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.”


TechGraphs’ Guide to Watching the College Football Playoff Semifinals: Return of the Multicast?

While shifting technological, media, and economic sands may be signaling the approaching end of ESPN, the Worldwide Leader’s not dead yet, and it’s closing out 2015 with a bang. Along the lines of last year’s inaugural College Football Playoff Megacast, ESPN will be leveraging its multi-channel capabilities to deliver a variety of simulcasts for the two semifinal games taking place tonight, as well as the other four major bowl games– the Rose, Sugar, Fiesta, and Peach Bowls– spread across today and tomorrow. Although there won’t be as many options tonight as were available during last year’s championship game Megacast, it’s good to see the network continuing to take advantage of its resources by expanding coverage of these games. Viewing details on each of the “New Year’s Six” bowls are below.

Peach Bowl:

Teams: #18 Houston vs. #9 Florida State

Time and location: December 31, 12:00 pm, Atlanta, Georgia

Primary television: ESPN

Alternate television: Spider cam feed on ESPN3/WatchESPN

Audio: ESPN Radio, ESPN Radio app

Spanish-language television: ESPN Deportes

Trophy presentation: ESPNEWS, ESPN3/WatchESPN app

Orange Bowl (playoff semifinal):

Teams: #4 Oklahoma vs. #1 Clemson

Time and location: December 31, 4:00 pm, Miami, Florida

Primary television: ESPN

Alternate television: Spider cam feed and home or away audio plus ESPN visual on ESPN3/WatchESPN

Audio: ESPN Radio, ESPN Radio app

Spanish-language television: ESPN2, ESPN Deportes

Trophy presentation: ESPNEWS, ESPN3/WatchESPN app

Cotton Bowl (playoff semifinal):

Teams: #3 Michigan State vs. #2 Alabama

Time and location: December 31, 8:00 pm, Dallas, Texas

Primary television: ESPN

Alternate television: Spider cam feed and home or away audio plus ESPN visual on ESPN3; Finebaum Film Room, featuring in-studio analysts and guests, as well as live viewer telephone calls on SEC Network

Audio: ESPN Radio, ESPN Radio app

Spanish-language television: ESPN2, ESPN Deportes

Trophy presentation: ESPNEWS, ESPN3/WatchESPN

Fiesta Bowl:

Teams: #8 Notre Dame vs. #7 Ohio State

Time and location: January 1, 1:00 pm, Glendale, Arizona

Primary television: ESPN

Alternate television: Spider cam feed on ESPN3/WatchESPN

Audio: ESPN Radio, ESPN Radio app

Spanish-language television: ESPN Deportes

Trophy presentation: ESPNEWS, ESPN3/WatchESPN

Rose Bowl:

Teams: #6 Stanford vs. #5 Iowa

Time and location: January 1, 5:00 pm, Pasadena, California

Primary television: ESPN

Alternate television: Spider cam feed on ESPN3/WatchESPN

Audio: ESPN Radio, ESPN Radio app

Spanish-language television: ESPN Deportes

Trophy presentation: ESPNEWS, ESPN3/WatchESPN

Sugar Bowl:

Teams: #16 Oklahoma State vs. #12 Ole Miss

Time and location: January 1, 8:30 pm, New Orleans, Louisiana

Primary television: ESPN

Alternate television: Spider cam feed on ESPN3/WatchESPN

Audio: ESPN Radio, ESPN Radio app

Spanish-language television: ESPN Deportes

Trophy presentation: ESPNEWS, ESPN3/WatchESPN

The big addition here is the simulcast of the ESPN Deportes Spanish-language television broadcast on ESPN2 for both semifinal games. ESPN also plans “cross-platform coverage” of the national championship game, which it will announce next week. At a minimum, I expect a return of the general “film room” coaching analysis channel, a televised (i.e., not just online) alternate camera feed, and, in the unfortunate event that Alabama topples Michigan State tonight, the SEC Network Finebaum broadcast for the January 11 championship game.

(Header image via Wikimedia Commons)

On the End of the Tyranny of the Local Sports Market

FanGraphs’ Nathaniel Grow recently unearthed an interesting tidbit buried deep in a court filing involving Major League Baseball. Per Grow’s findings, it appears as if MLB is planning on changing up its MLB.tv service.

“beginning next season MLB will make single-team, out-of-market streams available for purchase (alongside the out-of-market package) on MLB.TV.”

It’s a feature that both the NHL and the NBA offer already, but it seems to be a harbinger of a sea change in the world of sports fandom — it’s now easier and cheaper for fans to be region-agnostic when it comes to picking their favorite sports teams.

Not so long ago, and for a very long time, if one found an affinity for a certain sport, their best bet — by far — was to follow the local team. That is, they were best served following the team that held rights to the local TV and radio markets. Those were the teams that kids could watch, listen to, and follow in the local papers (insert “you see, newspapers were these things…” joke here).

Now, fans have a choice, if they want it. It’s probably true that the ensconced fan — those that have been loyal to a team for most of their lives — aren’t budging on this one. But for young fans, or fans of any age that are looking to get into a new sport, it’s a liberating proposition.

The idea behind MLB.tv and NBA League Pass seemed always to revolve around the idea of the misplaced fan — the Cleveland native who was forced to move because of work/love or the offspring of the Yankees fan who moved to the South way back. It was, and certainly still is, a way for one to follow thier favorite team from afar. And these services are great tools for that. But they are also great tools for those looking to play the field — no pun intended. These are also built for the kid in Chicago who loves Giancarlo Stanton or the L.A. native who is a big fan of P.K. Subban. We are no longer tied to our local media markets. We can be free agents.

Again, not too long ago, if people were fans of out-of-market teams, those teams tended to be what’s known in the gambling realm as “public teams.” Think the St. Louis Cardinals or Dallas Cowboys or Chicago Bulls or Boston Bruins. These were the teams that got the most air time of their league’s respective Games of the Week that played on network (and later cable) television. If you didn’t want to follow the local team, your best bet was to latch onto a team that was on TV a lot. No more. Want to follow the Flames in Okalahoma? How about the Padres in upstate New York? No problem. Even college sports are adapting a bit, though only through conference-specific packages.

I won’t get into the specifics, because I already have, but a few years ago I was interested in finding myself a new baseball team. Ten years ago, this wouldn’t really be possible. I would have been stuck with whatever team was playing in my market (i.e. the Twins). But technology allowed me to shake off the shackles of the default.

It’s a microcosm of what technology did to commerce in general. I do believe that the rise of online retailers has been a hindrance to local businesses when it comes to the subjects of scale and wholesale-buying power, but it’s also done wonders for some. I love building PCs, but I could not imagine what I would do if Best Buy were my only option for buying PC parts. I’m lucky enough to have a Microcenter in my town, but if I didn’t I could always turn to Newegg or Tiger Direct to fill my needs. I could shop around.

