Archive for January, 2016

TechGraphs News Roundup: 1/29/2016

Hello, fair TechGraphs readers. I tried to come up with something witty for the intro, but this is already a little bit late, so I’ll cut right to the news stories from the sports-tech world that we found interesting this week.

A late-comer, but probably the biggest news of the week: the payment processor for DraftKings and FanDuel is cutting ties at the end of February. If you’re a halfway-decent coder with some experience in API work, it might not be a bad idea to float them your resume.

The Super Bowl is a little more than a week away, and Wired has a nice look at all the crazy cameras we’ll be experiencing on TV.

If you are going to see the big game in person, check out this primer on the wireless tech employed by Levi’s Stadium.

Also in time for the Super Bowl, EA is releasing Madden 16 for free on EA Access on February 2nd.

On the subject of Madden, Polygon looks at how the game deals with teams changing cities.

My friend and former FanGraphs contributor Jack Moore looks at how how the MLB media streaming landscape might change (or not) in upcoming years.

They’re going to put esports on real, actual television this year, and David Wiers is ecstatic about it.

In the vain of Periscope and Meerkat, Facebook is giving live-streaming access to everyone (with and iPhone). Now, when you can’t make it to a game, just make sure to befriend someone who can. Watching from the stands on your cellphone is just as good, right?

Periscope countered this news with an announcement that you’ll be able to stream on its service using a GoPro.

I don’t think I’ll ever get too deep into esports, but I can very much see myself plopping down on the couch to watch some drone racing.

Apparently the whole snafu with Surface tablets at the AFC championship game is being blamed on some bad cabling.

And finally, details are starting to come out about MLB The Show 16. I’m going to buy it either way, but the improvements mentioned are certainly welcome.

That’s it for this week. Have a great weekend. Be excellent to each other.


MLB and Match.com Team Up

Listen, I am not — even for a minute — saying that I possess even a modicum of business acumen. In fact, I think it would be safe to say that pretty much everything I know about business comes from 30 Rock‘s Jack Donaghy. I do not possess an MBA, and I have a fairly weak handshake. With that all said, the announced partnership between MLB and Match.com could make a lot of sense. However, this does not negate the fact that it all seems very silly.

People give the dating app Tinder a good deal of guff due to the perception that it is a platform merely for people looking to rub against each other in some sort of way. And while that facet of the service certainly exists, Tinder leverages an easily-trackable and simple trait for every user — proximity. When you match up with someone, you know, for a fact, that you already have something in common. This may seem oversimplified — and maybe it is — but it’s part of Tinder’s core appeal.*

*–yes, there are also photos involved, but that is included in nearly all dating services.

Services like Match and OKCupid also leverage common interests, no doubt, but they are not as instantaneous. Match is now looking to tap into that instant-match process by using baseball fandom as a variable. Using the new “Singles” (can you hear my eye rolls through the Internet?) platform, fans can combine their Match.com profiles with their team allegiances. People can search Match for others who have also designated a favorite MLB team, and, 29 team-specific portals will also be available for people to match themselves with others who also root for the same team. I really want to know which MLB team was the holdout.

Is this platform totally pointless? Probably not. Will it make these businesses money? I have no idea — see paragraph one. However, it points to a continuing trend from MLB that shows a disconnect between what MLB thinks women want and, well, reality. Hey guys! Tired of meeting women who *gasp* don’t like baseball?! Do we have the site for you! Ladies! Wanna show all the dudes out there that you are totally down to hang in a ballpark and might even eat a hot dog? Sign up below! From Match’s web site:

With over a quarter of Match members identifying as baseball fans, now’s the time to make a connection with another single fan online. Connecting over a shared passion like America’s favorite pastime is the best way to break the ice, so visit www.match.com/mlb to start your search today!

In the interest of fairness, I haven’t dated in a while. And based on what I hear from single friends, it can indeed be rough out there. But predicating a relationship based on the fact that two people like the same baseball team seems shaky at best. Plus (and I hate writing this as much as you hat reading it), sports are different. There are varying degrees of fandom, to put it lightly. A guy can check a box because he likes going to a game every now and then, where a woman who watches every game and can recite the rosters of every historic team might check that same box. There’s no sliding scale here, it’s a binary response. This can happen with other subjects as well, certainly, but there are no Match.com portals for fans of Hemingway or the movie Top Gun. Match and MLB are trying to pair people together with the help of one variable that can fluctuate immensely. It probably isn’t a recipe for disaster, but it most likely isn’t one for success either.

Who knows? Maybe this will lead to some deep and meaningful relationships. Who am I to tell people how they should look for love? But on the surface, the whole situation seems pretty phony. I mostly am worried about St. Louis fans living in Chicago and vice versa. I don’t see a whole lot of room for romance there, but it might give @BestFansStLouis some good fodder.


Learn from a Nerd: David Wiers Explains esports (Part 2)

Editor’s note: The esports landscape has really expanded over the past year or so, and, for the longest time, we’ve given all the esports stories to David Wiers (an avid gamer and former esports competitor himself) since nobody else here really understands it. Contributor Patrick Dubuque looked to remedy this by digging deep with Wiers to get a better understanding of how this whole world works. Part 1 can be found here. Part 2 is below.)

Patrick: Player movement in itself doesn’t seem like a big deal – it happens in every sport, and it gives fans a metasport to talk about during the offseason. But that’s another point, and one of the reasons I have a hard time getting into, say, soccer, let alone the tourney-based sports: is there even an offseason? Sure, seasons are techinically arbitrary endpoints, but having a standings page that automatically resets gives fans a chance to reset expectations, but also gives new fans a convenient entry point. Do esports have such a thing, or do we all have to just jump into it in media res?

David: This about the perfect time to pick an esport, actually. The Dota 2 Star Ladder Series is just now starting the playoffs, League of Legends North America, European and Korean Spring Split is yet to begin or is only one week in and in CS:GO, a number of leagues and tournaments are set to kick off in the coming weeks. Given the number of titles that have reached or attempting to reach esports status, there really isn’t an offseason if you wanted to follow every single one. Even if you just picked LoL, Dota, or CS:GO (again, arguably the three biggest esports titles) then following all three would still leave you very little time to do watch any other esport or any traditional sport. For me, my level of dedication is pretty split between soccer, baseball and select esports titles.

One thing esports does have going for it is near constant action. As you mentioned earlier from your time in Korea, they had (and now have multiple) channels dedicated to esports. Where I have to wake up early to watch Tottenham play, I can probably tune into Twitch/Azubu/MLB/etc. at anytime and get some solid esports viewing in. In that regard, a lack of a formal, unified season (for titles other than the mostly rigid LoL schedule) is great.

P: Near-constant action is great, but I really feel like there’s something to be said for an offseason, especially after the culmination of a single championship. With different games and different tournaments competing for attention, especially with wildly different gameplay and viewing experiences, it seems like there’s a real danger of fracturing the market, if it hasn’t been fractured already. Other sports like chess (it’s a sport, damn it) and even football during the USFL era suffer when there’s no one real champion to hold up at the end of the day.

