How New Technologies are Changing and Enhancing Participation Sports

The Gamification of Today’s Sports Media Industry

By: Rico Pedraza

PART ONE — CURRENT SITUATION:

The first American televised sporting event occurred in 1939 and featured a collegiate Division I baseball game between the Columbia Lions and the Princeton Tigers. Although this was a relatively insignificant game for the season, history would later show us that this would be far more significant than just another competitive meeting of these two Ivy League baseball programs. This game offered the first glimpse of the complex relationship that developing technologies would play with the American sports media industry during the turn of the 21st century.

Today we live in a world where technological advances have transformed the sports industry. Athletes can recover faster than ever before and fans are capable of viewing sporting events from practically any corner of the world. Moreover, the largest media event every year happens to be a sporting event — the Super Bowl — which is a football game held on the first Sunday in February. To say that technology in the sports media industry has developed in the last 77 years is an understatement to say the least; the technologies in sports today have developed, evolved, and advanced at a pace faster than the industry is capable of maintaining. Because of this, we are witnessing fewer technologies that are actively incorporated in the game, and more technologies that are developed as a supplement to the sport during non game-time play.

This lack of ‘in-game technology’ can be witnessed in both individual and team sports at virtually any level of professionalism. For example, the technology used by a high school football team videotaping their rivalry game for later study and analysis is no different (in principle, not necessarily equipment involved) than what professional football teams do to prepare for their next big game. In this example, the technology is enhancing the sporting experience as an afterthought, seeing as it is not physically utilized until after the actual in-game experience. In contrast, individual sports like golf have enhanced in-game experiences with the advent of personal technological devices like laser rangefinders (handheld binocular devices that measure distance from target and provide club recommendation) and personal golf swing sensors (devices that mount to shaft of club to digitally monitor, record, and analyze swing metrics). These kinds of technical advances — ones that are designed specifically to enhance in-game experiences — have made positive advancements in individual sports. However, they have yet to make a meaningful crossover into today’s world of team sports.

Leading Factors:

With virtually anything in life, there are greater powers at be that become leading factors to certain outcomes. This is no different when investigating the current relationship between technology and the sports media industry. One such factor, which for the past decade has been the hot topic in the world of professional football, is the guaranteed safety of participants in contact sports. This growing issue has completely changed how professional football has penalized dangerous tackles, what merits a dangerous tackle (i.e. helmet to helmet contact), and the precautions and procedures surrounding traumatic brain injuries sustained as a result of the game. The clout surrounding safety of players is warranted. However, the hypersensitivity and focus placed on safety has the potential to act as a barrier of entry for the introduction of new in-game technologies.

Finally, purity of the game is a contributor to the current situation in place. The very nature of introducing new cutting edge technologies into sports threatens the traditional values associated with the age-old sporting traditions. For example, examine the huge controversy that currently surrounds the global soccer community regarding the use of goal-line technology. The emotional factor might not be as prevalent in today’s global sports media industry as player safety currently is, but both factors should be considered when examining the current relationship between developing technologies and the sports media industry.

Industry Issues:

The sports media industry plays a substantial role in the entire spectrum of global media. With that said, there are issues that specifically face just the sports media industry today. In the live event sector, NFL attendance has declined by over 2 million in the last 36 months (BusinessideofSports, 2015). In the television sector of the sports media industry, viewership and subscription rates have both fallen as well. As of last October, “Sunday Night Football,” TV’s highest rated primetime show for 5 consecutive years, has seen a 10% viewership drop from October of the previous season. “Monday Night Football” has dropped by 19% and has experienced its worst start in 10 years (SportsBusiessDaily, 2016). This decline in sports television viewership is rumored to be one of the root causes of the recent restructuring that ESPN performed in 2015, where nearly 350 people were laid off (TheBigLead, 2015). Finally, all sectors of the sports media industry are always striving for new, different, and cutting edge content. The introduction of technologies — ones specifically designed to enhance in-game experiences — has the potential to provide new content in a way that has been championed by the video gaming industry but has not yet crossed over into the live sector of the sports media industry.

PART TWO — PREDICTION OF TREND:

Had I told you at the beginning of the summer that a new app would launch in July and by January have 500 million downloads (DMRstats, 2016), be a global phenomena, surpass the number of active daily Twitter users in 7 days (TechCrunch, 2016), and vanish from the pop culture center virtually as fast as it had appeared, would you have believed me? Maybe. Would you believe that the app would be based on a product from a media franchise made popular during the early 2000’s? There is an even slighter chance that the second answer is yes. Now for the kicker. Would you believe that there would be an app that would be so successful, that by the end of the summer you would have heard and developed some understanding about the term ‘augmented reality’? Didn’t think so. We are going to quickly explore what augmented reality is, and how it may be coming to the media industry; we’ll get back to sports shortly.