The same now goes for sports fans. Think your team is dumb for supporting a domestic abuser? Sick of the local baseball team’s refusal to adopt even a modicum of advanced statistics in their daily operations? Go somewhere else. Find a better option.

In the grand scheme of things, we still have little power. TV money rules the kingdom, and blackout rules and other nonsense will still burden us peasants for some time, but there’s some light shining through. Yes, it will cost us money. Yes, the delivery methods aren’t perfect. But we are slowly being allowed to make our own decisions in the realm of fandom. We aren’t tethered to the local club. We might want to be. It’s usually easier and makes for accessible small talk with other locals. But we don’t have to.

My name is David Temple. I live in Minneapolis and I watch the Houston Astros during baseball season and the Edmonton Oilers during hockey season. I am the new face of the sports fan. It’s breaking my bank, but it’s lifting my spirits. Long live team-specific streaming packages.

(Image via Bernard Spragg)

How Playing Hockey Video Games Actually Taught Me How Hockey Works

It’s a bit of an odd dichotomy to be a sports fan living in Minnesota and not know anything about hockey. My excuse is that I grew up in Wisconsin, where football is king, and never even had a chance to play hockey in school. But I moved to Minnesota over 10 years ago. They air high school hockey games on the regional sports network here. I should have learned a little by osmosis at least.

I was too busy going to baseball games in the summer and pretending to care about the NFL in the winter to ever give hockey a try. It’s a shame really, because I found that the more of the sport I caught, the more I enjoyed it. So last year, when the NFL finally pulled enough BS to make me quit it pretty much entirely, I thought I’d give hockey a try. The only problem with that plan revolved around that fact that I didn’t really know anything about hockey. I’m not talking about not remembering what player played on what team. I barely knew the rules. So, like any enterprising 30-something with disposable income would do, I tried to solve my problems with video games.

Let’s preface this by saying, with the exception of simply knowing the name of some of the game’s biggest stars (Ovechkin, Crosby, Kane, etc.) essentially everything I knew about hockey came from whatever I ingested by watching The Mighty Ducks 50 times as a child. As it turns out, regular hockey is WAY LESS exciting than movie hockey, and movie hockey isn’t very good at explaining rules, strategy, or really even giving a general sense of the flow of the game. Needless to say, when I fired up NHL 15 last year, I had a steep hill to climb.

NHL 15 had its flaws, certainly, but the gameplay was always spot on for me. The graphics were great, the controls were responsive, and I had the ability to tailor the game in a myriad of ways. I could make my games easy or hard, fast or slow, and even get granular with how I wanted things like puck handling and passing accuracy to behave. I didn’t play much with these in the beginning, however, because I was too busy getting my butt handed to me.

Playing a video game based on sport you know nothing about is like driving a car in a country where the traffic laws are totally foreign. You have a good understanding of the mechanics of the whole thing, but not quite sure how to put it all together. Here’s how those first few days went:

1. Start game
2. Immediately get scored on
3. Check replay to see why
4. Glean nothing from replay
5. Get back into game
6. Get called for a penalty/violation
7. Pause game
8. Google said penalty/violation on my phone
9. Return to step 2.

I didn’t know what the blue lines were for. I didn’t understand offside or icing or interference of delays of game penalties. I didn’t know that if you shot the puck at the opponent’s net after an offside was called, the other team takes umbrage with it at a fairly aggressive level. I didn’t know that my goalie could be checked if he was out of the crease, because I mostly didn’t know what the crease was.

But soon enough, after enough failings and enough Googling, I understood the basic ins and outs of hockey. The hockey I watched on TV started to make more sense. When I watched the playoffs, I could understand a little more of what Doc Emrick was saying. It was some solid progress.

That was last winter, and I came into this season looking to understand a little more about strategy and basic fundamental gameplay. So instead of a general season playing as one team, I waded into the waters of creating my own player via the Be a Pro feature. I was about to go to school. NHL 15 taught me about how hockey was played. NHL 16 taught me how to play hockey.

OK, that last sentence may have been a bit of an overstatement. I’m not saying I’m ready to lace up and bang against some other out-of-shape dudes in a rec league or anything, but playing a season as a single player helped me better understand what everybody did and where they were supposed to go.

I think I’m on my seventh created player. The first six didn’t last very long. I tried playing as a center, but that didn’t do it for me. I tried a right winger but I made him right handed which isn’t the best idea because of the bad forehand angles (something I learned like three games in). I made some guys too big or too small for their position or juiced all the wrong attributes during creation, but finally I settled on a very solid player.

His name is Jacques Jacques. I wanted to make him have just one name like Pele or Cher, but the game wouldn’t let me. Regardless, Jacques was a last name prerecorded by the announcers, so it kind of sounds like they’re just using his one name. I even create a backstory for Jacques. Basically, he’s from somewhere outside Yellowknife, and he was discovered as a 17-year-old competing in unsanctioned MMA fights. He’d never played hockey because he was too busy logging or drilling for oil. But a scout found him and convinced him to learn hockey. It’s basically a mix between the plot of The Air Up There and Wolverine’s backstory from the first X-Men movie.

Jacques grows his playoff beard in November. That's how confident he is.

Jacques grows his playoff beard in November. That’s how confident he is.

Anyway, I played a whole minor league season with Jacques and ended up being the first overall pick. I was an Edmonton Oiler. The game, however, did not adjust the rest of the draft after that, so the Oilers still ended up with Connor McDavid. Needless to say, the Oilers are doing pretty well.

It’s kind of hard to explain everything I learned while trying to make my way through a digital hockey career, but the progress has been substantial.

I now understand things like general positioning — where the left winger should be in a given offensive formation. In the past, line changes always seemed so random to me, but now that I actually skate to the bench to rest, I’m starting to pick the best times to do so given where the puck, my teammates, and the opposing players are. I’m starting to decipher the fine lines surrounding what is and isn’t boarding and what is and isn’t interference. Whenever a goal is scored, I go to the replay to try and find out how. Where were the weaknesses in the defense? Who made a good play to get open? Was the goalie beat or was it a fluke deflection?

I see articles all the time about how schools are using games like Minecraft to teach kids things about teamwork and geometry and even basic computer programming. Educators have long used games as a teaching tool. And a silly as it sounds, NHL 15 and 16 honestly helped me learn about hockey. I now have a GameCenter subscription. I watch the Oilers and my hometown Wild or any other game that I find interesting. I’m understanding more and more why certain players or teams are really good.

I still have a lot of learning to do, but I can at least hold my own in a conversation with a hockey fan. I can detect a good play or a misstep when watching on live TV. I now have opinions that I yell at the TV.

Anyone can mindlessly play Madden or FIFA for hours on end. I’m not saying there isn’t value in that. But if one wants to really dig into the specifics and the minutiae of the sport, video games can actually be great for that too. I now know some stuff about hockey, which isn’t something I could have said two years ago. Now I just need to acquire a taste for lutefisk, and I’ll be a true Minnesotan.