Do you think that the future of esports is a general unification, some level of organization above the corporate/tournament level? I envision something where a “season” requires mastery of five or so different games, each requiring different skillsets and thus requiring different skilled team members (almost requiring the specialization of position players) to attain the best overall record. Is this possible? Or will the unique reality of shifting games and cultures prevent anything that codified from ever taking place?

D: I worry about oversaturation and players being exhausted and overstretched, absolutely. I think we saw that this year in CS:GO. There were times where domestic league games were played at a level I think most would call subpar, possibly because both teams just finished traveling to Europe.

As for different cups, leagues, and tournament organizations, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I love Dota 2’s main event, The International, which has broken the prize pool records for an esports tournament I think three years running. On the other hand, teams focus almost entirely on qualifying and seeding for that one tournament, with not much else top level competition happening throughout the year. It’s a topic that clearly cuts both ways, and while both LoL and Dota 2 crown World Champions, as does StarCraft II, CS:GO doesn’t. I’d like to see a World Champion of Counter-Strike like back in the days of WCG, but even then the WCG winner had to contend with the summer and winter CPL winters. Personally, I’m all for the leagues uniting to offer a world series of CS:GO, but due to sponsorship needs and contracts, I don’t know if we’ll see that for awhile, at least until the developer steps in.

And my concerns aren’t just about gameplay quality either, but content delivery. With MLG being sold to Activision Blizzard recently and ESL purchasing ESEA late last year, and now the SSL being live casted only on Dingit I’m concerned about esports fans consumption, and no, not just the stereotypical Mountain Dew and Doritos. Twitch.tv is the undisputed king of streaming platforms, but it’s gotten to the point where the numerous flaws in Twitch are being recognized and then quickly forgotten, almost as if esports fan don’t want to give MLG TV, YouTube, or any other competitor a real chance. That said, some Twitch competitors such as Dingit is pretty awful, as is Azubu and Afreeca, but I’ve personally had the exact same problems on Twitch as I have with MLG. Heck, if more people used YouTube to live-stream, I think that could be the best among them given the Google backing it has.

I guess my dream scenario, at least for CS:GO (as they lack a World Champ) would be for a World Series-type event, probably in the form of the top eight teams in terms of tournament and league placings (not fan vote) meet in a December showdown to crown a champ. The event could be broadcasted by CS:GO itself (Spectating in-game rather than in-browser) that way no tournament or league could complain about ad revenue, viewership, sponsors and subscriptions…basically, like almost all things, esports is about the bottom line.

P: So the question that will have to be asked over and over: are esports a sport? What makes a sport a sport?

D: I can’t get there and call it a sport. It can be physically demanding, mentally exhausting and injuries (RSI, carpal tunnel etc.) but I still can’t call it a sport,. To me, and I could be way off base here as I equate professional sports with pro-gamers, a professional athlete has some sort of natural athletic gift. It could be throwing a fastball, running a route, kicking a ball, whatever, but some physical aspect shines through. While there is aiming, reflexes hand-eye coordination and the other physical things a part of esports to be sure, it is not on the same plane as soccer, baseball or even golf.

Again, not to minimize the physical aspects of esports, but they’re light compared to any other sport. I’d liken esports to that of darts or pool There is skill that separates the top from the average Joes, as well as a certain physical demand, but the physical side is secondary to the mental. As for your mention of chess earlier, well, I’m not sure that’s a sport…

P: I’m finding that in my old age, I’m growing increasingly indifferent to the physical aspect of all sports. As a participant, sure, physical exertion and execution if a major part of playing a sport; as an observer, staring at the action on a television screen, the images are already devoid of physicality. Whether those images represent actual people sweating, or are representations of people sweating controlled by people in office chairs with gamepads, has no real effect on my experience.

Execution is great and all, but I don’t watch basketball for the free throws or football for the extra points. It’s the strategy, either on the larger scale or the split-second reactionary one, that makes sports interesting to me, and that translates perfectly to esports, or chess, or even an episode of Jeopardy!. At some point, maybe it’s no longer sports, but I don’t know where that line is and I can’t really make myself care.

Let’s take a hypothetical situation where two people are playing RBI Baseball against each other on Twitch. How is that different, to a viewer, from a recording of a high school baseball game?

D: It probably goes back to reaction times and then level of play. An 16-year-old center fielder might take a bad route or a hitter could be late to a fastball. Sure, those types of issues or errors can be coded into a game as well, but that difference — at least to me — is very huge.  As for the level of play, I wouldn’t want to watch low level baseball just like I wouldn’t want to watch low level esports. Watching a Bronze StarCraft II player or Silver CS:GO player is similar to coach-pitch baseball and softball. It’s the same game as the pros are playing, but the difference in skill is the impressive part.

Maybe that’s one of the things still holding eports back: an inability to convert the level of difficulty to the general public. When someone gets a pentakill in LoL or Dota 2 or a clutch ace in CS:GO, it’s usually an extremely rare and difficult feat to accomplish. Without a basis of comparison, the average non-esports enthusiast might interpret nothing but a bunch of characters, colors and effects on the screen. Just about everyone can recognize the brilliance of a walk-off home run versus very few people recognizing the brilliance and game sense in a 1v5 clutch situation.

P: That’s true. But from the perspective of the person watching on the couch, what’s the difference between watching athletes on a television screen and watching digital representations of athletes on a television screen? What makes one sports and the other not quite sports?

D: As far as spectating goes, it’s an increasingly small difference, but I’d wager the difference is the element of, I guess for lack of a better word, risk. Reaction times are critical in both sports and esports, but when I’m playing MLB 2K16, the fastball aren’t actually humming by me, etc. Not to understate the injuries in esports, but the risk and danger to the players is very different. I highly doubt anyone watches baseball for the beanings or football for the helmet-to-helmet hits, but with physical stakes considerably higher on the field than on the screen, I suppose that would be the difference to the viewer.

P: Is the physical risk to the athlete actually exciting to you? I honestly never even consider it.

D: I don’t think “exciting” is the word, but it’s certainly something I’m aware of. Here’s a video of me facing 50 mph and 70 mph in the batting cage. The highway speed pitches aren’t even close to a major league fastball and I was flailing helplessly. Of course, batting cages aren’t consistent, no seams, etc., but really, I was never going to stand a chance against 70 mph. On the other hand, I’ve played against top tier talent in CS (Hell, Stuard Holden, former Bolton Wanderer and USMNT player and his team steamrolled my team and me several times) back in the 1.5 and 1.6 days, and while we didn’t fare well, my team and I certainly did better against them than I would against an MLB pitcher. Sure, this is just one example and perhaps time has colored my memory a rosy tint — I wish I still had the demos, sadly that computer is long gone — but even semi-pro CS teams can take a map off of pro teams. I can’t see an Indy ball team winning a game against an MLB squad.

