Even before the digital revolution came into force, digital technology was already a major component of the sports industry. It has been used to improve sports data collection and athlete performance for around 60 years, but much of the innovation has been found in the last 30 years. The sports industry has become heavily reliant on the technology for a number of reasons, and gaming industry executive Adam Bjorn discusses how digital technology is forever changing the world of sports.
In recent times, the abilities of technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality (VR) are giving sports organizations more ways to engage fans. AI, in particular, can rapidly process, collate and analyze massive amounts of data, in just a matter of seconds, and is then used by coaching staffs to introduce changes to their strategies in order to produce better results. Prior to AI, the same process required hours, if not days, making it difficult for teams to make in-game adjustments.
Bjorn asserts, “I remember having three channels to choose from and would have to either sit next to TV or continuously get up in the adverts to change the channel to another sport that was going on at the same time. The Famous Boxing Day Test Cricket (yes, the five-day version) that is played in Melbourne, we never got the early days’ plays unless the ground was a sell-out and the TV stations could then broadcast it live into our local state, as well.”
Digital technology is also making sports safer and reducing injuries. The introduction of mobile virtual players, which have been adopted by some football teams, for example, allow players to practice their plays without having to risk injuries that could arise from tackling another player.
These virtual players are able to precisely reproduce the motion and speed of human athletes, but are operated remotely, and have proven to be an invaluable tool for the teams that are using them.
In baseball, there has always been an issue with calls the home plate umpire makes. On more than a few occasions, team managers have not been happy with a call, leading to a major argument or fight on the field. Not only is this detrimental to the fair play of the game, but it causes unnecessary delays that make it more difficult for fans to enjoy the contest. However, digital technology is helping to remove some of the inaccuracies. MLB has tested the use of digital umpires that could make more accurate calls, but this isn’t the only solution. Today, technology exists that can precisely determine the trajectory of a ball as it’s released from the pitcher and crosses home plate, correctly identifying whether it was a ball or a strike 100% of the time.
Digital technology is also making its way into basketball, in addition to football and baseball. Japanese engineers have designed a robot that can autonomously shoot, even if it isn’t quite ready to be used on the court since it lacks defensive skills. Still, on offense, it can make baskets from as far away as 12 feet and has proven to be more accurate than any of the biggest names in the NBA.
Over the past year or so, smart puck technology has entered the world of hockey. It has gained a substantial amount of attention for a number of reasons, including its ability to provide massive amounts of data during the game – including puck traveling speed, hitting speed and scoring – and also because of its marketability. Digital technology allows coaches and players to track movement on the ice at all times, providing data rates of 200 times per second.
“Everything in today’s world is about the new flashy technologies,” asserts Bjorn. “With AR (augmented reality), they are trying to bring a better at-home experience via TV, streaming, and the online broadcasters/presenters using it to explain or predict the outcome of an event. The Tour De France and how a stage may play out, The speed of a horse race and how that pace will play for those on it, or coming from off it or how they are increasing the fans experience through in-stadium experiences, where even being at the stadium can be like watching ESPN and the players being 80-foot tall holograms of players image with their name, stats and general text driving player and game knowledge over the field.
Personally, the biggest impact in AR that I have seen is Hawk-Eye. This is a computer-based AR solution used in numerous sports, but where in tennis and cricket I have experienced the biggest impact.”
There is still a lot that can be made possible through digital technology in sports; the proverbial surface is just now being scratched. However, much has evolved over the past several years that allows for better athletic competitions and more precise results, and sports fans can expect to continue to see more attention given to digital technology in the future.