At the back end of 2020, our very own Ed Wooller, Global Head of Strategy, sat down with Wunderman Thompson Intelligence to explore some of the emerging and future trends in global sports, with a particular focus on the use of technology.
VR holds great promise for sports viewers, offering users not just the best seat in the stadium, but behind-the-scenes access and enhanced features and data.
Although VR headset sales have been sluggish this year, IDC forecasts a major rebound of 45% in 2021, driven by corporate sales and gaming. Meanwhile Apple has been quietly investing in a number of VR-related businesses this year, suggesting a headset could be on the way. The final piece of the puzzle could be 5G, according to Ed Wooller, which he describes to Wunderman Thompson Intelligence as a game changer when it comes to virtual reality.
In the interim, the pandemic is boosting innovation. More rights holders are taking the opportunity to launch VR services, potentially bringing the stadium to the living room.
Major League Baseball (MLB) launched an app for the Oculus Quest that allows its MLB.tv subscribers to stream live games in VR. One key feature is 3D Strikezone, which lets the viewer watch from anywhere: the stands, the pitch or right beside the players. Meanwhile the NBA has partnered with Verizon-owned Ryot Studio to offer VR viewing options on some games via its NBA League Pass streaming platform.
“Empty venues are driving innovation in a much more accelerated way towards that virtual stadium idea”, says Wooller. Indeed in Japan, the Yokohama DeNa BayStars collaborated with telecommunications provider KDDI to create a virtual baseball stadium lockdown experience for fans dubbed Virtual Hamasta. Fans could stroll the concourses and watch the game on giant screens from the pitch as little avatars.
Although VR has still not hit the mainstream, some are continuing to invest in its future, as tech companies from Facebook to XRSpace build out their social virtual world concepts. Korea’s SK Telecom is piloting its Jump VR technology, which allows people to watch sports or play games together virtually, while Netherlands-based start-up Beyond Sports is working on allowing fans to become part of the action. CEO and co-founder Sander Schouten told CBS Los Angeles, “If you want to be the star of the show, just add your own virtual character with your own face into that environment and then you can share it as if you made that final shot to win the game.”
Virtual viewing could even help sports meet sustainability targets by offering an alternative to international travel. Russell Seymour, founder and chief executive of the British Association for Sustainable Sport (BASIS), sees opportunities for international sports competitions to think creatively and use technology to bring their events to a bigger audience, while reducing damaging carbon emissions.
A slew of start-ups is leveraging computer vision, machine learning and other artificial intelligence technologies to revolutionize athletic performance and optimize the viewing experience.
Lockdown was tough on talent scouts, unable to appraise future stars in the flesh, but technology is stepping in to help them narrow the field. IBM’s artificial intelligence platform Watson has been deployed by the NBA team Toronto Raptors to identify draft picks for both their basketball and esports teams. Seattle Sports Sciences has pioneered its Skill Analytics technology which is helping soccer teams identify players they might need with specific capabilities, like crossing a ball, or taking free kicks. Also helping to fill the void is US start-up Slants. It is using computer vision technology and AI to analyze video footage of college football games, producing a slew of talent metrics to help NFL recruiters find players.
Once recruited, a number of teams and leagues are using AI tools to boost athlete performance. US start-up Homecourt.ai, used by the NBA, utilizes an iPhone camera to track basketball drills and shots, delivering real-time analysis for pros and would-be pros alike. And intended for launch at the Tokyo Olympics, Intel and Alibaba are working on 3D Athlete Tracking, technology which will use computer vision and algorithms to produce real-time biomechanical data to not only inform coaches but also enhance the viewer experience.
Technology is also helping to minimize the risk of losing a valuable player to injury. Silicon Valley based Zone7 is just one of a number of start-ups that use AI to analyze medical, training and performance data to assess risk, enabling teams to deploy effective intervention strategies. When La Liga’s Getafe CF used the technology, they were able to reduce soccer player injuries by 70% over a two-season period.
For viewers, AI promises to enhance and personalize their experience. A number of tech companies are already helping rights holders to deliver automated highlights packages.
IBM, again using Watson, is able to deliver highlights reels for the Wimbledon Championships just minutes after matches have finished, analyzing crowd noise and player gestures to identify the most compelling moments. It’s even smart enough to control for local crowd bias. Israeli start-up WSC Sports is doing a similar job, producing multiple highlights reels in real-time. During lockdown, they were helping content owners make the most of their archive footage, introducing their popular split screen feature which plays multiple ‘best of’ clips on Instagram. Pretty soon, your own personalized highlights package will be par for the course.
5G & Immersive Experiences
5G promises to usher in a new era of immersive experiences, both in the stadium and at home. And sports fans are here for it: a 2019 study of US and UK sports fans by Deltatre found that 71% of audiences crave deeper immersion when watching live games.
“5G is an enabler of other things,” explains Ed Wooller, “and those other things are largely built around virtual reality and augmented reality.” While the rollout of 5G is progressing more slowly than intended due to the pandemic, a number of telecoms providers have been showcasing some of the extended reality experiences we can expect to enjoy over the coming years.
SK Telecom, sponsor of the South Korean professional baseball team SK Wyverns, used AR in an experience that brought the club’s wyvern mascot to life. The dragon-like beast, swooping and breathing fire, could be viewed via the 5GX AR smartphone app or on the stadiums giant screen. Similarly, the Argentinian soccer club Estudiantes celebrated their season opener by parading a giant AR lion around their stadium.
Perhaps the most compelling demonstration to date is the Samsung 5G experience at the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys AT&T Stadium. Produced by Londonbased Nexus Studios, the 5G powered experience featured huge AR holograms of football players striding through the stadium, yelling chants and devouring the the jumbotron. Inside, fans can track the game viewing live player stats or play a game dodging giant defensive robots. Off the field, fans could enjoy a more sedate experience in an AR selfie booth, choosing three players with whom to take a picture.
It’s not just about jaw-dropping spectacles. 5G will also unlock a host of new features for fans. The NFL’s app OnePass will allow users with a 5G-enabled device to watch stadium action from five different camera angles as well as their seat, pausing and rewinding so they never miss a move. The app will also include AR-powered navigation to concessions, merchandise stands, restrooms and even the fastest way back to your car.
Vodafone partnered with French tech start-up Immersiv.io to give soccer fans a taste of the future in their 2019 5G showcase at Bundesliga club Wolfsburg’s Volkswagen Arena. Thanks to Immersiv.io’s AR solution ARISE, fans were able to point their devices at a player on the pitch and get a real-time feed of their performance statistics.
More than a third of sports fans in the UK and US expect 5G to have the most significant impact on the sports viewing experience by 2025 according to a 2019 Deltatre study. And in future, the higher bandwidth and low latency of 5G could even empower fans to become content creators themselves, broadcasting their own in-the-moment experiences. For the at-home viewer, 5G promises to unleash new ways to engage with sport, freeing it from the screen entirely, to deliver holographic broadcasts live to the living room.
Wunderman Thompson Intelligence report featuring an interview with Ed Wooller, Global Head of Strategy, Prism Sport + Entertainment