EA Sports, ESPN Expand Virtual Playbook to NBA Action

By Ken Kerschbaumer

ESPN’s coverage of the NBA Western Conference Finals and NBA Finals features a new version of the EA Sports Virtual Playbook, a system developed by ESPN and EA Sports that allows ESPN analysts to use EA Sports player animations, originally created for video games, to provide clearer insight into on-the-court action. “For the longest time, analysts have been talking about the triangle offense run by the Los Angeles Lakers, but now, we can take fans into the game and show why the Chicago Bulls and Lakers won with that offense,” says Anthony Bailey, ESPN’s vice president for emerging technology.

The NBA Virtual Playbook is a follow-up to an NFL version that was launched last season. The system puts ESPN analysts on the court or field of play with life-size graphical animations of the NBA or NFL players.

The process of creating the plays begins with a planning meeting where the team decides which plays they want to create. Production personnel then fire up an Xbox 360, select the requested plays, and run the play. Once the proper play is run, it is recorded and then transferred to another Xbox system located in the studio. ESPN staff then takes advantage of a new proprietary technology provided by EA Sports that allows the production team to delete unnecessary players from the play.

The actual TV production ties two cameras on jibs to the EA Sports “virtual camera” within the video game. Camera operators operate the jibs and the camera movements in the game reflect those real-life movements.

In the NBA version, ESPN talent is on an actual basketball court with the players instead of an ESPN studio. “The biggest difference is that for the NFL version, we could use it in our studio, but for the NBA version, we needed to be on a regulation-sized basketball court because of the size of the players and we needed to show all 10 players,” says Bailey. More than 20 clips were prepared with ESPN talent heading down to Disney Wide World of Sports in Orlando, FL, to shoot the videos.

Rob Moore, EA Sports VP and chief technology officer, says the ESPN Virtual Playbook currently runs off of the Microsoft Xbox 360 game systems, but it will migrate over to an internal ESPN server system in the future.

“The NBA is excited about what we’re doing [with ESPN] as we provide a piece of the data economy like display technology, artificial intelligence, and physics,” adds Moore. “The leagues are on the cutting edge of technology, and everyone is looking at how we can work together to develop new ways to experience the game. There are still some key technologies that need to be developed.”

Future developments could include allowing viewers using a video-game system to play a game that reflects what is going on at an actual sporting event in real-time. A step in that direction is the upcoming release of Tiger Woods 10 that will allow players at home to play online tournaments that include actual scores from actual tournaments.

“We’re doing things that make that possible, like creating an accurate representation of the environment that matches the real world,” says Moore. “For golf, we have laser-scanned the courses to within one centimeter of accuracy.”