Mediapro adapts LaLiga host broadcast to highlight virtual overlay, minimise empty seats

Spanish production group and rights agency Mediapro has reworked its host broadcast of LaLiga matches since the league returned earlier this month with shots of empty seats minimised.

Upon its return behind closed doors after the suspension caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, LaLiga introduced a virtual crowd overlay and fan audio, working with Mediapro, graphics production firm Vizrt, broadcast solutions company (and Mediapro subsidiary) wTVision and video game developer (and LaLiga sponsor) EA Sports.

Óscar Lago, Mediapro’s match director, said that the first step in the new concept was to move cameras to new positions in the stand to avoid seeing empty seats during replays and close-up shots of players. A new ‘Camera 1’ position was created to maximise the effect of the virtual overlay.

Using technology from Vizrt, the LaLiga matches have been played out with the empty stands overlaid with “virtual” fans in the colours of the home club. However, the overlay technology cannot be implemented from certain shots, leading to a reduction in the use of shots from certain positions.

Fielding a question from SportBusiness during a virtual press conference to discuss the technology, Lago said: “We are minimising the number of shots with empty seats. There are some shots that it’s impossible to change, like the 18-metre camera for the offside replay.

“But we are talking to all the camera operators to try to avoid for every shot – when it’s possible – having the empty stand in the shot.”

Some cameras positions have been shifted to places where they would previously have affected the sightline of fans in the stands. The aerial camera has also modified its flight path to try and avoid broadcasting images of empty seats, while the bench camera has been moved to the opposite stand and robotic cameras are being used in the tunnel for health and safety reasons.

Lago, who headed up the host broadcast of the 2010 and 2019 Uefa Champions League finals in Madrid, remarked: “The most important aspect was what to do with the Camera 1 shot during the match. Nobody in the TV broadcast industry thought that one day we would need to work on that. It’s a scenario that was unimaginable for all the TV industry and for me it’s been the biggest challenge of my 30-year career in TV.”

Following the LaLiga announcement ahead of the re-start that there would be “to-scale images of seated fans wearing the colours of the home club”, there has been reaction from some observers and viewers that the fans do not look particularly realistic. However, Lago insisted that a detailed depiction of fans was never the target.

He said: “We started to analyse what kind of crowd picture we usually see from Camera 1. Our goal was not to find a hyper realistic picture of fans as in games but something that makes the TV viewers forget during the match that they are watching a match in an empty stadium.

“Viewers are not [usually] looking at the stands during the match as they’re focused on the action on the field. They’re not looking at exactly the kind of shot of the fans in stands.”

Using EA Sports’ “Atmospheric Audio”, the LaLiga matches have featured virtual sound that is digitally reworked so that it can be implemented in real time during the match. It is adapted to the flow of the game as certain situations occur, such as a goal or a foul, with technicians in the stadium operating as ‘DJs’ by pressing the relevant buttons as the action takes place.

The audio is provided initially by LaLiga and Mediapro to EA Sports, which then adapts it and sends it back for use in broadcast. The sounds and chants are specific to each of the 20 different top-tier LaLiga teams.

The virtual overlay technology could still be used if only a small proportion of spectators are allowed back into stadiums, according to Joris Evers, LaLiga’s chief communications officer.

He said: “The idea is for this technology to be complementary to people in the stadium. In some cases in stadiums, clubs have put in banners and the technology from a visualisation perspective is complementary to what’s actually in the stadium. The objective would be to keep it that way.”

Jonathan Roberts, Vizrt’s senior vice-president, global sport and advertising, added: “As this situation evolves and changes, we’re always keeping an eye on what’s going on to see how we can use technology to overcome situations that are presented to us.

“When you’ve got fans coming back bit by bit, [then] how could that change the overlay? I don’t know whether we’ll have an answer within three weeks when LaLiga finishes, but it’s posing the question to us about how we can use machine learning to understand areas of the field of view from the camera and where you could and couldn’t add fans.”

Lago said that LaLiga and Mediapro would “analyse if the fans are going to the stadium before the end of the season and we will decide when we know the number of fans who could be in the stadium if we need to add more fans”.