TechGraphs News Roundup: 12/12/2015

Welcome back, fair TechGraphs readers. Here’s hoping your fantasy football wishes turned into caviar dreams and you all made your respective playoffs. Unless you play DFS, in which case this week was less important — if you don’t live in New York state, that is. More on that later. In the meantime, here are the sports-tech stories we found interesting this week.

We might as well start with the big news of the week. A while back, New York’s attorney general said that daily fantasy sites — most notably DraftKings and FanDuel — constituted gambling. Since gambling is still illegal, said attorney general  took DFS to trial. On Friday, the judge granted the injunction. Then, the appellate judge overturned that ruling. The overruling doesn’t put DFS in the clear in New York forever, they are just allowed to continue doing business until the legality of their operations are further discussed. Nothing is certain yet, but it’s some temporary good news for DFS players in New York.

Polygon goes over some of the HUGE numbers that October’s League of Legends tournament drew in terms of online viewers.

EA appears to see the writing on the wall, as they recently announced that they have opened an esports division.

While netting isn’t necessarily the cutting edge of technology, they can play a big role in keeping fans safe. Because of this, MLB has recommended that all teams increase their use of netting to increase the safety of spectators in the stands.

New Balance is working on a very cool idea that allows runners to 3D print the soles of their shoes to better fit their specific feet and running style. It’s still in R&D at this point, but it’s an excellent use of the emerging technology.

Yahoo has released a new app that serves as a sort of TV Guide for Internet streaming. While it doesn’t include sports yet, it’s fairly easy to see that getting implemented soon enough (or another company picking up where Yahoo is leaving off).

The Cowboys ran into a little bit of tech trouble on Monday Night Football. Because of the way NFL rules work, this in turn (and fairly) meant the Washington Professional Football Team also had tech trouble.

Showtime is trying to get people to watch boxing in a VR environment. You yourself can try it for free. The bout already happened, but the it seems that just showing off the technology is the main point of the demonstration.

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

 


New Tech Partnerships Prove the NBA is King of Fan Engagement

The NBA is really good at making their brand as visible as possible on the Internet. They have been for some time, actually. Whenever I have discussions online or in person about what sports leagues can do to make online engagement better, I have long used the NBA as the high watermark. It’s probably true that basketball as a sport is slightly more akin to displaying highlights, in general. Dunks and half-court threes and buzzer-beaters only take a handful of seconds compared to a a touchdown pass or even an impressive deke leading to a goal. Nevertheless, the NBA hasn’t been resting on its sport’s inherent excitement. It’s making big pushes to engage current fans and win over new ones.

Leagues like the NFL have always held a firm grip on their property when it comes to things like highlights, and the MLB has currently upped their actions against people posting GIFs of what they consider to be their property. The NBA, conversely, gives fans and creators carte blanche when it comes to posting videos online. The NBA has their own YouTube channel where it posts plenty of highlights and videos itself, but one can also find tons of dunk compilations, replays of old All-Star games, or even the goofy one-off things that happen in any given game.

But they’re not stopping there. They just recently partnered with a company called AVGEN. And AVGEN’s software does some really cool things. From The Verge:

On a basic level, AVGEN is software that automates the video editing process that creates highlight reels. According to Aviv Arnon, WSC’s VP of business development, “We analyze the video itself to figure out where the players are on the court, where movement is, [and] do audio analysis to figure out the perfect ins and outs for every moment.” That means analyzing fans screaming in the stands and color commentary, as well as player stats to determine what plays meant for the game as a whole. Most importantly, the software uses image recognition to also identify players and the types of plays being made. So if an outlet wanted to create a highlight reel of DeAndre Jordan’s slam dunks, they’d simply need to specify those terms in AVGEN before getting a clip minutes later. That clip can then be shared to the waiting eyes on YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter on the fly, ready for easy consumption. Which is great, since the NBA has 3 billion cumulative views on YouTube alone.

This process takes away the labor and time needed for interns to comb through video, edit it down, and post it online. It’s been streamlined and automated, as it should be. AVGEN’s process takes away the biggest problem of MLB’s recent GIF crackdown. MLB says it doesn’t want people posting GIFs or videos of cool highlights on Twitter because that highlight is property of MLB. But MLB has a long history of, well, taking a good amount of time to actually post that material online. It’s way less fun to share something when it happened 20 minutes ago. The NBA never cared about highlight sharing the way MLB did, but event then they made the process smoother by letting a machine do the posting for them. They cut out the middle man that no one was avoiding in the first place. That’s progressive thinking.

Now that they’ve made consumption easier, the NBA has turned to increasing the ease in which fans can actually contribute — most notably in terms of All-Star voting. Certainly, the NBA has long allowed fans to vote for their favorite players online and via mobile, All-Star voting has now been ported to a platform that people have already baked into their daily online activities — searching crap on Google. The NBA and Google have entered a partnership in which fans can vote for the All-Star game right from Google in their desktop or mobile browser. All one needs is a Google account and the ability to search for “NBA All Star voting.” They’re then presented with an embeded voting platform right in their current screen.

googleallstar

Google’s All-Star Voting Screen

Again, the middle man is being cut out here. The barrier of entry is lowered. Nobody knows that actual URL to vote for the All-Star game, so they’re just going to Google it anyway. With this new partnership, fans don’t even need to leave their search engine to do what they sought out. No Tweets are necessary, no SMS messages need to be sent.

The NBA isn’t reinventing the way fans engage with its league online. They are simply making it easier and more convenient. These are incremental improvements — improvements that any other league could easily make. The NBA — like any other league — is not without its problems. But they are hands down leading the charge when it comes to proliferating their brand online. And when sports are competing with a seemingly infinite amount of other entertainment streams on the web, every little bit helps.


Imagining a World Without ESPN

Imagine there’s no ESPN.
It’s easy if you try.
No broadcast partner intermediaries to charge us,
above us only direct access to sporting events live.
Imagine all the cord-cutters

living for today[, a day without ESPN].