Augmented reality is a technology that allows digital content to be superimposed virtually onto a user’s view of the real world. In the case of Pokemon Go, the device used to view the digital content was an iPhone. However, other major players in the augmented reality space include Microsoft’s HoloLens and Google’s Google Glass. Although augmented reality seems like a new technology, this technology dates back to 1968 when Ivan Sutherland developed the first head-mounted display system that overlaid computer-generated graphics of basic wireframe drawings (Augment, 2016). It’s interesting that since its humble beginnings, augmented reality has had an intertwined relationship with wearable technology. And since its founding in 1968, augmented reality has exploded into a major tech business, acquiring $1.1 billion in investment just this past year alone (Augment, 2016).

Before we circle back to the sports media industry, it’s valuable to explore the supertrends surrounding the rise of augmented reality using Pokemon Go as a case study. The three supertrends at play here are technological progress, economic growth, and deculturation. Technological progress, not only a supertrend but also a superforce, is described in Edward Cornish’s book Futuring as the growing capability of humans to achieve their purposes. Technological progress is easily visible when looking back on human evolution. There was the colonial age, industrial age, and now the information age. However, after the turn of the 21st century the technological revolutions occurring are less to achieve human purposes and more to supplement an easy life. This craving of supplemental content in the real world is the foundation of the augmented reality technology. The next supertrend at play here is economic growth. As mentioned above, Pokemon Go has been downloaded 500 million times to date. The ability to monetize something 500 million times is economic growth on a global level. This, paired with the 1.1 billion dollars that was invested in AR and VR technologies this past year, make for some major economic growth. The final supertrend at play in the world of augmented reality is deculturation. Deculturation is Edward Cornish’s sixth and final supertrend, and is defined as the loss of traditional culture. There is an argument to be had that augmented reality will lead to deculturation because as the popularity of augmented reality grows, the traditional world we live in will be constantly supplemented with digital virtual content.

Gamification:

So what’s actually happening? Augmented reality has introduced media consumers to the idea of digital content that supplements the real world. In essence, it has created a ‘gamification’ of the real world. Gamification is the process in which the best aspects of video games are brought to the real world through augmented reality technologies. Pokemon Go was the first example, on a global scale, of the potential success that gamification in the real world can achieve. Gamificiation has begun, admittedly slowly, in the sports media world. However, it has the potential to make an impact on the entire sports media landscape.

Interestingly, one of the earliest applications of augmented reality in media was the creation of the first down ‘yellow line’ marker on live televised NFL games. This begun in 1998 and is still common practice today. Although unintentional at the time, this was the first example of how gamification could enhance team sports in the real world.

RideOn:

The most promising example of this trend in today’s sports media industry is being pioneered by a company called RideOn. RideOn is a technology company specializing in ski goggles that interface augmented reality into the lens of ski goggles. It gives skiers and snowboarders the ability to have additional virtual content added to their sporting experience, displayed through their lenses. This augmented content includes varying mini-games that can be played during a run down the mountain such as time trail, perfect run, best trick etc. The games are designed to be played against other users who own RideOn’s goggles. In short, RideOn is gamifying the skiing and snowboarding experience for its participants.

RideOn’s target market is currently outdoor winter sports fans who are devoted enough to spend over 1500 dollars on a pair of ski goggles. I believe the greater potential lies not within the winter sports market, but in the underlying technology at hand — virtual content, displayed on augmented reality lenses, in all helmeted sports. Imagine the gamification of helmeted sports like football, motorcycle racing, NASCAR, etc. Although augmented reality is the underlying technology, this is just the beginning for a number of other additional technologies that will also enhance the experience of participation sports.

PART THREE — PRESCRIPTION OF TREND:

When I was younger, I dreamt of growing up and becoming a professional quarterback in the NFL. However, for a multitude of reasons this dream never came to fruition, and the closest I ever got to this was playing football video games where I could control some of my QB heroes like Steve Young, Brett Favre, and Donavon McNabb. Although this story is common among athletes who never have the opportunity to play sports at a professional level, I believe that in the future, the way in which fans, players, and the industry interact with sports media content will be vastly different from my childhood.

The trend will begin in all helmeted sports, and will be most lucrative in the NFL seeing as it is the most profitable sport in the entire world, with over $13.3 billion in revenue in 2016 (Forbes, 2016).

Players will have lenses attached to their helmets — common practice today for both aesthetic and for sun blockage — that utilize augmented reality to display a multitude of information to the player. For a quarterback, the information provided on his display could include the play selected, a visual representation showing the routes his eligible receivers are going to run on the field, a reading of the defensive formation and analytical predictions on potential blitzes in said formation, and real time audible play calling.

