SportTech 2016: Best practice in live event graphics

Moderator Kerschbaumer (standing) with L/R: Daragh Bass, Neale Connell, John Murphy and Mike Ward

Moderator Kerschbaumer (standing) with L/R: Daragh Bass, Neale Connell, John Murphy and Mike Ward

Graphics are integral to live sports broadcasts, but how best do we get the information across, especially as there is so much more of it, with more data from player tracking and other technologies? One of the sessions at SportTech 2016 in Dublin examined Best Practice in Live Event Graphics.

“We work with a vast number of companies, and keeping style consistency is probably one of the toughest challenges,” said Daragh Bass, BT Sport, Innovation Producer. Besides its in-house team, it uses Moov and Alston Elliot, and hardware from various manufacturers, such as Vizrt, ChyronHego and Piero. “How you manage that is having a really strong style book and also having someone who’s ready to police it.” Even the best new ideas “still have to stay on brand. And if you do one thing on one sport, you can’t let the others fall behind.”

“The best practice is to deliver consistently and then innovate when it’s required, within the budget,” said Neale Connell, Chief Commercial Officer, Alston Elliot. “And that hasn’t changed in years.”

On the road, designers have to work to what different producers or directors want, and sometimes it isn’t on brand, said John Murphy, BBC Sport Design Director, but it is difficult to say no. “Producers will want to tell a story, and sometimes the only way to do that might be to come off brand. It’s hard for the operator to turn around and say: ‘I’m not doing that because it’s not in the brand guide.’ It’s a very tense situation, and you can’t always have a brand guardian at every event,” he said.

“It’s simple things, like a player whose name doesn’t fit,” added Bass. “Do you then abbreviate the player’s name? It’s the same with team names.” One of his pet peeves is whether to use Man United, Man U, or Manchester United, and how to keep that consistent over different production teams and competitions.

Even if you do have templates, circumstances can change and producers might want a different selection of data to tell the story. “It’s almost impossible to think of every scenario in advance. You do have to permit a certain amount of leeway on site,” he said.

It comes down to having enough time to plan. “Too often we don’t get that time,” but if you do you’ll probably get 80-85% of all the graphics you need for launch, but then you have to allow for people having new ideas and things you forgot, said Mike Ward, MD (EMEA), Reality Check Systems. “But, you also need to train your operators and production team.” Many of its clients now use a centralised web-based database for team and player names, “so it’s not down to the operator.”

“Our worst nightmare is when a client comes and says ‘we’ve got this brand agency who’ve done a design that we want you to implement’. That is usually where things start going wrong, because typically brand agencies have no sensibilities about broadcast production or live match graphics,” said Ward. “They design something beautifully in Photoshop that is never going to work on screen.”

Reality Check has the luxury of doing many more launches than any of its clients (BT, Sky, BBC). “We’re launching things all the time all around the world, so you pick up tricks and ideas,” said Ward. “We’re always having to innovate, whereas when you have clients that have large in-house teams, the danger is that they can get into an incremental change.”

They are under so much pressure that rather than completely rebuild something, they tweak and improve it gradually. “Where you can take a project and either outsource it or have a separate team working on it and really go in with fresh eyes, that’s where you get real innovation and real new stuff going out.”

Seeking innovation

Designers like to have some freedom to be creative, especially early in the process, but producers need to be very clear with their briefs. “You don’t want the ones who allow designers all the freedom, but don’t get involved in the process and when it’s all been done turn around and say they don’t like it,” said Murphy, who wants producers to be involved all the way through.

Alston Elliot often works in India and Africa, where “they want innovation and they’re willing to risk it. The problem with that is: you’ve risked it, they like it, and they set the bar higher.” Which means having to put more designers on site, to come up with more concepts, “but delivery is more expensive and then there is no money in it.” It is a matter of getting the balance right between innovation and budget.

BT Sport made a controversial decision to locate its scoreboard in the lower left corner. “There were quite a few people who didn’t like it initially, but feedback from our studies shows that a lot of people have come to like it,” said Bass. You have got to cater for someone, like his father, who likes having 80% of his football match covered by camera one and with simple graphics for score and when substitutions are made, and also cater for Moto GP fans who want lots of statistics and split timings. “It is always a fine line between innovation and not betraying your loyal fan base.”

“It is very sports specific,” added Connell. With cricket, they have the time to do VR graphics, which can be a good way of getting the information across.