Today, and for at least the past twenty years, it is difficult to imagine four letters more associated with sports in America than ESPN. Heck, as of 2006, there were at least four kids named ESPN, according to ESPN.com. The network invented the concept of a twenty-four-hour sports television channel at a time when ninety-three percent of the television audience restricted its viewing to ABC, CBS, and NBC, all of which still were signing off entirely each night. Part of the invention included SportsCenter, of course, but the network first established its national reputation when it broadcast the entire 1980 NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

While ESPN is thirty-six years old and living the starkly corporate lifestyle these days, its teenage years were wild, at least by broadcast television standards. In the 1990s, the network’s comparatively brash attitude provided it with a cultural identity that existed almost independent of sports. It may be difficult to remember this now, but it’s true: ESPN used to be cool. A selective timeline:

  • 1992: Keith Olbermann joins SportsCenter to host “the big show” alongside Dan Patrick
  • 1993: ESPN2 launches with Olbermann, Suzy Kolber, Stuart Scott, and, later, Jim Rome and Kenny Mayne, who would also work as a SportsCenter anchor; Craig Kilborn joins ESPN as a SportsCenter anchor; the modern era of College GameDay begins; ESPN.com launches
  • 1994: ESPN Presents: Jock Rock Vol. 1 is released, beginning a series of Jock Rock and Jock Jams audio CD releases that featured popular sports-related pump-up songs interspersed with clips of SportsCenter personalities like Patrick and Chris Berman dishing out their catchphrases
  • 1995: ESPN hosts the first X Games
  • 1996: Rich Eisen joins ESPN to host SportsCenter with Scott
  • 1998: The first ESPN Zone opens, in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor; Norm Macdonald hosts the ESPYs
  • 2000: Page 2 launches on ESPN.com, an alternative site that would feature the bylines of Ralph Wiley, Hunter Thompson, Scoop Jackson, and, of course, Bill Simmons
  • 2001: Pardon the Interruption debuts on ESPN
  • 2003: ESPN debuts Playmakers, the network’s first original drama series, about a fictional professional football team

Playmakers was a blend of Friday Night Lights, Entourage, and Hard Knocks, and, aside from the Sunday night NFL game and Saturday afternoon college football games, it was the most-viewed program on ESPN. Despite its wild popularity, the show was on the air for less than three months. Under pressure from then-NFL Commissioner Paul Taglibue, ESPN first restricted promotion of the show and then cancelled it. The NFL didn’t care for the way Playmakers portrayed NFL players — too realistic, it seems — and wanted the show off the air. Mark Shapiro, then the executive vice president of ESPN, defended the network’s decision to adhere to the NFL’s wishes: ”It’s our opinion that we’re not in the business of antagonizing our partner . . . . To bring it back would be rubbing it in our partner’s face.”

Action speaks louder than words, and the cancellation of Playmakers signaled a turning point for ESPN, which began to purge itself of the people and programs that had built its unique identity in the decade from 1993 to 2003. From the viewers’ perspective, it became clear that ESPN was removing anybody whose name had become bigger than the network’s.

That represents an interesting notion of network cohesion, but there really is one explanation for the shift that ESPN executed in the period beginning with the cancellation of Playmakers and running through the termination of Simmons earlier this year: the prioritization of live-sports broadcast rights. Beginning with the 1980 NCAA tournament (and its early agreements with smaller conferences like the Big East), and running through whichever Monday Night Football or SEC volleyball game you just watched, ESPN’s core programming is live sporting events. The network’s adolescent dalliance with original content and individual personalities a thing of the past (what are they doing with Mayne these days?), that live-sports core is almost all ESPN is in late 2015, the remainder largely consisting of an internal #hottake-generating echo chamber.

Live sports is what national sports networks are supposed to be all about, though, right? So where’s the problem? Yes, ESPN has competition now, but FS1, CBSSN, and NBCSN aren’t serious threats to the Worldwide Leader, at least for the moment. Each rival network has tried different approaches, with Dan O’Toole and Jay Onrait’s Olbermann/Patrick Big Show sendup on FS1, and CBSSN and NBCSN attempting to steal ESPN on-air talent (only to see that talent eventually return to the Mothership). But the organizing principle remains unchanged: for a rival to mount a legitimate challenge to ESPN, the accepted view is that those other national sports networks need more live sporting events, and right now, nobody beats ESPN in that department. By both inventing the medium and controlling the market for so long, ESPN has been able to raise the barriers to entry by gobbling up live sports broadcasting rights, starving its competitors of the programming they need to draw eyes to their channels (or the TV Guide to even find their channels) in the first place.

ESPN spends a boatload to make sure its collection of channels remain the go-to destination for live sports events, which are among the most valuable properties in all of television. That’s long been true, but it’s even more true today with the proliferation of advertisement-avoiding DVR technology. In 2015, it’s not unreasonable to begin binge-watching the entirety of The Good Wife, a drama that debuted in 2009, but nobody’s going to start catching up on all of the Vanderbilt baseball games they saved from back in the spring, championship-caliber MLB feeder program that the Commodores are. People watch games live or not at all. That’s why ESPN has unloaded billions of dollars for the right to broadcast live sporting events on their channels. The estimated numbers from FY 2015 provide an illuminating snapshot:

League
Annual Rights Fee
National Football League
$1.9 billion
Major League Baseball
$700 million
National Basketball Association
$600 million
Major League Soccer
$45 million
Wimbledon
$40 million
U.S. Open (Tennis)
$23.3 million
The Masters (Golf)
$25 million
British Open (Golf)
$25 million
College Football Playoff
$610 million
NCAA Championships
$42 million
ACC Sports
$240 million
Big Ten Sports
$100 million
Big 12 Sports
$110 million
Pac-12 Sports
$110 million
SEC Sports
$227 million*
American Athletic Sports
$18 million
Mountain West Sports
$9 million
Little League World Series
$7.5 million
TOTAL
$4.831 billion

* – ESPN splits SEC Network profits with the conference. The SEC received $150 million from ESPN’s primary rights deal, plus approximately $77 million from SEC Network for the 2014-15 season.

By leveraging its capitalization to corner the market on live-sports broadcasting rights, ESPN has insulated itself against serious competition from FS1 and the other national sports networks, to which are left the scraps. Think bull riding, arena football, and auto racing series you’ve never heard of. (Long live SPEED!) In the course of ensuring a low ceiling for its rival national sports networks, however, ESPN has become exposed to competition from another quarter. Rather than worry about its would-be peers, ESPN’s biggest threat now may be its own broadcast partners.

As we have been noting in our regular news roundups here, ESPN has been losing subscribers as a result of cord-cutting, people ditching traditional cable and satellite television providers, and now we have a number: seven million subscribers lost in the past two years. According to parent company Disney, ESPN now is down to 92 million subscribers. Cord-cutting is an obvious problem for the network because of its cost relative to other channels on viewers’ cable and satellite bills. ESPN relies on cost-spreading– everybody with a cable or satellite subscription pays for ESPN regardless of whether they watch it– to make its price more palatable to its actual users, and it relies on its robust portfolio of live sporting events to make itself so in-demand that everyone continues to pay those costs. The other side of that coin, of course, is that ESPN needs all of those subscriber fees to be able to afford its obligations under its broadcast-rights agreements. So far, it’s a model that’s worked very well for ESPN. But what if they lost those broadcast rights that make them a must-have component of every cable and satellite subscription?

ESPN’s programming portfolio, and those of its fellow national sports networks, is increasingly one-dimensional. Is The Doug Gottlieb Show really appointment viewing? Is Scott Van Pelt’s “midnight” SportsCenter? (what time does it start, exactly?) Nah. We’re all tuning in to watch the games. And without the games, would the remnant husks of networks be able to survive?