To come back to your question, I’m more impressed with the physical ability of pro athletes than I am of the reaction time/aim of esports. The risk involved is secondary, maybe tertiary to what I’m watching, but it is a factor for me. If tension equals compelling story lines (and reality TV would make it seem so), then the physical stakes of sports is much higher than esports, and thus I’m more impressed with sports over esports, and I’m a massive esports fan. I mean, I’m watching DreamHack Leipzig (SCII and CS:GO) as I’m writing this!

P: College baseball teams win occasionally against major league teams! That’s one of the great things about baseball, I think.

Okay, so let’s move on. We’ve talked about how difficult it is to become a sport, all the logistics that go into creating the sport itself and what can make people a fan of it. People quote the viewership and the dollars that go into the industry, and these are all very important things.

But esports have a strange cousin that receives next to no money or attention, except for a couple charities a year. The scene is also nearly completely opposite: individual-focused rather than team, supportive, almost non-competitive. While tournaments take place in giant arenas, speed running takes place in people’s homes, or at most in hotel banquet rooms. And yet the product, the actual gaming, is at least to me as compelling, if not more, to the head-to-head gaming scene.

Is speed running a sport, in your mind, and what makes it fall into such a different realm than the DOTA/LoL sphere?

D: I don’t think speed running is an esport. I adore guys like siglemic et al who do the N64 speed runs of Super Mario 64, but I can’t get there as an esport. The level of competition is certainly there, yet so many speed runs depend on glitches, bugs, etc. that would never fly in a league or organized format. For example, Halo 2 speed running is actually done an older patch of the game, because Bungie opted to remove the sword flying/rocket canceling exploit. It’s a high level of competition, but I can’t get there as an esport.

I guess the counter-point to glitches is things like bunny hopping. It’s used in just about every Half-Life or Half-Life 2 game to speed run, and it is allowed in competitive formats, though the old CAL system did ban bhopping for a spell. Now that I think of it, I think either CEVO or CAL had a limit on crouch-hopping (continuously and rhythmically tapping the crouch button while running to change the sound of the footsteps as well as the player’s hitbox) in CS 1.6 to two consecutive “crouch hops.”

I’m torn now. I don’t see speed running as an esport right now, but I reserve the right to change my answer. If that’s flip flopping, well, so be it.

P:  I just find it compelling as a viewing experience. GDQ just wrapped up their winter charity marathon, and while I missed most of it, there’s just so much spectacle: two players playing Super Metroid on a single controller, a guy getting all the way to Tyson on Punch-Out! while wearing a blindfold, listening to audio cues and timing dodges. It’s really fun to watch, and it’s fun to watch in exactly the way that sports are to a lot of people: seeing the same games played by average people, done to an incredible degree. There’s just so much joy to the experience, a level of sportsmanship and collective pleasure in Beating a Thing, that you don’t see in directly competitive sports that often. It’s Bautista’s bat flip without a pitcher to embarrass. It’s great.

What do you see as the immediate future of the sport? What does it need to do to gain popularity/acceptance with the potential fan?

D: I’m going to sound like a candidate running for office here, but I have a three point plan on how I think it will happen. We’ll soon find out, given the first, big step, is already all but wrapped up.

  1. Television Deal
    1. The Turner Esports League will hopefully bring a boon to CS:GO, and thus esports as a whole. It’s set to kick off this summer and I’m optimistic it will catch enough positive attention to really gain traction in the general population.
  2. Higher accountability
    1. I’m taking for both teams and organizations as well as players. It’s a mix of maturity, penalties, restrictions and binding contracts is something desperately needed. Teams drop rosters, churn or cut players, while different players quit on their teams, leave games while a match is live, etc. I know some organizations do have legal contracts, but other orgs appear shady at best.
  3. Corporate sponsorship
    1. Already various esports related companies sponsor teams. For example. Intel, Hyper X, Razor, Nvidia and many others are involved, but few non-esports related sponsors are involved. There is Samsung, Korea Telecom, CJ Group, but most are in South Korea. I remember Stride Gum had a personal sponsorship with Tyler “Nony” Wasieleski, but those types of deals are far too infrequent. I like to imagine a day where it’s like soccer, with various airline companies or banks sponsoring teams.

P: So this is how the sport will become successful as a business model. But how will it become loved? How will it reach out to people who hate millenials or think blood is a necessary part of entertainment? How will it win my heart, Wiers?

D: I’d argue that it is already loved, haha, but I get your larger point. The on-screen action is still the primary form of entertainment, but to circle back to an earlier point, the interviews, ceremonies, celebrations, basically the *style* in which the esport is played will help capture people’s hearts rather than just their fleeting attention. Without sounding too much like Office Space, it’s about the flair and the drama. I’m generalizing here, but for me, a compelling story in esports is infinitely more interesting than in the traditional sporting world. I didn’t particularly care when Jon Lester pitched against the Red Sox as an Oakland A, but please believe I was glued to my screen when Spencer “Hiko” Martin played his first match for Team Liquid against Cloud9 after he left C9. Esports drama is basically a reality TV show for me: it’s a never ending source of entertainment, though still secondary to the in-game action.

I could be off here, but given how much esports figures interact with the general public (meaning, via Twitter, vlogs, blogs, etc.) versus traditional athletes, the big difference seems to be just how unfiltered the esports competitors are. There is no HR department to screen bad tweets, and few repercussions for them in the first place. I wouldn’t call the esports world transparent in the least bit, but definitely unfiltered. Some esports figures, not just the competitors, but commentators, writers and hosts as well, often jump in with the banter. Sometimes it feels like they’re just baiting the fans to post reactions on Reddit or Twitter, but the interaction, at least to me specifically, is at least refreshing. Imagine David Price jumping into a random thread on r/baseball. Now shrink that down about 1000 times and you’ll have a close comparison to when an esports figure pops up in a thread on r/dota2 or r/globaloffensive and the like.

I feel like fans of anything desire interaction with the stars in their respective fields. The level of interaction in the esports realm far outpaces — for better or worse — that of traditional sports. Get people to pay attention to your esport for a game, have a sharp interview, be personable on social media and bam, you have a likeable (and marketable) esports figure. That’s how people will get drawn in.

P: I hope so. It’s interesting to watch any sport in its relative infancy, creating the foundations for its own future heritage. I’m not sure that this iteration of esports is for me, or even meant to be for me; I prefer a more methodical, chess-match style of battle, one where the audience can scheme along with the participants. I guess what I prefer is actual chess, which is just never going to happen. Or a blend of poker and esport in which two players sit across a table and play Twilight Struggle with their cards exposed to the camera.

D: Instead of Chess or esports, what about streaming a game of Risk or Settlers on Twitch? I think I would watch a streamed Euchre tournament, but that could be my inner Michigander coming out.

As far as watching esports grow from a nerd niche to a wider audience (and hopefully mainstream in the coming years), it is amazing to view the progression. Will I one day say I watched Olof “Olofmeister” Kajbjer in a similar way I’ll talk about Mike Trout? Maybe, maybe not, but we’re certainly closer to that happening than we were even two years ago. And that’s enough progress for me.