“If there is an editorial reason for it, the fans will like it,” added Bass. “If it’s purely for technical reasons, then that won’t last very long.”

Data handling

“Workflow is such an important part of all of this, from the design process to how you are able to get to that point where someone in that truck can make an editorial decision about what is going to go on air,” said Ward. An important part of this is data, which they might have paid a lot of money to have, but it takes more to get it on air and allow them to tell the stories they want to tell “in a production workflow where they are reducing headcount, trying to work in smaller spaces and send fewer people on site.”

IMG_0986Data is a very big area for Reality Check. “In the last six months we delivered a whole new data platform for the NFL,” which takes in information from six or seven different data sources, all in different formats, cleans it and makes it ready to distribute to any web-enabled device from on-air graphics to web sites or mobile phones, “and that’s been hugely powerful for them,” said Ward.

It recently did a similar system for Major League Baseball, and BeIN Sports has something comparable. “Those kinds of areas are where you can make a real difference to a broadcaster, because they are paying a lot of money for data and they are getting all kinds of data sources.” It needs to be packaged and provided to a single destination, with one output, so that phone users don’t get different data than TV viewers, with same team and player names, “and if there is a failure it’s only in one point and it is accessible globally.”

A bigger canvas

Ward is also working on streamlining workflows. “Giving clients the opportunity to build and prepare graphics off site… not actually going to the event. We’ve seen a big uptake in that, and with things like 4K. I think graphics is at the very end of the scale in terms of where the problems lie. If you are moving to a 4K production graphics is probably one of the later things you think about… that tends to be the case anyway,” he said. “There are challenges, but not as big as the challenges of converting a whole production to 4K.”

“Graphics can offer a whole new experience in UHD,” and there are a lot of creative possibilities in a 65-inch canvas, said Bass, “but we are also trying to deliver an experience that will work on a 4-inch screen, so just because we are rendering graphics out in 4K, do we render a different set of graphics for 4K? I also have to be conscious that there are viewers watching it in SD.” As shown with the experience of 3D, viewers want the main commentary and same big-name pundits, which is why BT Sport is hoping to move to single-truck production for UHD and HD, and there is a need to balance the requirements of the various displays without losing the advantage of being able to do graphics at the highest possible quality.

There are also practicalities to consider. Bass feels that live graphics have worked well in UHD, but “its where we get into pre-producing graphics, those teasers that we’re used to knocking out really quickly [in one of the Adobe packages] now suddenly take a huge amount of time to render out,” which doesn’t always meet the needs of live programmes or sports news.

“At the moment, all we are doing is translating the current HD offering and putting it on to a UHD feed,” added Connell. “I think we need to do more than that, and at the moment I don’t think we have explored all the possibilities.”

New realities

“We launched AR in our studio with our Champions’ League launch last year, and it completely changed the look and feel of our studio, added a huge amount of elements, while not going too far with it. There is always a risk that we give them a toy and they can run with it, but let’s scale this back and use it to enhance the production, but let’s not let the designers go too mad with it,” said Bass. However, it’s just a tool, and how to get the best out of it comes back to data, he added. “We will see a lot more statisticians […] using the data to predict things.”

Bass is a rugby fan, but player tracking in rugby is difficult. “Optical player tracking doesn’t work when they all lie on top of each other.” He would like to see the fatigue levels of players, when they dip, seeing if the pace drops off near the end of the season. “That is the sort of area where I think data can potentially really change how we interpret the game.”

Coaches already see this information, but won’t share with the broadcasters, unlike the NFL in the US, where a lot more is centrally managed because of the franchise system. Broadcasters here do get soccer Tracab feeds, but haven’t really begun to analyse that data, although they don’t have access to heart rate or other player data. That might change. Alston Elliot is working with Catapult Sports on wearable tracking.

Connell believes that non-linear and localised rendering will become a very big area for graphics in future.“The internet has been a real driver. People are used to clicking on a web page [where they can] optimise graphics how they want them,” added Bass. “The public used to be quite uneducated when it came to graphics. Now they experience such a rich level of graphics data through the web that now they expect that.”

He believes that with IP production, an interesting prospect would be end-user rendering. “Because then you can create different experiences, so if I’m watching on my phone I can get a very simple lower-thirds score bug, but if I’m watching on a 65-inch screen I can enrich those graphics with a whole host of other data,” he said.

“At the moment we’re still looking at it from a linear point of view. I don’t think pixel size is what we should be most concerned about when it comes to graphics, but potentially how we deliver it to the end user.”


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