Perhaps a better question: why are sports leagues still selling off their broadcast rights? The NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL all have their own television channels. (Some collegiate athletic conferences also have networks, although these tend to be more akin to partnerships between the conferences and existing television networks like ESPN and Fox, rather than independent media entities.)  They all have well-developed web platforms, and they all exercise control over the use and sharing of their content online, some more stringently than others. Yes, the NFL received a $1.9 billion check from ESPN last year for the right to broadcast Monday Night Football, but ESPN only cut that check because it knew that its broadcast of that event would allow it to make even more money. Why can’t the leagues eliminate these intermediary networks and realize an even greater portion of the value of their own broadcast rights?

This already is occurring to some extent. There are regular-season NFL games that appear only on NFL Network, and some MLB playoff games have appeared only on MLB Network. Cutting ESPN et al. out of the picture completely would require a not-insignificant capital investment, of course, to expand the leagues’ broadcast capabilities, but the issue merely is one of scale. It isn’t as difficult to create and operate MLB2 when MLB Network’s already up and running. The model exists and is replicable, as the national sports networks themselves have demonstrated. Most importantly, the leagues hold the most valuable asset in the equation. Their products essentially market themselves, and distribution follows demand, which, as everyone agrees, follows the games themselves.

That said, there are reasons why each of the leagues might hold differing views of such a large-scale shift.  For example, while NFL football games may be sufficiently popular on a national level to justify a move to NFL Network-exclusive broadcasting, the NHL might find that its 1,230 games per season are only nationally marketable when bundled with other sports and therefore decide to remain with its regional sports network-based broadcast infrastructure. Still, even if leagues like the NHL and MLB, which have long seasons full of many games that draw only regional interest, wouldn’t be good fits to go 100% national, we still could see them bringing marquee matchups, Winter Classics, and All-Star and postseason games exclusively onto the leagues’ own channels.

Are these the End Times for ESPN? Unless the leagues suddenly and rapidly retrench onto their own platforms, probably not. And if the thought of Roger Goodell, Rob Manfred, Adam Silver, and Gary Bettman executing any changes in their respective leagues that might be described as “sudden” or “rapid” made you laugh, it’s probably because you know that these leagues are conservative institutions that change slowly, if at all. In the end, maybe what ESPN & co. offer the leagues is a product-delivery method that, while not necessarily superior to or more profitable on a transaction-by-transaction basis than a league-owned channel, insulates the risk-adverse leagues from the shifting vagaries of the market, politics, and public opinion, all of which affect the sensitivities of the advertisers and corporate and civic sponsors who ultimately fund the leagues. So viva ESPN, the Worldwide Leader in sports-media insurance coverage.


TechGraphs News Roundup: 12/4/2015

Greetings, fair TechGraphs readers. I hope everyone had a pleasurable Thanksgiving holiday. We took a little time off here at TechGraphs, but we’ll back in full force next week. In the meantime, here’s a look at the sports-tech stories we found interesting this week.

Remember that time that one of sports’ most iconic figures announced his long-rumored retirement on a blog? That was weird.

ESPN is always into using social media to promote games that they broadcast, such as Monday Night Football. The problems come when the game they have to promote promises to be a garbage fire. The game actually turned out to be fairly exciting for everyone who isn’t a Cleveland fan.

On the topic of ESPN, it appears cord-cutters are costing them a not-insignificant number of customers. I don’t know how losing TV subscribers means you should lay off a bunch of great web writers, but what do I know?

For those of you who think HD just isn’t HD enough anymore, you’ll be pleased to learn that DirecTV is planning on carrying 4K content in 2016. No word yet as to which channels will be offered, but since DirecTV still up-charges for basic HD programming, rest assured that 4K will cost even more money on top of the regular bill.

I don’t much at all about esports, but I do know that beefs always help a brand, so keep at it, nerds.

Lots of ESPN news this week, but they have integrated their WatchESPN feature (for those with qualifying cable/satellite subscriptions, of course) with their ESPN app. The idea is that if you are using the ESPN app to check on a score, you’ll be able to just tap a button to pull up the live video of the game. As ESPN carries a lot college basketball on WatchESPN, the addition is timely.

Google is immensely brilliant, interesting, and terrifying company. They seemingly do something incredibly cool and incredibly creepy every day. I would chalk up patenting a blood-sucking smartwatch under both categories.

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

 

 


TechGraphs News Roundup: 11/20/2015

Greetings, fair readers. We’ve been taking a bit of a mini hiatus here at TechGraphs, but luckily, not a whole lot of news has broken in the world of sports tech. Oh, I mean besides that an entire billion dollar fantasy industry is in complete legal limbo, but, you know … other than that. Anyway, while we all cash out our DFS accounts, here are the stories we found interesting this week.

Let’s get straight to the point, and talk a little daily fantasy:

  • New York state’s attorney general has suspended daily fantasy operations while they investigate the game’s legality.
  • DraftKings and FanDuel are sued said attorney general.
  • That didn’t work, so FanDuel is suspending operations in NY for a while.
  • Oh, it’s also running a bit behind in paying back its players.
  • Meanwhile, Massachusetts has instituted some new regulations regarding DFS.
  • Because of all this, the TV networks might be in trouble as far as ad money goes.
    • DraftKings is trying to suspend its advertising on TV, for example.
  • If you want a British guy to explain everything to you, check here.

OK, now that we’ve sifted through that:

Good news! MLB and Fox have announced that they will offer in-market streaming! Bad news! It doesn’t work for Comcast customers, and only those who already pay to watch the games on TV will have access!

We talked about the controversy circling new styles of curling brooms (because we’re hip like that), and now it looks like the World Curling Federation (yes, that’s a real thing) has put a temporary ban on the brooms while it sorts all this stuff out.

The folks behind Bauer hockey products has unveiled a new collar that they think will help prevent athletes’ brains from bouncing around in their skulls — i.e. concussions.

With the help of Facebook’s 360-degree video technology, GoPro has released a new video to with a panoramic view of what it’s like to carve some waves (is that surfing lingo? I feel like that’s surfing lingo.)

The video game Fallout 4 was released to much fanfare. The game takes place in a post-apocalyptic Boston, so some enterprising fan decided to mod the game to allow the game’s character to look like Red Sox slugger David Ortiz (albeit a right-handed version). It was a fun/lighthearted thing, so naturally MLB got butt-hurt about it.

Speaking of sluggers, Jason Giambi took some time away from not sliding to partner up with a company that uses VR to help train hitters.

If you are a stadium/architecture nerd, Wired ran a couple of stories giving a look into the future of NFL venues.