Does any of this sound familiar? If you asked the 8-year-old version of me lost in my imagination while playing Madden 2002, I would have said that these are just features in video games. With the help of technologies like augmented reality, this trend could gamify the professional football world so that players can have enhanced in-game experiences that create a hybrid between these two worlds:

Media’s Interaction:

Off the field, this gamification has practical applications in how content for helmeted sports like football, hockey, and NASCAR, is shared with fans. For the first time, the sports media industry can film from the point of view of a quarterback — showing what it is like to get sacked, throw a perfect 40-yard pass, and call a game-changing play in the huddle. This content is different than what currently is covered in the league and has the potential to introduce different subscription rates and revenue streams for the sports media industry. Additionally, this trend has the potential to introduce cross platform capabilities in which NFL viewers on virtual reality devices can watch games in real-time from the point of view of any player they want, thus utilizing the technologies of both virtual and augmented reality. The monetization of this technology would further help the television rights holders and cable providers combat the viewership and attendance issues facing the sports media industry today.

This gamification will begin in team sports and as the technology progresses and naturally gets more compact due to Moore’s Law, we will see the media industry shift this augmented sport experience away from team sports (professional sector), to individual sports (consumer sector). However, the augmented reality lenses popularized in helmeted team sports will become smaller and more portable for the leisure and amateur athletes.

With the live recording capabilities that Snapchat is pioneering with the Snapchat Spectacles, wearable video technology is moving to fashion accessories like glasses and sunglasses.

This will allow athletes in individual non-contact sports –like tennis, golf, and sailing– to utilize the same augmented virtual content technology popularized in NFL helmets to enhance their in-game experiences while playing tennis, golfing, and sailing. The gamification capabilities of each of these sports will be different than those offered with the original NFL version, however each will offer the same positive alternatives to the issues facing today’s sports media industry.

This is not where Moore’s Law ends for this augmented content technology. I believe that this technology will shrink down to the size of a contact lens, essentially granting the capability to enhance the in-game experience of practically any sport.

At this size, this technology can literally be used in any sport regardless of if it is a contact sport, team or individual sport, or a sport that requires a helmet. Simply put, this will allow for the ultimate gamification of all sports in the real world and virtually unlimited possibilities for the sports media industry to monetize the new content.

As the technology gets smaller and more commercial friendly to leisure users, additional supplemental experience enhancing technologies become major possibilities. These applications include GPS, video recording and playback, live streaming to social media platforms, interactive AI compatibilities, communication between users with devices, as well as a social media community among device users.

Imagine an athlete of the future being able to map out a new run on a smartphone GPS app and utilizing this lens, can view augmented content on the trail that guides the runner. This runner is able to create a visual recording of his run, track metrics of his run in real-time, and share these metrics and visuals to his peers via their social media community, all without the physical need for a smartphone device. This would all be executed via the device’s built-in AI interface that operates entirely via voice commands.

Major Players:

I believe telecommunication conglomerates will be some of the first major investors in this space. Practically all of the technologies involved in the gamification of sports will require some form of data connectivity in order to be successful. Because of this, large telecommunication companies like AT&T, Verizon, and Vodafone will enter the space as official data providers for these devices.

Barriers to Entry:

The greatest challenge for this technology to evolve in the steps laid out above is getting the professional sporting leagues to accept its presence. Organizations like the NCAA, NFL, and PGA are bureaucracies that operate at glacial paces who error on the side of caution. Because of this, getting these organizations on board will be an uphill battle in which safety concerns and technology regulations will be deciding factors in the overall implementation of the technology.

An additional barrier to entry is the potential price point of these products. Currently RideOn’s AR ski goggles are priced at $1,629 as of December of 2016. Although this has proven to be favorable with the company’s niche fanbase, it is not a sustainable model when selling to customers on a major scale. The early adoption of this technology in helmeted team sports has the potential to curb this barrier to entry.

The Beauty of the Game, an Ethical Dilemma:

The final issue this trend faces is the ethical problems surrounding this technology. As illustrated with my childhood story above, sports have a deep emotional impact on us as humans. They have a deep tie with our culture, people, language, and beliefs. Because of this, there is a purity or rawness we associate with the world of sports, especially sports at the highest levels. For an example of how polarizing the world of professional sporting can be, you need not look farther than how highly Lance Armstrong was once held in the cycling community. Simply put, there is a beauty to ‘the game’ and anyone that threatens this beauty runs the risk of receiving the full wrath of the sporting community. With all the benefits that gamification will offer the sports media industry, the industry leaders of this trend need to walk a very fine line of truly enhancing the sporting experience and not threaten the beauty of the game; for this trend cannot occur if the fans believe that the beauty of the game is at risk.