Sports Graphics Forum: Virtual Graphics Take Next Step in Data Visualization

With new and improved ways to gather data about athletic performances and new and improved ways to help visualize that data, there is little doubt that prospects for virtual graphics and analysis seem to be limitless. Data points can not only measure past performance but also predict future performance, thanks to computing and graphics power that also allows data to be inserted into a program stream in real time.

Those are just a few of the reasons that the session on virtual graphics and analysis was such an important part of SVG’s inaugural Sports Graphics Forum last week.

“Data is the key question,” said Mike Jakob, president/CFO/COO, Sportvision. “How do you display it simply and effectively … in a graphic that is relevant for the fan and does not require a lot of explanation, because you can easily overwhelm the fan with too much on the screen at once.”

Vendor representatives on the Virtual Graphics and Analysis panel discuss the limitless potential for virtual graphics in sports production.

Vendor representatives on the Virtual Graphics and Analysis panel discuss the limitless potential for virtual graphics in sports production.

An example of a perfect use of data is showing hockey fans how much time a player has been on the ice before a shift change occurs. Another is the “royal-road line” in hockey, which extends from the middle of one goal down the ice to the middle of the other goal. There is a seven times greater chance of a goal’s being scored on a shot if a pass immediately proceeding the shot crosses that line.

“You can show the viewer why a score happened,” said Jakob.

The trick, however, is in making sure that graphical representation is rendered as quickly as possible.

“If it’s not there by the second replay, forget it,” he added.

For Gerard Hall, founder/president/CEO, SMT, the goal is to find the hidden gems in the data mine, like a quarterback’s release point and time or the speed with which a wide receiver can make a cut to get to a thrown ball. But introducing new data points without using them for better storytelling is pointless unless it can be parsed out.

Bill Squadron, EVP, pro analysis, STATS, said the fire hose of data can be a great way to meet the needs of different kinds of fans. For example, during last year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, real-time win probability was incorporated into the Teamcast coverage, the kind of stat that even a neophyte can handle. And then, during the National League Championship Series, Fox Sports offered a companion broadcast giving a level of statistical analysis that would warm the hearts of the type of baseball fans who purchase Baseball Prospectus every year.

“We see a lot of different options for how data can be packaged to give fans what they want and when they want it,” he added.

Along with the use of virtual graphics for analysis is their use in creating virtual in-venue environments and digital signage. It wasn’t too long ago that a digital billboard behind home plate or on the field of play was seen as a gimmick. But today, such elements are seen as important marketing tools that have real appeal to advertisers. And new technologies like the Ncam camera that can be attached to cabled cameras and Steadicam handheld units are opening even more opportunities for statistics and graphics to be placed on the field of play.

According to Haydn Parnell, manager/chief engineer, Fletcher London, Ncam can be fixed to a point on the playing surface and tied into a graphics engine; it can power a virtual-graphics environment tied into camera moves along the X, Y, and Z axes. It also weighs only a little more than 4 lb., making it well suited for on-the-go demands.

Jason Cohen, VP of production, HBO Sports, noted that HBO Boxing makes use of Orad virtual graphics created by Troika (and with data from SMT) and into a General Lifts camera jib. The graphic looks as if it is a videoboard hanging above the ring, and, as the camera jib moves, the video and graphical elements can be combined to create a sense of reality and movement.

The industry is still very much in the early days of understanding statistics and data. As more and more years of player-tracking data becomes available, for example, it will become easier to analyze an athlete’s or team’s trajectory, weaknesses, and strengths. Whether that data becomes actionable intelligence for the team and the athlete remains to be seen, but the talent who spend hours upon hours on TV and the radio discussing those teams and athletes will no doubt look to take a deep dive into the data pool. And it will be up to data companies and graphics companies to work together to make that analysis attractive and easy to understand.

“We’re working to integrate data with the graphics output so that talent can manipulate a tactical lineup using a touchscreen or an iPad,” says Tomas Robertson, commercial director, North America, Deltatre. “It’s about giving the talent more control over the storytelling.”