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

 


DFS Losers Seek to Recoup Losses in Class Actions Against FanDuel, DraftKings

Last week, a DeKalb County, Georgia resident, Aaron Hodge, filed two proposed class action lawsuits in federal court in Atlanta against daily fantasy sports (DFS) websites FanDuel and DraftKings in an attempt to recover money he lost playing games on both sites, which, he alleges, amount to little more than “illegal gambling.”

As DFS gained popularity and attention this summer and fall, in large part due to broad advertising campaigns by both FanDuel and DraftKings, users may have noticed that residents of a small number of states– including Washington, Louisiana, Arizona, and Iowa– were not allowed to play games for cash prizes.

While these early restrictions did little to slow the momentum of DFS and its two largest sites, the industry recently has come under more substantial public scrutiny following New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman’s initiation of an investigation of and request for an injunction against FanDuel, DraftKings, and Yahoo!, which also hosts DFS games.

Last week’s suits by Hodge are believed to be the first legal challenges to FanDuel and DraftKings brought by a private citizen. (Hodge’s attorneys have since filed a similar lawsuit in Alabama.) Hodge’s complaints (available here and here) are basically identical. The essence of his allegations is that the DFS games offered by FanDuel and DraftKings constitute unlawful gambling under Georgia law and he therefore is entitled to restitution for his losses at both sites. Hodge does not reveal how much money he lost playing DFS, but he does allege that the aggregated losses of the proposed classes — comprised of “All persons in the State of Georgia who participated in Defendant’s DFS, deposited money in a [FanDuel/DraftKings] account, and lost money in any game or contest” —  exceed $5 million in each case.

Hodge’s complaints allege only state law claims, and the legal centerpiece of these cases is O.C.G.A. § 13-8-3, Georgia’s gambling contracts statute. That law provides that all “[g]ambling contracts are void” and that a loser may recover his or her losses from a winner under a gambling contract:

(a) Gambling contracts are void; and all evidences of debt, except negotiable instruments in the hands of holders in due course or encumbrances or liens on property, executed upon a gambling consideration, are void in the hands of any person.

(b) Money paid or property delivered upon a gambling consideration may be recovered from the winner by the loser by institution of an action for the same within six months after the loss and, after the expiration of that time, by institution of an action by any person, at any time within four years, for the joint use of himself and the educational fund of the county.

Hodge argues that DFS contests on FanDuel and DraftKings are not skill games but rather games of chance; that these sites therefore are doing little more than taking bets on sporting events; and therefore he and the sites are parties to gambling contracts for which the user entry fees constitute the gambling consideration that Hodge is entitled to recover under O.C.G.A. § 13-8-3(b).

Among his other claims, Hodge also contends that the sites violate Georgia criminal laws pertaining to commercial gambling and the advertising thereof, and he argues that the sites’ claims that their DFS contests were lawful games fraudulently induced him to participate.

An interesting allegation Hodge sprinkles throughout his complaints is that both FanDuel and DraftKings “failed to disclose the use of ‘bots’ or fake accounts designed to operate as ‘shills'”:

Upon information and belief, [FanDuel/DraftKings] uses “bots” or fake accounts to act as “shills” in the gambling scheme in order that certain winnings go to the “house” ([FanDuel/DraftKings]), and also creating the illusion to the [FanDuel/DraftKings] user of interacting with a gambler on equal footing. The employment of “shills” (or “bots”/fake accounts) employs a similar concept to those “shills” that are permitted by law in states with casinos such as Nevada, but Georgia does not permit any gambling, never mind the use of “shills” in the form of “bots” or otherwise fake accounts. And regardless, in states where such devices are employed, there is no illusion, nor effort to create the illusion, that the “house” is not winning the losing bets (in the form of monies that are attributed to “shills”) and in the case of [FanDuel/DraftKings], there is no disclosure of the use of “shills” nor any legal basis for doing so in Georgia.

One of the first procedural hurdles Hodge will need to clear to proceed with his proposed class actions in federal court are the sites’ terms of use. He wants to avoid the applicability and enforcement of these terms of use because they contain arbitration, jurisdiction, and venue provisions that would neutralize his ability to maintain these class action lawsuits against FanDuel (terms of use) and DraftKings (terms of use) in court. On one hand, Hodge is arguing that a contract — albeit a gambling contract that’s void under Georgia law — existed between him and each DFS site. On the other hand, though, he argues that the sites’ terms of use are not part of any contract or binding agreement between him and each site.

If Hodge is able to keep these lawsuits in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, where he has filed them, his further success will depend upon his ability to convince the court that the DFS contests FanDuel and DraftKings host really are gambling, not skill games. On this point, in addition to the well-publicized New York AG investigation and Nevada’s determination that DFS constitutes gambling, he may find some in-state assistance as well. Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens now has opened his own investigation into the legality of DFS, and the court in Hodge’s cases could find Olens’ conclusions on the matter persuasive.

Another issue possibly lurking in these cases is preemption, a legal concept based on the supremacy of federal law over state law. In general terms, preemption means that if a federal law and a state law conflict, the federal law controls. On the question of whether their sites’ contests constitute gambling, FanDuel and DraftKings may argue that their contests are permissible under the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA), a federal law that prohibits certain activities and transactions connected with betting and wagering. Part of that Act provides that “[t]he term ‘bet or wager’ . . . does not include . . . participation in any fantasy or simulation sports game . . . in which (if the game or contest involves a team or teams) no fantasy or simulation sports team is based on the current membership of an actual team that is a member of an amateur or professional sports organization . . . and that meets the following conditions:

(I) All prizes and awards offered to winning participants are established and made known to the participants in advance of the game or contest and their value is not determined by the number of participants or the amount of any fees paid by those participants.
(II) All winning outcomes reflect the relative knowledge and skill of the participants and are determined predominantly by accumulated statistical results of the performance of individuals (athletes in the case of sports events) in multiple real-world sporting or other events.
(III) No winning outcome is based—
(aa) on the score, point-spread, or any performance or performances of any single real-world team or any combination of such teams; or

(bb) solely on any single performance of an individual athlete in any single real-world sporting or other event.”

If FanDuel and DraftKings fit within this exception to the Act, because, for example, their contests involve forming “fantasy” teams of selected individual players, as opposed to simply picking an existing team, like the Detroit Lions, to win, the sites may contend that the federal UIGEA preempts the conflicting state laws Hodge argues make their contests illegal and entitle him to recoup his losses. (For what it’s worth, the congressman who drafted the UIGEA, Jim Leach, doesn’t buy any part of this argument. According to the Associated Press, Leach’s view is that “the carve out for Fantasy sports in the [UIGEA] does not provide them with immunity against other federal and state laws that could limit their activities. . . . ‘Quite precisely, UIGEA does not exempt fantasy sports companies from any other obligation to any other law.'”)

