best you can.”
The most recent example of that will be apparent during Sunday’s Super Bowl, as Fox plans to integrate player tracking data into its skycam shots, adding names below athletes’ feet for easy identification.
ESPN added a similar player tag feature live for this weekend’s NHL All-Star Game. “We were prepared to pull back on the frequency if we felt as we were watching the game that it was interfering—and instead it was the opposite,” NHL on ESPN coordinating producer Linda Schulz said Monday. “Today, we’re already in discussions of how that’s going to work into our regular, non-All-Star games.”
Within the last two years, a shallow depth-of-field camera became endemic on NFL playing surfaces for the video game-like blurring effect it offered; skycam operators began swiveling the perspective on kickoffs hoping to capture magic worthy of Madden; and clips regularly went viral online for appearing like cutscenes. Looking make-believe was suddenly a compliment.
This is all happening now in part because it can. Cameras have improved, on-field access is better, and graphic rendering time has decreased significantly. What was once only conceivable in a world where developers could code whatever image they wanted is now possible IRL, and often in real time too.
Adding player names, for instance, is not done merely to make gamers feel at home. It improves the experience for everyone, especially the most casual of viewers who could use the help identifying Travis Kelce in the slot.
Those types of light-touch augmented reality elements convey information without taking viewers away from the action. “You can enhance these replays and … make it feel a little more natural,” Fox Sports SVP for graphic technology and integration Zac Fields said. It’s the exact same reason action video games constantly show things like faint health bars and ammo updates, rather than forcing a user to open a menu screen for that data.
Another reason for the visual similarities between Fox and Fortnite? Game makers and sports broadcasters increasingly work with the same tools. Epic Games announced the release of Unreal Engine 5 last April, promising even more lifelike lighting in virtual worlds. But before the tech made its way to AAA games, which take years to develop, it showed up inside Fox’s NFL studio.
This offseason, the network overhauled its set to optimize for Unreal. Twenty-five different applications of the engine power more than 5,000 square feet of LEDs around the analysts to create an infinite number of environments for Terry Bradshaw, et. al, to perform in. Disney uses a similar setup to create The Mandalorian’s many worlds, though Fox had to evolve the tech stack to handle the requirements of shooting with multiple cameras in a live environment.
Fan expectations are also driving the change. From the point of view of the couch-dweller, the barriers between video games, TV shows, movies and sporting events have basically collapsed. All are now accessible from the same devices—and often available as near-identical tiles within the same app. It’s natural, then, that each would be as dynamic, as interactive, and as futuristic as the next.
For any sports broadcaster in need of a new slogan, here’s an idea: If it’s in the game, it’s in the game.
What Else I’m Watching
It feels like every week, something happens in the NFL that’s never happened before. Unprecedented individual performances take place during historic comebacks, all wrapped up in a scorigami. In part, that’s real. Higher scoring means all sorts of records are vulnerable. But another factor is our increased ability to quantify and compare a variety of situations.
To explain, Zach Robinow—a senior research analyst at Sportradar who will be on-site helping Fox’s broadcast Sunday—pointed to a Week 10 game featuring the Cowboys and Packers. As Dallas lost a late lead, Robinow told the game’s producers that the team had been 195-0 when leading by 14 in the fourth quarter. Aaron Rodgers made that 195-1.
“It used to be more of a grind” to identify something like that, Robinow said. Now it’s a couple clicks away on Sportradar’s platform.
Artificial intelligence will only help researchers comb through large datasets faster, noticing anomalies that enhance a broadcast’s storylines. History will be made Sunday. It’s just a matter of finding it.
There won’t be nearly as much crypto hype sprinkled throughout this year’s broadcast as viewers saw last year, but the blockchain won’t be totally absent either. Blockchain-based game developer Limit Break has ponied up millions for a coveted ad spot, intending to give away 10,000 so-called “DigiDaigaku Dragon” NFTs via QR code. The company raised $200 million in 2021.
Twitter has announced it will begin charging for the API access that creators have used to build untold numbers of automated accounts. I just hope it doesn’t kill Ben Baldwin’s beloved fourth-down bot.