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Green screen dreams becoming reality in Covid-19 era

A camera crew member works in an empty stadium during a match between Flamengo and Potuguesa as part of the Rio State Championship 2020, to be played behind closed doors. (Photo by Bruna Prado/Getty Images)

  • Virtual backdrops and ‘watch together’ social media services are in focus as sport returns behind closed doors.
  • Recent advances in technology are opening up intriguing new possibilities with virtual studios.
  • The pandemic is accelerating other production changes, including the move to cloud technology.

With most sport that is set to resume in the coming weeks and months likely to do so in venues without fans, sports TV producers are grappling with how to deliver coverage that is missing one of its most compelling elements – the atmosphere created by thousands of fans.

When Korea’s K League kicked off its 2020 season last weekend, there was joy and relief among fans and football industry insiders around the world. But the dampening effect of the absence of fans was noticed.

Lee Dong-gook, veteran striker of Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, one of the teams that took part in the opening match, said afterwards: “I realised the value of the fan. Without fans, a soccer game is meaningless.”

Chris Cairns, the former New Zealand cricketer that now runs Australia-based sports production technology firm SmartSportz, told SportBusiness this week: “If you want emotion of a specific act, winning point, goal , great tackle, you cut to the crowd. And that gives you the emotion of that moment.”

Solutions

Solutions are already beginning to emerge. Recorded crowd noise is being played in-stadium during K League matches. German pay-television broadcaster Sky is offering viewers two options for audio tracks when it resumes coverage of the Bundesliga this weekend – the real soundtrack from the stadiums, or recorded crowd noises including chants and songs.

Remesh Kumar, a director with Singapore-based sports production company International Sports Productions, says he is “not a fan of crowd tracks – someone’s going to screw up where the sound should be at some point”. But he notes how subtly important crowd sounds are, for example in creating anticipation when a football player approaches a goal-scoring opportunity, and says “woven properly with commentary, you could create a soundtrack that would enhance enjoyment of that coverage”.

More technology-driven options may be around the corner. Cairns’s SmartSportz is pushing one of them – playing sports inside specially-built studios, which enable the action to be surrounded by digitally-created images. These images are “only limited by the imagination of our creatives”, he says. They could represent full stadiums or arenas, or be completely fantastical.

Example of Smart Sportz’ system in action

Virtual studios are already widely in use by television companies. Recent improvements in the availability of computational power and tracking technology are allowing companies such as SmartSportz to apply the technology to the more dynamic and therefore more challenging environments of live sport.

Advanced virtual studio technology, from Zero Density, in action

Cairns is casting it as offering a new genre of sport, “at the crossroads of Hollywood, technology and sports”. He describes the difference between traditional live sport in an arena and what his company is offering as akin to that between a music artist putting on a live show and recording an album in a studio.

“We don’t see ourselves in that space of lots of people, emotion – that’s special, you’re not going to replicate that,” he says. “But we can, through the use of technology, begin to explore the telling of a different story of live sport.”

Beyond creating potentially interesting backdrops, the ability to surround sports action with digital imagery also creates interesting new real estate for sponsors. “From a sponsorship point of view…it doesn’t have to be static, it comes down to what their imagination or their agency can come up with.”

Acceleration

Cairns said the pandemic has accelerated his ambitions for the business. “Conversations we were expecting would take three to five years to get to, may happen within three to five months,” he says. He declines to name any rights-holders that he’s working with. But the company wants to be more than just a supplier, he says – it wants to run events in its own facilities, so it can own and distribute the IP.

Currently, SmartSportz is only envisaging working on sports that take place indoors and on relatively small courts. One of the main reasons is that all the action must take place somewhere that lighting and other environmental effects can be strictly controlled. Scaling up to a football-pitch-sized venue is the next step in the company’s research and development, Cairns says.

SmartSportz is not the only firm offering digital backdrops as a solution to the empty-stadium issue. Iceland-based OZ Sports has a system that can overlay images of full stadiums on the real images of empty venues. The system, OZ Arena, also allows fans to appear in the stadium as an avatar, complete with their team’s shirt and their face painted.

The idea of sport in empty venues, and potentially in ‘green-screen’ venues, raises some interesting questions. Will athletes’ performance be affected, for better or worse? Can any virtual backdrop be as compelling on TV as a real crowd of tens of thousands? Could virtual venues be more valuable to sponsors than real venues? And, the ultimate question, will fans give such coverage the thumbs up or thumbs down?

Integrating fans

The absence of fans in-stadium may increase the focus on fans at home, and how to get them involved and interacting with video coverage. OZ Arena’s avatar fans are one example of how it might be done. Digital ‘watch together’ applications, which enable fans to interact while watching live sport, may also get closer attention in the coming months. They have never really taken off – Facebook’s Sports Stadium feature is a notable example, launched in 2016 but never achieving large take-up. But technology companies have not given up on the idea.

“Social media has proven that people want to talk to each other when they’re watching content that they’re interested in,” says Harold Chan, Head of Commercial & Partnerships – APAC, at cloud computing technology firm Kiswe Mobile. “But then how to translate that into a live platform or a monetisable platform…that is what the TV broadcasters or end delivery people should be working on right now.”

With the Covid-19 shutdowns leading to massive increases in usage of video conferencing technology, and a greater focus than ever on digital communication, the watch together concept may get added impetus. In a related field, Spotify this month launched a ‘Listening Together’ microsite, that connects people around the world listening to the same music tracks on the platform at the same time.

Kiswe works with US company Vidgo on a ‘watch together’ application. But Kiswe’s main business is providing cloud production technology to media companies. This is another area where sports media production is likely to undergo significant change during Covid-19. Chan said he’s seen significant growth in his business with Covid-19.

Cloud computing offers large, obvious benefits to the sports media production world. It can reduce or eliminate the need for physical studios and equipment, and the need for production staff to travel to sports events, and allow a lot of production work to be done remotely.

“Covid-19 is going to get people thinking about the heavy cost of infrastructure and rental,” Chan says.

Early days

Given the uncertainties surrounding the pandemic, and that it is only a relatively recent phenomenon, many sports organisations and media may be cautious yet about investing in major new changes to their productions – or not have the bandwidth to do so.

As Chan says, “broadcasters and rights-holders are fighting so many fires right now, managing their rights, managing empty stadiums…”

But as the pandemic drags on, it appears likely that, as in so many other sectors and areas of our lives, it will accelerate change in sports video production. What happens in the next year could shape how we watch sport for a long time to come.

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