Meanwhile, as legal scrutiny over DFS heats up in the United States, FanDuel and DraftKings are hoping to find friendlier regulatory environs abroad. Some wonder whether their expansion into the United Kingdom may come back to haunt them stateside, however. Calling themselves “gambling software” companies, both sites have applied to U.K. regulators for gambling licenses. DraftKings received a gambling license in August, while FanDuel, which applied this month, still is waiting on a decision. DraftKings’ Chief Internal Officer says he doesn’t see a contradiction between the site’s representations in the U.S. and U.K., but American officials, including the judge or judges handling Hodge’s lawsuits, may see things differently.

(Header image via Karsten Bitter)

Who Will Save GoPro?

Hey, remember GoPros? You might have one sitting in a closet or a drawer somewhere. Perhaps some well-meaning friend or family member got you one as a gift thanks to a great Black Friday deal, or you did the same for someone on your gift list. I have one. I can see it right now from where I’m sitting. It has footage of golf and curling and probably my dogs on it, but I wouldn’t know. To know, I’d have to unload the video files off the SD card onto my computer. And then what would I do with it? Shove it onto a hard drive somewhere? Back it up to the cloud where it will live a sad and lonely existence? Put it on YouTube? Much like the footage I’ve shot with my camera, GoPro is being left for dead.

Herein lies the problem with GoPro. It’s a great piece of hardware that provides output of limited value. It’s like if Gutenberg invented the printing press, but it was only capable of producing copies of Fifty Shades of Grey. A GoPro is one of things that seems like a good idea when you get it, like a wok or a pair of snowshoes. Any maybe you do use it for a time, but the novelty eventually wears off. It’s not GoPro’s fault. Its draw is the same as a wok or some snowshoes — GoPro isn’t just selling a product, it’s selling the idea of what your life could be like with that product. I’m gonna get my snowboard out of the garage and hook this thing up to it! I’m gonna strap this to my bike helmet and finally try navigating those trails! This is some Don Draper-level stuff. And then, like so many things in life, our hobbies of fantasy are put on the shelf. And the sales drop off. And that’s where GoPro sits. On your shelf, and on the sales lists of investors.

Sure, some people use GoPros for legitimate and genuinely great stuff. Some use them in very creative and engaging ways. And those people are really the core market of GoPro. But that market is niche and limited. The rest of use schlubs barely use the things. Even if we do, the cameras are so durable that we hardly have a need to replace or upgrade the models we currently own. GoPro has become a victim of its own success, it seems. And this is why the market is so bearish on them. GoPro might have hit its maximum saturation already. Throw in a new lawsuit and things start to get even more dicey.

But we should not mourn GoPro just yet. They have one very important thing going for them right now — they make really solid products. Startups are a dime a dozen these days, but one thing remains true; hardware is hard. With all due respect to software developers — seriously, many of them do amazing things — an app or a website can be set up with, all things considered, somewhat-minimal investment. A few laptops and a server instance can lead to great things in software. Hardware, on the other hand, takes a good deal more capital. There’s R&D. There’s prototyping. There’s contracts to be hashed out with manufacturers overseas and quality control and component sourcing. So when a company can break through all those barriers and produce a quality product, it’s a big deal. GoPro has already done that. They’re just having a hard time convincing the market to buy more of them. All the legit and wannabe thrill seekers have already procured GoPro cameras. GoPro needs a new gig, a new way to inject themselves into our lives. That’s where another company with deep pockets can come in and utilize the superior hardware into a new application.

So, who has the resources and possible need for such a thing? Here are a few ideas.

It should go without saying, but this is pure speculation on the author’s part and does not constitute advanced knowledge of the situation nor investment advice.

Google

This one seems like cheating since Google has enough money to acquire almost any company, but there could be a fit. Since Google spun off into a subsidiary of Alphabet, it’s clear that they’re not just in the search/advertising game any more. They are branching out. They already have a hardware company under their umbrella in Nest, and they own the biggest platform for GoPro content in the form of YouTube. Perhaps Google can package the cameras with a free software suite that allows GoPro footage uploads to be faster and easier. Maybe footage shot with GoPros can hit higher in the search ranks or be featured in promoted content. Could Google figure out a good solution to actually use a GoPro as a webcam? They have the engineering talent. Maybe selling these cameras as the all-in-one solution to create user content is how it comes into the hands of consumers again. And don’t forget that Google and GoPro have already collaborated on a new rig that will allow 360-degree filming for VR purposes.

Facebook/Oculus

Facebook made a big and somewhat unexpected splash when it entered the hardware market by acquiring Oculus. Oculus may be best known for making VR gaming hardware and software, but there is no reason it can’t get into the content-producing game. Much like the Google offering, Oculus could concoct a filming rig to produce content for their upcoming headsets, making it easier (and perhaps cheaper) for creators to create a VR environment. Why stop at gaming when the future of news and entertainment could hinge on the VR world?

Some other camera company

The analog company Fossil just got into the wearables game when it acquired Misfit. What’s to say an old-school camera company can’t make a similar push into the video field with GoPro? Canon and Nikon already are neck deep in the digital photography and video world. There are good reasons for bringing GoPro into the fold, either to bring the durable cameras into their product line or integrate GoPro tech to make SLR cameras more feature-rich. A hyper-durable SLR that can shoot HD video with the push of a button? Not a bad market to get into.

Samsung

Samsung has been trying to introduce their own ecosystem to rival Apple’s with limited success. They have their own VR division, of course, and everything they make seems to tie into the Galaxy family of products. If they could offer a piece of dedicated hardware that paired with both the consumption and production of VR content and have it specifically tie into the Galaxy line of products, they could bring another bargaining chip to the table when trying to covert iPhone users. Yeah, the iPhone camera might be good, but check out what you can make when you pair a Galaxy GoPro with a a Galaxy phone! Samsung has the capital and engineering chops to make a partnership like this work, if they chose to.

I don’t see the GoPro going extinct any time soon. I do see it becoming a product offering for another company, however. GoPro did all the heavy lifting here. It made the rock-solid product that’s easy and fun to use. They just need a little help from another entity to make a better use case for their cameras. It may be one of the companies mentioned above, it could be another entirely. But hardware is still hard. When an outlier like GoPro comes along, it doesn’t die a quick death. Like their cameras, GoPro can take a beating and still end up in great shape. Exactly who ends up with the final say in that shape they will take remains to be seen.


A Tech Controversy is Hitting the World of Curling

You know technology is a pervasive force in sports if the seemingly-tranquil game of curling is getting involved. Yes, it seems as if the roaring game is mired in its own back and forth over technological advances. No, no one has installed remote controls in the rocks, but — at least according to some people — recent changes in the sport mean that comparison isn’t too far off.

To explain the scientific changes going on in the sport, one must first understand the science behind curling itself. If you are a veteran of the sport, please forgive my high-level overview.