P: Me, too. Thanks for answering all these questions, David. It was fun.

D: Thank you, Patrick! Hopefully my rambling words (that may have flirted with a rant from time to time) can help bring a wider audience to the outstanding realm of esports.

Also, I’m not sure exactly where this would fit, but this link (posted today) has some awesome charts/graphics on the rising money in the esports industry, with a projection for it to reach over $1 billion in 2019.


TechGraphs News Roundup: 1/22/2016

Greetings, fair readers. The NFL has it’s championship Sunday this weekend, the NHL All Star Game (love it or hate it) is right around the corner, and we’re still waiting for a couple big signings in Major League Baseball. It’s an exciting time for sports fans, though the sports-tech world had a bit of a quiet week. It’s a post-CES lull for sure, but nevertheless, here are the stories that we found interesting from this week.

The biggest news this week came from Facebook, which has launched a new platform for engaging with a sporting event and other fans. Titled Facebook Sports Stadium, it’s a little mix of Twitter, an ESPN mobile app, and an engagement-measuring tool. Knowing Facebook, it’ll certainly get a couple face lifts along the way, but it’s an interesting tool for non-Twitter people out there that still want to discuss the sport they are watching on TV.

Another big story comes from MLB which settled a lawsuit concerning their blackout policies. As of this writing, all the details are still a little fuzzy, but it looks like the price of the overall MLB.tv package will be lower (yay!), and there will be an option built in for fans of out-of-town teams when said team comes to play in said fan’s town. It’s a developing story, and we’ll keep an eye on it.

Just today, UEFA announced that it will be instituting goal line technology in upcoming tournaments. David Weirs tells me this is a good thing.

Samsung is rumored to working on a smartwatch/shirt sensor combo. It’s an interesting idea. A smartwatch for the every day activities that can be paired up with a body sensor to collect more granular data during workouts.

Kirk Herbstreit, a wealthy sports announcer, got butt-hurt about a non-wealthy basketball player trying to get paid for his likeness and causing a cancellation of a video game series that cost Herbstriet a job.

Hoverboards are dumb and dangerous, and probably more dangerous when 200 lb. testosterone machines are riding them. That’s why the Carolina Panthers banned players from using them.

Wired has a nice story on the overall influx of technology in football.

Video-streaming service Ustream has been acquired by IBM. Ustream hasn’t dabbled too much in sports as of yet, but if their partnership can bring forth a series product (and given IBM’s history of corporate partnerships), we could see that technology being utilized by leagues in the not-so-distant future.

That’s all for this week. If you’re on the east coast, good luck with your shoveling. Be excellent to each other.


Learn from a Nerd: David Wiers Explains esports (Part 1)

Editor’s note: The esports landscape has really expanded over the past year or so, and, for the longest time, we’ve given all the esports stories to David Wiers (an avid gamer and former esports competitor himself) since nobody else here really understands it. Contributor Patrick Dubuque looked to remedy this by digging deep with Wiers to get a better understanding of how this whole world works. Part 1 of that chat is below.)

Patrick: So [recently] ESPN announced its esports section, which seems like a major step toward legitimizing the phenomenon. As someone who enjoys video games but was born in a different era, I find myself attracted to the idea of esports but entirely outside the realm where it takes place.

The first thing that struck me when I went to ESPN’s site is the header: where the usual categories like standings and schedule go, the basic elements of a sport, there are three games: League of Legends, Dota2, and Hearthstone. Are these it? I know there are other games which are played competitively, if not at that level (Rocket League springs to mind), so what differentiates these three? Are they the “major leagues” right now, and what changes that, if anything?

David: Similar to how the MLB is different from the NFL, is different from the MLS, each individual game can carry multiple esports leagues. On one side, League of Legends is ran from a very rigid — some would say concrete sequential — manner from the game’s developer, Riot. On the other side of things is Dota 2, ran by their developer, Valve. With different leagues, formats, qualifiers, and simultaneously running events, the esports schedule can get hectic in a hurry.

As for different games, I’m a bit surprised to see Counter-Strike: Global Offensive not a part of the specifically named esports titles. After LoL and Dota, CS:GO is almost universally acknowledged as the No. 3 in esports, and some would argue at times, the No. 1 title. In CS:GO alone, there is FaceIt, ESEA, and CEVO for league play, plus weekend style tournaments like Major League Gaming, DreamHacks, Intel Extreme Masters, and more.

I personally find it very curious that ESPN pushed out this launch at this time, just days after TNT had a cross-promotion with their NBA guys for the new CS:GO league. If you ever wanted to see Shaq get banter’d by some esports nerds, well, here you go.

As for changes, I have to envision a player union of some sort in the near future. Whether or not it will be for individual games or across all of esports is in the air.

Have you had a chance to check out Twitch.TV, MLG, Azubu or any of the streaming options that has really allowed esports to take off? They’re driving a huge amount of innovation and change to almost all digital media, not just esports.

P: I watch Twitch occasionally when I’m pacing in circles with my two-month-old, but not enough to be able to track the competitive stuff. It’s always hard when you don’t have the time to immerse yourself in a sport, give it the time it deserves to appreciate it. As a newer sport, I guess that’s an issue esports has on the bigger scale.

So what makes a game “good” for competitive gaming? Is it the interests of the players, the interests of the game publishers, the interests of the viewers? I personally find FPS shooters far more difficult to watch, as a theoretical sports fan, than other styles of games, and even the endless multitasking of the RTS makes my head hurt a little (I was an awful, awful Starcraft player). Does that factor in?

D: Oh man, the list of things that make a game good for competitive play is long and varied. My unconsidered answer off the top of my head would be game balance above all. If one particular strategy, weapon, character etc. is overpowered or underpowered, the game will suffer from it, people will leave the game and any esports hope and hype for it dies out. That said, there are a number of games I would think make for great entertainment, Team Fortress 2 to name one, but a mix of gameplay balance and a stale meta-game in the competitive scene have hurt various titles.

Rather than address the gameplay side of things, the production side can absolutely make or break a tournament or league. Sound, camera work, good conditions and times for the players and the casters/hosts all play a huge role in how an event is perceived. I remember back when StarCraft II was *the* esport around, the North American Star League held a major tournament and their sound was an absolute disaster. Despite being the biggest esport title on the block at the time as well as featuring great gameplay, the most referenced thing about that is still a running joke in the SC community. If ever an event has sound trouble, there is no shortage of “NASL sound guy must be here!” type jokes. I mean, even a quick Google search almost four years after the event brings a ton of memes, joke videos and an announcement about the guy getting fired.

To circle back to my previous mention of meta-games within esports titles, they are to me, one of the most fascinating parts about games. The “mind games” so to speak can play a huge role, especially if someone does something unexpected and against the “normal gameplay.” It’s like when the NFL mixed in the Wildcat formation, the rise of the cut fastball in baseball, or better yet defensive shifts in baseball. Small things that may go against the tradition of the sport, but when executed correctly, can have a huge effect. I may be talking against a straw man at this point, but I still bristle a bit when people shrug off esports and simply “nerds playing video games.” There is nuance to each esport, and heck, to each tournament and league as well as calculations to exploit the other team or other player’s nuance.

