Technical advancements: Sport Buff explores the evolution of World Cup broadcasts as a microcosm for the industry

By Jonty Whitehead, Sport Buff president and founder.

How can we assess the changes in the broadcast industry over recent years on a global scale? I think that the men’s FIFA World Cup, as the planet’s biggest and best sporting event, provides an accurate assessment of production evolution. A look through the history of these tournaments gives an idea of what technologies and techniques have been perfected, what seemingly groundbreaking solutions have been tried and passed over and what are the developing trends and technologies that we will see in the tournaments of the future.

Advances in FIFA World Cups, like with all TV, have coincided with the move from black and white to colour (1970 in Mexico), from 4×3 to 16×9 (2006 in Germany) and most recently from SD to HD and now to UHD.

If we take the last four tournaments, from South Africa in 2010 through to Qatar 2022, all World Cups that I have worked on, it’s interesting to see how the hardware, the software and the modules that have been offered into FIFA’s media rights licensees have changed with the advancement of broadcast technology and innovation.

Technical advancements

Camera plans give real insight into how technical advancement in hardware has aided and augmented the viewing experience, but the majority of play is still covered in a traditional way with a centrally positioned fixed camera.

I spoke with Grant Philips who is directing 14 games in Qatar this time round. “With innovation we put cameras all around, in the sky and in the nets, but it is the trusted camera one that is still the director’s best friend and the way the viewer still consumes the majority of the match,” said Philips.

“We have super slo mos all around and the extra special images from the ultra motions; a look, a smile or a tackle captured so dramatically in an instant. The in-goal cameras are used all the time and the Spidercam is astonishing. I directed England versus Germany and the combination of the expert German pilot and English cameraman had incredible result, even for a Scottish director. It’s important to use all cameras correctly and at the right time but we always return to camera one.”

The standard 26 camera plan implemented at the 2006 FIFA World Cup has risen steadily through the years and was upgraded to a 29-camera multilateral camera plan including two Ultra Motion cameras in 2010, although coverage was still shot 4×3 safe. By 2014 we are up to a 34 camera plan to include the addition of two reverse corner cameras, one tunnel camera, an aerial/helicopter camera and a cable camera at every match and crucially shot 16×9 safe. Russia saw 37 cameras as standard while Qatar has kicked off with close to 50!

The FIFA offering for its broadcasters in South Africa in 2010 also included 25 games available in 3D, at a time when this was seen as the next big thing. Four years later in Brazil, after the demise of ESPN 3D and an expensive foray into that world by many other broadcasters including Sky Sports UK, there were no games available in that format.

That World Cup did however cover three of the later stage games in 4K, a technology that was subsequently employed across the board for all games in Russia 2018 and Qatar.

In fact four signals are available depending on the broadcasters needs: 1080p, UHD and 4K HDR.

Why the difference in take up? Both required expensive upgrades to broadcaster facilities and viewers hardware. I would point to user experience; 3D involves the wearing of glasses which is a significant friction point, whereas a higher resolution and clearer picture with no change to normal viewing habits is a much easier sell, especially as the cost of hardware diminishes as uptake increases.

Digital delivery

One of the other areas that has seen significant changes in recent years is the advent of digital delivery and streaming technologies. The BBC made all games available as far back as 2006 in Germany, but it was a fraction of the audience at that time, that digital audience has grown consistently in the intervening years; Nielsen’s World Football Report 2022 states that 68% of viewers watch their sports via over the top (OTT) streaming devices.

As this digital audience has grown, there has been a shift to move away from digital being a different delivery method that just provides a more accessible duplication of the linear shows and experience. The ability to access in-game highlights, to reference team sheets and statistics around the game is now available to digital viewers of the major broadcasters. This type of innovation is given the broad catch all term of fan engagement, but is an area that, I believe, is underdeveloped. The opportunities are huge for broadcasters, brands, publishers and platforms to get creative with how they engage audiences across multiple devices.

Viewing sport has been a passive experience for too long and is therefore losing a whole generation of audience. Data from the Nielsen Fan Insights study across eight different markets (China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain, the UK and the US) revealed that those aged 16 to 24 prefer shorter, snackable content and, from a sporting standpoint, were less inclined to watch entire games.

The overwhelming majority of fans (80%) are multitasking on their devices while watching a match according to the same study. It’s time now to find ways to get those fans to focus on the action, across their first screen, wherever they are watching, to serve them the engagements they are looking for, without taking them away from the excitement.

For the first time ever, as part of the digital services FIFA is offering its broadcasters in Qatar is a fan engagement module that sits across the Live action. This will allow the audience to have their voice heard, to steer the editorial narrative, feel part of a community and benefit from their knowledge and loyalty. It is in this area, making the most of these digital and streaming rights, that I believe will see the most innovation and development in 2023. Deals such as the NFL Amazon Thursday Night package and the Apple agreement with MLS will provide opportunities for whole new areas of revenue generation.

One thing is for certain. While technology is playing its part on the pitch at the FIFA World Cup 2022 with players, teams and officials benefitting from artificial intelligence (AI) driven analysis for offside checks, performance stats and a sensor in the match ball, it is the Broadcasters that will continue to test, tweak and innovate the best possible experience for the audience back home.


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