By now, sports fans have become accustomed to seeing virtual representations of their favorite athletes standing side by side with studio analysts on a football field or basketball court or in a real studio. During next week’s BCS National Championship pregame show, however, ESPN will turn the tables. Instead of graphically inserting a virtual player into real life, the network’s EA Sports Virtual Playbook will plug analyst Desmond Howard into a virtual football field to break down the highly anticipated Oregon Ducks-Auburn Tigers matchup.
“We’ve reversed the entire thing,” says ESPN VP of Emerging Technology Anthony Bailey. “In the past, we’ve pulled out players from the [EA Sports videogames] and put them in a studio or on a field to help our talent illustrate and explain the play. But, this time around, we’ve gone the opposite way: we’ve taken the talent and actually dropped them into the game.”
This new production element creates the illusion that Howard is actually in the play he is breaking down, walking around the players on the field. Although the Emmy Award-winning EA Sports Virtual Playbook has been used by ESPN since 2008, Monday’s BCS pregame show will mark the first time this new form of the technology has been deployed on-air.
Virtual Playbook 101
The revamped Virtual Playbook system runs on three Microsoft XBoxes — one for the players in the foreground, one for the players in the background, and one for the actual field and its surroundings. The talent is shot in a green-screen room with a jib camera connected to a specialized hardware and software system developed by ESPN’s emerging-technology team. As the jib in the studio shifts around Howard, the virtual game cameras move accordingly.
“The key was being able to extract the players from the foreground and the background and then putting the talent in between those two,” says Bailey. “It allows our analysts to [virtually] walk through the play.”
Fewer Boundaries, More Camera Moves
ESPN will continue to use the traditional EA Sports system on a regular basis, but Bailey expects to use this new technology more often as it continues to progress. Not only does it eliminate the need for actual fields and courts, but it also opens up an entire new world of possibilities for ESPN in terms of camera moves.
“We’re actually going to be controlling the virtual cameras and virtual space so it should give us the freedom to do some camera moves that we simply wouldn’t be able to do in real life,” says Bailey. “For this, you just need a green-screen room, and you are able to use the entire field in a totally new way.”
A Year in the Making
Bailey and Co. have had the system in the works for about a year, developing the technology at ESPN’s headquarters in Bristol, CT, as well as at the network’s Innovation Lab in Orlando. According to Bailey, the system was completed in late summer with the intention to launch in time for the BCS National Championship Game.
“It was about this time last year when we decided we should take a look at going the opposite way,” he says. “We were doing the BCS shoot last year, and a couple of the engineers said we could probably get a lot more of these done and be able to illustrate the entire team if we could just take the talent and shove them in the game. That’s basically how it started.”
Full Sail Lab Sets Sail
The Desmond Howard segment was shot two weeks ago at the ESPN’s Full Sail University Sports Lab, a joint-venture facility launched with the Orlando-based institution in November. The lab conducts research and development for various studio and remote audio and video technologies. The new Virtual Playbook system represents the first significant innovation to come out of the facility.
“We’re really taking the Virtual Playbook to the next level,” says Bailey. “Now our analysts can truly be immersed in the play and explain exactly what’s going on.”
To view the Desmond Howard EA Sports Virtual Playbook clip, click here and scroll down.