P: I guess that takes me to the next aspect of esports I don’t really understand: the player and team structure. My first intro to the sport was when I lived in South Korea in 2002, and found a 24-hour StarCraft channel. Without being able to understand the announcers, and not being good enough at the game to appreciate the subtlety onscreen, the image I was left with was the players: two guys sitting across each other, clouds of dry ice tumbling over their feet, utterly motionless and expressionless. I loved it.

Given the structure of gaming, the amount of attention it requires during play and the fact that the focus of the viewer is on an avatar on a separate screen, can the gamer reach the same level of stardom and identity as other sports? Or are they doomed to be a secondary part of the action for reasons of logistics alone?

D: I think some esports figures are already stars, at least in their niches. If the issue of recognizability is at hand, then we’ve already seen that happen to traditional sports stars. I mean, Kris Bryant just wore sunglasses and people didn’t recognize him as their Lyft driver. Sure, we can be overly reductive and say esports players are just guys sitting in chairs, but we can be equally reductive with other sports. Basketball, hockey and soccer are just teams of people trying to put an object in a net.

There has been, I don’t want to say issues, but concerns and some bemoaning of a player’s real life persona not matching their in-game flair or style. The crude term “faceless Korean” in the StarCraft scene was one where it attempted to describe a potentially great Korean player, but someone who lacked a significant persona in the post or pre-game interviews.

I’m hesitant to call a lack of perceived persona racially based, but I absolutely think it is culturally based. The Dota 2 and LoL scene is largely dominated by Koreans, Chinese, and Europeans, specifically the Nordic countries. None of these countries are known for their outgoing or boisterous personalities, however that is changing with time. Korean SCII pro gamer Jan Min-Chul, better known as MC (aka The Boss Toss for his incredible Protoss playing abilities) recently sang Frozen’s Let It Go at a StarCraft tournament. If you told me 10 years ago a Korean would be singing in front of thousands of people, I would never have believed it. That said, there have been some, umm, enthusiastic and wild characters in esports. Look no further than Lee Sung Eun, aka FireBatHero for possibly the only time an esports player will take off his clothes, throw out ice cream to the crowd and then jump into a body of water. Although I will say Won Lee Sak, aka Parting, did two of those three things back in the fall of 2014.

While it isn’t an ideal proxy for popularity, esports some esports organizations rival that of traditional sports. For example, Fnatic is at 475K Twitter followers, Team SoloMid is at 540K and then my beloved Oakland A’s are at 291K and your Mariners are at 325K followers. If we aren’t already at the time of huge esport organizational as well as individual player popularity, we’re damn close.

P: One thing that might affect the visibility of particular players in esports is the lack of visibility of teams. From an outsider perspective, teams seem to be composed in a similar fashion to NASCAR: loose allegiances of players assembled like corporate executives, with no tie to local region. Because of this, it’s harder for the introductory fan to grasp onto a particular team or a even a particular star who feels, even artificially, “theirs.” Is this true? Or because of the sport’s international underpinnings, does rooting take on more of a nationalistic bent, like the Olympics or FIFA? Or is it not so much the lack of cohesive teams that lend to a lack of observable standings to track, and more a product of a more golf/poker-like tournament format that prevents a fan from appreciating the greatness of a team?

D: Unfortunately, allegiances and even signed agreements are often not enough to keep players — and organizations — from breaking promises and breaching contracts. Players get cut, teams get cut, teams leave organizations, orgs buyout other player to replace their own, etc. Mostly things take a regional pride, such as North America against Europe against Asia, etc.

That said, players shift and move regions as well for most esports, though the World Championship Series for StarCraft is region locked to citizenship and other legal paperwork in an encouragement to get the local players some competition. I have pretty mixed feelings about that, as fostering the local scene is of course important, but region locking any competition makes it less of a meritocracy. Of course there is also pride for each nation, and it was huge upset when France beat South Korea in Nation Wars recently. For some genuine esports passion, here is the French broadcast of final moments.

On the topic of observable standings, the crew at Team Liquid, plus the various Smash Bros boards as well as the group that runs Esports Earnings all do incredible work. TL in particular has been a massive influence on just about every esports fan, really whether those fans know it or not.

Anecdotally, I’m not sure all of the esports fans really recognized the level of team-play and coordination it takes to play at a high level. From my days of being an active esports competitor, it isn’t just aim and reaction times, but it’s working as a cohesive unit and breaking down previous demos of yourselves and opposition. Recognizing your strengths and the opponent’s weaknesses in real-time as well as conveying that to your team is what separates the top teams from the also-rans. I remember breaking down opposing team’s demos as if we were football coaches going over game film. Being at the top of the esports world really is a full time job, and then some. Unlike blogging, it isn’t just sitting in mom’s basement, amirite?!

(Stay tuned for Part 2, coming soon.)


TechGraphs News Roundup: 1/15/2016

2016 already has seen more than its share of changes, so we welcome you back to the regularity and predictability of the TechGraphs News Roundup with this collection of sports-tech stories we found interesting this week.

The 2016 Consumer Electronics Show wrapped up on Saturday. We covered the highlights in last week’s Roundup, but the good folks at Baseball Prospectus assembled a nice summary of some of the baseball-specific applications showcased there. (And don’t miss our own Bryan Cole in the comment section with a video clip of Shaq O’Neal wiping out while testing a baseball swing analyzer.)

Speaking of the future of baseball, the trial in Garber v. Office of the Commissioner of Baseball, a class-action lawsuit against MLB over the league’s television-broadcast policies, starts on Tuesday, and Nathaniel Grow has a preview of the arguments.

While CES featured a number of audio companies promising future development in the wireless headphone space, two, Earin and Bragi Dash, already have retail-ready wireless earbuds. As this thorough review explains, truly wireless earbuds still have some hurdles to overcome, one of which is the fact that our dumb human heads are full of water, an unfriendly medium for the transmission of wireless signals. While it’s apparent that this technology remains in the developmental phase, it will be interesting to see whether it has uses beyond personal fitness and entertainment, such as for communications between football players and their coaches.

Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, among others, has backed Courtside Ventures, a Detroit-based $35 million venture capital fund targeting early stage sports technology and sports-centered media startups. Early indications are that the group is interested in virtual reality and analytical data.

Way back in September, we were one of the first site to tell you about Pylon Cam, which since has become the star of this (NFL and college) football season. After its special seat at the table during ESPN’s multi-platform broadcast of the college football national championship game, it should come as no surprise that CBS will be incorporating the technology into its Super Bowl 50 coverage. Also included: a 360-degree replay view courtesy of thirty-six cameras mounted on the stadium’s upper deck and a camera providing viewers with the on-field perspective of certain players, such as the quarterback.