I won’t go into the intricacies of scoring in curling, but suffice it to say that the point of it is for the person delivering the stone to get it to stop exactly where they want on the other side of the ice. That ice is covered in tinier bumps of ice called pebble. Essentially, a watering can of sorts sprays droplets on a flat surface of ice. Those droplets freeze to the surface and create a bumpy texture. It’s this bumpy texture that allows the curling stone to move as far as it does. The stone glides along those bumps, rather than on a flat sheet of ice. If curling were played on hockey ice, the stone would barely move as the concave bottom of the stone would create a suction. The pebble is also how the sweeping comes into play, and that’s what everyone is up in arms about.

If you’ve ever seen a picture or video of curling, you may have noticed two people flanking the rock while holding weird looking brooms. The person throwing the rock has the most influence on what happens, but the sweepers are there for the fine tuning. Sweeping the pebble momentarily melts it. This allows the stone to move farther down the ice while also decreasing its rate of curl. Sweeping makes stones go farther and straighter.

Way back when, the sweeping was done with good old-fashioned corn brooms — you know, the kinds witches ride around on. But in the last quarter of the 20th century, broom technology began to see upgrades. The handles went from wood to fiberglass to carbonfiber. The broom heads went from corn to horse hair to synthetic fabric stretched over a type of cushion. Brooms got lighter and more effective, meaning sweepers could influence the stone more and more. But for the most part, the changes were incremental. Things got better over a long period of time. Now, it’s an arms race.

Old horse hair curling brooms. Taken by the author at the Chicago Curling Club.

Old horse hair curling brooms. Photo taken by the author at the Chicago Curling Club.

 

Examples of the newer, synthetic style of brooms. Photo taken by the author at the Chicago Curling Club.

Examples of the newer, synthetic style of brooms. Photo taken by the author at the Chicago Curling Club.

Teams these days — and I’m talking about the tops teams that play for cash prizes and sponsorships in Canada — put a very strong emphasis on sweeping. While teams certainly still work on strategy and delivery, sweeping is now a big part of the game. The reigning men’s Olympic champion and 2015 Canadian National runner-up squad from Northern Ontario knows this. That’s why their front two players (those that sweep the most) look like this:

The Harnden Brothers (EJ and Ryan) of team Jacobs (Northern Ontario). Image via WikiMedia

The Harnden Brothers (EJ and Ryan) of team Jacobs (Northern Ontario). Image via WikiMedia

Technique and physical fitness are now part of a sweeper’s training regimen. Teams with great sweepers have an advantage. But fitness and technique can only take one so far. Eventually, the tool has to be upgraded.

The synthetic brooms from even a few years ago were all pretty similar. They all had lightweight handles, and the pads were made of a sort of nylon material — not dissimilar from a boat canvas. It was durable and swept quickly and smoothly. Different companies made variations of course, but they were all fairly similar.

Then, about five years ago or so, a company called Hardline came out with a new kind of pad. They call it the icePad. It’s a little smaller, much thinner, and the material that covers it is much different than previous broom. Hardline broom material is more like something found used to make a tent or winter coat. It’s much thinner and the weave is much tighter. The broom as a whole is very light and easy to sweep.

In the past couple years, the use of Hardline brooms among top competitive teams has grown quite a bit. They can be seen in almost every major event. Hardline sponsors many teams in hopes that exposure will convince recreational curlers to buy their product. They are fine brooms that make sweeping easier and are competitively priced. And some people want them banned.

The controversy revolves around what’s now being called “directional fabric.” There’s a lot of bickering and conjecture involved, but here’s the gist. Hardline started making a serious dent in the curling industry. This, theoretically, cut into the profits of other equipment manufacturers like BalancePlus. This year, BalancePlus released their own version of a “directional” broom that can do some really amazing things to a curling stone. In case you’re interested, here are two videos put out by BalancePlus.

The first shows a BalancePlus broom essentially changing the curl direction of the stone:

The second shows a stone being held incredibly straight down the line:

Basically, BalancePlus took Hardline’s broom concept and cranked it to 11. Now, people are calling foul saying that these new brooms make the game too easy, that simple sweeping techniques and new brooms are taking the art of shotmaking out of the game all together. They debuted these brooms earlier this year, and some teams and fans got pretty peeved.

Now, some teams have agreed to a pact where they will not use any of the “directional” brooms in competition, including both the BalancePlus and Hardline brooms.

Hardline believes that BalancePlus is playing the part of a bully — making an absurd product to garner vitriol over all makes of these brooms in an attempt to get them banned. As of this writing, these brooms are legal. But if that were to change, teams would have to go back to using more traditional brooms. One of the biggest makers of traditional brooms? BalancePlus.

Hardline doesn’t make traditional brooms. They are a smaller company (they were even featured on the Canadian version of Shark Tank) with limited resources. These types of brooms are their bread and butter. They can’t go back to making other kinds without incurring significant costs. Even further, they claim their heads don’t even perform in a directional way — that their brooms aren’t even capable of the things the BalancePlus offerings are.

At some point, a committee will have to be set up to sort all this out. Some independent testing will have to be done and some rules will have to be put in place. But until then, what’s being dubbed as BroomGate (cue audible eye roll) will remain the talk of curling clubs all across the world — after the requisite drinking stories and dirty jokes, that is.

(Header image via RyAwesome)

TechGraphs News Roundup: 10/30/15

A very happy and very spooky Friday to you, fair TechGraphs reader. As you get all your tricks and/or treats in order, feel free to check out all the sports-tech stories that we found interesting this week.

Public service announcement: NBA League Pass is available for free through November 3rd. If you are on the fence about subscribing, or if you just want to check out some out-of-market games this weekend, now’s your chance.

If you are a data wizard interested in breaking into the baseball world, the Astros are currently hiring a research and development analyst. For some, getting a job with any big-league club is a win, but jumping on with a stat-friendly team on the rise is an added bonus.

Yahoo! aired the first ever regular season NFL game over the Internet last weekend, which is a pretty big deal. Wired has a nice look at what went on behind the scenes. Everything seems to have gone pretty smoothly, even if not as many people watched as Yahoo! would have you believe. It makes sense that a bunch of people tuned in for at least a little bit of the game, considering how hard Yahoo! was pimping the thing.

On a similar note, the Golden State Warriors streamed their first game of the season via virtual reality. Anyone with a Samsung VR headset and compatible smartphone could tune in to experience the game in real time.

Remember how the two big names in daily fantasy (DraftKings and FanDuel) came under scrutiny for insider antics and general skullduggery? Well, it looks like a governing body is being set up to monitor these shenanigans going forward.

Speaking of, TechCrunch has an interesting take on how daily fantasy could be used to launder money.

FiveThirtyEight ran a great piece about how camera systems and machine learning is changing the sports landscape. Or, at least I think that’s what it was about. It’s pretty long.

Sports data startup Sportsradar got a big influx of money from investors that include both Mark Cuban and Michael Jordan. It looks like Sportsradar’s next push will be into the world of fantasy and gambling.

That’s all for this week. Have a fun and safe Halloween, and make sure to be excellent to each other.