It seems as if companies make these types of claims every week these days, but a company called VCIS just unveiled a new style of football helmet that they say reduces the threat of head injuries. Putting a dual-shell design into an attractive helmet is no easy task, but th high price ($1,500 a pop) might be a hindrance. VICIS hopes to have the helmets for sale before the coming football season.

Speaking of football, if you happen to fall in the very narrow spectrum of people who don’t care about the Super Bowl, but happen to have a Google Cardboard headset lying around, you’ll be happy to learn that this year’s Puppy Bowl will be broadcast in VR.

Finally, today is the deadline for nominations for the 2016 Sports Technology Awards. If your proposal, development, technology, or product in one of about a dozen categories is good enough, you could earn a trip to the awards ceremony in London this April. Past winners include the All England Lawn Tennis Club (known to most Americans as Wimbledon) in the “Best Technology Partnership” category for their partnership with IBM, something we’ve documented here.

That’s all for this week. Have a mindful Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, and please be excellent to each other.


The Astros Hack Won’t Be the Last in Sports

Criminal charges have finally come down in the case regarding an employee of the St. Louis Cardinals illegally accessing computers belonging to the Houston Astros. Chris Correa has plead guilty and could face up to 25 years in prison for his involvement in hacking the Astros’ database. It’s a move that will hopefully deter professional sports teams from participating in this kind of behavior in the future, but one that certainly won’t guarantee it. On the contrary, these kinds of security breaches are now commonplace among corporations, and there doesn’t seem to be any discernible light at the end of the tunnel. Provisions can be made, certainly, but there’s no guaranteeing that any professional sports teams’ internal documents and information will be safe from hackers looking to make a name for themselves, or even from rival teams.

In his (Insider) piece for ESPN, Jim Bowden opines on some possible punishments for the Cardinals in the wake of the scandal. His last idea has good intentions, though the implementation is basically impossible:

New computer requirements: Manfred should put together a task force that would make sure all 30 teams have sufficient security for their baseball operations systems so that hacking is nearly impossible. These systems can either be checked on a regular basis or be monitored from a central location (i.e. the commissioner’s office).

I won’t berate Mr. Bowden on his nativity here. An understanding of cybersecurity doesn’t really fall under his job description. But this suggestion is both impossible and unfruitful. There simply is no way for an organization to absolutely protect itself against network attacks. We’ve seen hacks against the Office of Personnel Management, Patreon, T-Mobile, Ashley Madison, Hilton, and many other companies in 2015 alone. The attack vectors grow bigger and the number of threats gain in numbers every day. Most of what is considered cybersecurity these days is simply addressing known exploits. There are a varying degree of measures that can be taken against unknown exploits, but they are all difficult and the best require big-time money. A league-mandated policy on cybersecurity won’t help that. In fact, if teams are looking to protect themselves against corporate espionage, mandates are the last thing they want.

Let’s play this out a little. Say Team A wants to find out who Team B is planning on drafting. Team B has taken every (hypothetical) precaution laid out for them by the league. The problem is, Team A already knows all of these procedures. They know exactly which exploit methods to avoid and which are still left open. The road map is already drawn up. All they need to do is follow it.

It’s true that something like what Mr. Bowden is suggesting would hopefully ensure that teams act a little smarter. In fact, the exploit used against Houston was a very low-level attack. Correa essentially guessed an Astros employees’ password based on what that employee used as a password when he was previously with St. Louis. This really isn’t hacking, and it’s barely social engineering. Some guidelines from the league (who will hopefully consult with some professional security experts) could help prevent against these kinds of mishaps in the future. But if a team really wanted to get their hands on some classified information (and were willing to take the risk), it wouldn’t be all that difficult.

The FBI charges will most likely ensure that teams won’t try any shenanigans themselves, and certainly not from company computers on company networks. This does not mean, however, that rival teams or any other ne’er-do-wells couldn’t use outside sources to try and dig up secrets.

I don’t want to get too far into the nitty gritty of how the hacking community works, but suffice it to say that there are communities out there that are certainly willing to perform this type of work for a fee. Potential recruits can be found on certain IRC channels or Tor (a pseudo-anonymous network where web traffic is masked) sites and paid in Bitcoin — a cryptographic digital currency that makes transactions hard to trace. There are hackers out there for hire, to be certain, which means that teams wouldn’t even have to get their hands dirty.

And even if teams were to take measures into securing their servers and networks, there are certainly other ways security breaches can happen. An attacker could find an exploit in an employee’s home router and monitor their traffic from a car parked near their house. Man-in-the-middle attacks could be employed from a coffee shop a scout or executive visits.

And let us not forget social engineering, perhaps the most common way breaches happen nowadays. An attacker can call people around the front office posing as Todd from IT, telling people that the mail server failed and that they need their password to recreate their profile. People are still all-too willing to provide passwords and other sensitive data over the phone. Spoofing emails can be sent out with links to legit-looking websites. It usually only takes one person to give up their login information or click a link for an attacker to gain access to a network. People rarely change their passwords — and if they do, it’s often in predictable ways.

These are threats that all corporations face, not just sports teams. But it goes to show that no team is 100% safe, no matter what their respective league does or doesn’t do. In our age of prediction models and player evaluations and biometric sensors that track performance data, there is certainly a lot of juicy information that teams hold dear, and wouldn’t want other teams to see. The problem is that this information is stored on computers, and most computers are on networks that face the public in one way or another.

Is it a little scary? Certainly. Is it avoidable? Not entirely, though a hefty dose of firewall provisions, complex-password requirements, and employee training can go a long way to help prevent most attacks. But there’s no silver bullet that the league or anyone else can provide to ensure that what happened to the Astros won’t happen to anyone else. It’s part of the cost of doing business in our connected world, and probably will be forever.

(Image via Christian Colen)

Sweet Sixteen: The College Football Championship Megacast Strikes Back

The college football season wraps up tonight with the national championship game, which pits #1 Clemson against #2 Alabama. When the game kicks off at 8:30 (Eastern) this evening, ESPN will offer sixteen different ways to follow the action live. Let’s count them:

  1. ESPN/WatchESPN: The traditional television broadcast will be on the Worldwide Leader’s flagship television channel both through TV and online;
  2. ESPN Deportes: Spanish-language traditional television broadcast.
  3. ESPN Radio: The traditional radio broadcast will be on your local ESPN Radio affiliate, as well as through WatchESPN and the ESPN mobile app;
  4. WatchESPN: Clemson’s radio broadcast, with isolated camera shots of Dabo Swinney and Tigers players;
  5. WatchESPN: Alabama’s radio broadcast, with isolated camera shots of Nick Saban and Crimson Tide players;
  6. ESPN2: Film Room, featuring live game analysis from Florida head coach Jim McElwain, UNC head coach Larry Fedora, South Florida head coach Willie Taggart, Pittsburgh head coach Pat Narduzzi, and newly hired South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp, joined by ESPN analysts. This simulcast has been the most well-received alternative broadcast during ESPN’s two previous college football championship Megacasts.
  7. ESPNU: New this year is what ESPN is calling the “Homer Telecast,” overtly biased coverage from Clemson alum (and the school’s all-time leader in passing yards) Tajh Boyd and Alabama alum (and three-time national champion) Barrett Jones, mediated by ESPN/SEC Network’s Joe Tessitore. According to ESPN, other “partisan” guests are expected to join the action, and the broadcast will come from field level, rather than a traditional broadcast booth.
  8. ESPNEWS: Have a few empty spots on your couch? ESPN Voices promises to be a casual, “living room-type” conversation between an assorted bunch of ESPNers, including Michelle Beadle, Jay Bilas, Marcellus Wiley, and Teddy Atlas (sure!).
  9. SEC Network: The Finebaum Film Room, which debuted at last year’s national semifinal game between Alabama and Ohio State, and made a return appearance at this year’s New Year’s Eve semifinal game between Alabama and Michigan State, will make its first appearance in conjunction with a college football championship game tonight. If you’ve never heard or seen the Paul Finebaum Show, this should serve as a good introduction to the program’s host, as well as its many colorful callers, who will be able to phone in during the game.
  10. ESPN Classic: Sounds of the game. Had enough with all the jibber jabber and want to enjoy the game in relative peace? This is the channel for you, featuring nothing but the sounds of the fully enclosed University of Phoenix Stadium. Hear the public address announcer, as well as the full pregame and halftime entertainment programs. Also available on WatchESPN.
  11. ESPN Goal Line: For the true football junkies, this is the “Command Center” feed, with enhanced split-screen action. You’ll see live game action next to replays of every play, isolated feeds of both head coaches, drive charts, and statistics. Over this will play the audio feed from the ESPN Radio broadcast.
  12. WatchESPN: Replay Booth – What purports to be “an authentic recreation of the replay booth experience,” offering viewers the experience of those officials tasked with reviewing every single play and signaling when further review is required. Hosted by replay officials from the ACC and SEC, as well as an ESPN rules expert.
  13. WatchESPN: Data Center – “Significant on-screen graphic content ranging from analytics, real time drive charts, win probability updates, curated social media reaction and more.” Guess you’re just going to have to dial this one in to find out what that means. Hope it works better than the Comcast/Xfinity sports app sidebar. Unclear how it differs from the “Command Center” feed on ESPN Goal Line.
  14. WatchESPN: Student Section – Cameras focused on the student fan sections, bands, cheerleaders, mascots, and, if we’re lucky, a Bojangles outside Spartanburg.
  15. WatchESPN: Pylon Cam – Want the simultaneously best and worst seats in the house? This feed promises to rotate between the twenty-four available end-zone pylon cameras, apparently showing twelve at any one time.
  16. WatchESPN: Spider Cam – Not advisable if you’re extremely susceptible to motion sickness. Fly above the field the entire game with this view. Maybe the spider camera will get nailed by a punted football!

Say what you will about ESPN, and I have, but the Megacast is fun and the sort of thing more of which the network ought to do. Now we just need Bristol to invent a Buffalo-sauce-resistant television remote control. Enjoy the game!

(Header image via Wikimedia Commons)

TechGraphs News Roundup: 1/8/2016

Greetings, fair TechGraphs readers. Here’s hoping you all had adequate holidays. Let’s ring in the new year with all the sports-tech stories we found interesting this week.

The ringing in of the new year also means the coming of the Great Silicon Gathering known as the Consumer Electronics Show, or CES. Wearables and fitness trackers were a big theme at CES last year, and that theme appears to have carried over to the newly-christened 2016. We’ve done our best to keep tabs on all the announcements. We probably missed a couple, but here’s the general low-down on what’s coming:

Misfit is bringing a fitness tracker that actually kind of looks nice. They are also developing earbuds — yes, earbuds — that will help track your activity. Fitbit is branching out to the smartwatch market. So is Casio. And PC maker Razer. HTC is going to sell an all-in-one package that includes a scale, a fitness tracker, and a heart rate monitor. Garmin is looking to release a Google Glass/HUD device specifically designed for cyclists. They’re also coming out with a GPS watch with its own heart rate monitor. Vert is coming out with an update to their already-interesting jump tracker. A French company called In & Motion has developed a vest for skiers that will work like an airbag to to prevent injuries. Oakley is working on a pair of sunglasses with a Siri-like fitness coach built right in. And Under Armor is pairing up with IBM’s Watson super computer to develop new kinds of health and fitness tracking.

Meanwhile, a few non-CES stories came across our desk as well.

Activision has bought Major League Gaming. Fans of esports can expect to see more tournaments that should include more styles of games.

The UFC 2 video game will be coming out in March. Those interested in virtually beating the crap out of each other should mark their calendars.

Because the job of a golf club R&D team is never done, Callaway is getting into bed with Boeing to make faster drivers. No word yet on whether the 2017 model will come with optional jet engine attachments.

That’s it for this week. Have a nice weekend, and be excellent to each other.


Motus, Zepp Unveil New Wearable Baseball Tech at CES 2016

Motus Global and Zepp announced new additions to their existing lineup of baseball-specific wearable devices at this week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Motus Global’s system, called motusBASEBALL, is driven by a single IMU sensor. The new system can be used in a compression sleeve to track pitching, comparable to the mThrow, their existing offering. But the motusBASEBALL system can also be clipped on to a batting glove, providing feedback on a player’s swing.

“Our unique approach to the space, rooted in years of biomechanics services for MLB teams, along with the most powerful sports sensor on the market, gives our users the best chance at improving their mechanics and monitoring workloads on their joints,” said vice president for application development Ryan Holstad.

Preliminary information about the system is available on Motus Global’s website. The pitching metrics offered are very similar to the mThrow: both include throw limits based on workload, elbow and shoulder kinematics based on the single IMU worn over the ulnar collateral ligament, and a “bullpen mode” to help pitchers train.

The webpage also suggests that six metrics will be tracked for hitters: bat speed, hand speed, swing time, swing length (in inches), attack angle, and vertical angle. Metrics will be calculated separately for each region of the strike zone, to help hitters identify “hot” and “cold” regions. (Pitch locations will presumably be entered manually.)

To this point, not much has been revealed about the sensor driving the new system, other than that it has been “upgraded” over the current mThrow sensor. We can say for sure that the new sensor is less rounded than the current one. There is also a micro USB port for charging the sensor, a change from the induction charging previously used. More details will be revealed in the weeks leading up to the device launch (currently scheduled for February).

The company emphasized that motusBASEBALL was a consumer system, contrasting it with the motusPRO system unveiled during last month’s Winter Meetings. A full-body, five-sensor system, the motusPRO also transmits data via Bluetooth to a mobile phone or tablet for analysis. The system describes hitting and pitching motions through a wide range of angles, forces, rotations, and timing parameters. The motusPRO is currently available only to professional organizations, but Motus Global plans to roll the device out to select training facilities in the future.

Also this week, Zepp announced the next evolution of their bat sensor: an as yet unnamed offering embedded directly into the handle of the bat. As seen in the image above, the sensor will lock into a retention sleeve, which in turn will be fitted into the hollowed-out knob of a bat. Current offerings, which fit into flexible sleeves that slide over the knob, can move around or be knocked off by especially violent swings. Moving the sensor inside the bat should mitigate this problem.

The new design is still in the prototype phase, and no price point or release date have yet been announced. But Zepp claims to be in talks with a number of bat manufacturers to make a commercial version. In addition, Zepp announced a partnernship with New Balance, who unveiled a new digital sport division at CES.

Meanwhile, Zepp also has representatives at the annual convention of the American Baseball Coaches Association in Nashville. The goal there is to advance Zepp’s new design as an “open-source” industry standard for wearable sensors. To that end, the company will be hosting a roundtable discussion on this topic Friday.

Currently, devices like Motus Global’s and Zepp’s are not approved by MLB for in-game use. But MLB has said they are updating their wearables policy before the 2016 season. Until then, these devices can be used in practices and specific events: Zepp’s existing sensor has been used during game action at Perfect Game showcases, and an early version of the mThrow was used during 2014 fall instructs.


GPS-Based Athlete Tracking Systems: A Primer

If you’re following the rise of player tracking technology, most of what’s being discussed are in-game systems. Whether the system is camera-based, like SportVu in the NBA or Statcast in MLB, or sensor-based, like Zebra’s RFID tracking of NFL players or the Sportvision’s partnership with the NHL, the goal is similar: track how pro athletes in the heat of competition, with the hope of gaining a competitive advantage by the shaving of a fraction of a second here or optimizing a route there.

But there’s another way for teams to use technology to gain an edge: by keeping their best players healthy and in those big games. This requires a separate system, especially on large squads like football teams where it would be impractical to collect and process the amount of optical data needed to capture everyone’s movements across all activities. As a result, systems based on global positioning system (GPS) technology are used in practices and rehab by a wide range of teams across all major sports.

Most of the designs center around a sports-bra looking harness worn by the athlete under his or her shirt. The harness holds a device containing a GPS chip, along with additional components like accelerometers, gyroscopes, and magnetometers, to track how and where an athlete moves. The GPS device is often paired with a heart rate monitor, allowing the system to estimate exertion.

Because the device relies on satellites to track the athletes, most companies that market a GPS system also market a complementary indoor system, typically based off a technology such as RFID that is better suited to the indoor environment. If a basketball or hockey team is working with one of these companies, chances are that they’re using indoor technology.

For now, these devices are predominantly used in practices, as none of the major leagues currently allow on-field wearable sensors for safety reasons. But FIFA just relaxed their ban, following successful runs at the Women’s World Cup and Under-23 World Cup over the summer. National federations are expected to follow suit shortly, and other sports leagues (such as MLB) are drawing up procedures to approve devices for in-game use.

Most readers are familiar with activity trackers like FitBit, which typically include a GPS component. But monitoring companies say that they aren’t designed to provide enough information to accurately track an athlete’s performance during competition or training.

“They offer very little insight into athlete’s performance,” said Richard Byrne, STATSports’s Business Administrator. “FitBit themselves are the first to admit they will show you patterns relating to your fitness levels as oppose to wholly accurate data.”

It might seem surprising to hear that teams are investing in GPS technology as camera-based systems proliferate across pro sports. STATS’ SportVu cameras are positioned in all 30 NBA arenas, and soccer teams have tracked distance traveled with systems like Matrics for years. But GPS companies argue their devices provide more in-depth information than camera-based systems.

“Camera systems essentially turn a match into moving dots on a screen,” said Catapult director of marketing Boden Westover. “You get speed and distance metrics, but they’re a tiny piece of the athlete tracking pie.”

There are a number of companies that offer similar GPS systems. For this introduction, I spoke with representatives from three — Catapult, STATSports, and VX Sport — but others (including GPSports and Zephyr) are also currently being used by pro organizations.

Catapult

With over 440 clients in 40 countries listed on their website, Catapult is the best-known and most prolific GPS company. Based in Australia, their OptimEye S5 (and the goalkeeper-specific G5) use GNSS, a combination of the American GPS system and the Russian GLONASS system. The result, according to Catapult, is a system accurate to within 50 cm; an older system that uses GPS only has a stated accuracy of 100 cm. The OptimEye devices include an inertial measurement analysis (IMA) chip, an accelerometer/gyroscope combination that measures an athlete’s finer movements. For indoor clients, Catapult produces ClearSky, an RFID-based system.

Westover said that Catapult’s distinguishing characteristic was independent validation of the technology published in peer-reviewed journals.

“There are around 100 such articles that have been published on Catapult, which prove that our technology measures what we say it does,” he said. “Other systems out there being used by teams have never been scientifically proven.”

STATSports

Headquartered in Ireland, STATSports’ offering is the Viper Pod, a combination GPS and MARG device with a stated accuracy of at least one meter. The inclusion of accelerometer, gyroscope, and magnetometer components allows the Viper Pod to track accelerations and decelerations, along with athlete direction and turning. The MARG components also contribute to the scrum analysis used by their rugby clients.

Although their current indoor solution works off accelerometry data, STATSports’ upcoming Viper 3 system (due out this year) will incorporate ultra-wideband technology for accuracy up to 10 cm. The new system will also use low-energy Bluetooth to connect to other devices like heart rate monitors.

Business administrator Richard Byrne said that STATSports prides itself on its software platform in addition to accuracy.

“Our customers tell us our software is light years ahead of anything else they have experienced,” Byrne said. “We have a host of innovative metrics which allow coaches who use our system an incredibly in-depth look at their athlete’s performance.”

VX Sport

VX Sport, a New Zealand-based company, is focusing its efforts on collegiate sports teams. VX Sport’s system combines three satellite systems — GPS, GLONASS, and an analogous Chinese system — but unlike other companies, doesn’t claim that the additional satellites produces increased accuracy. Instead, managing director Richard Snow claimed that the “dark art” of GPS accuracy relied more on high-quality components and intense post-processing.

“It’s a bit like talking about a pro digital camera vs. a consumer model,” Snow said. “If you picked up a pro Nikon from ten years ago, it’s always gonna be better than the 20 megapixel thing that you buy for $75 from an electronics store. And that’s the reality with GPS.”

VX Sport also offers an IMU-based indoor tracking system that caters to volleyball and basketball clients. Incorporating an accelerometer, gyroscope, and magnetometer, the device can track leg and hip biometrics based on the steps an athlete takes. The system includes software to summarize these biometrics into injury predictors.

Given the gameday motion capture systems currently in place, these GPS-based systems might seem superfluous. But Snow emphasized the importance of his system as a way to quantify players’ effort during the daily grind of training sessions.

“It used to be someone talking with the athletes in the morning, working out how are you feeling, what’s your readiness,” Snow said. “And then at the end of the training, how did you rate that? The only way they’re going to change that is with proper monitoring.”