In NBC Sports’ NHL All-Star Game Production, Player/Puck Tracking Is the Belle of the Ball

League’s tracking system from SAP, display graphics by SMT fill screens with data

More and more these days, sports-television presentations are resembling their videogame counterparts. Thanks to new player and puck tracking being debuted Saturday night in San Jose, CA, by the NHL, NBC Sports’ production of the 2019 NHL All-Star Game may be one of the most telling examples of that trend that we’ve seen to date.

NBC Sports will offer a digital-exclusive streaming experience for Saturday’s NHL All-Star Game. Here’s an example of one of the graphic overlays that uses tracking data from the league. (Courtesy NBC Sports)

NBC Sports will offer two presentations of Saturday’s game: a souped-up traditional linear production for TV and a streaming-exclusive presentation loaded with real-time data, graphics, and stats.

“There’s definitely a feeling of anticipation around debuting something new,” says James Stuart, senior director, operations, NBC Sports Group. “Seeing everything come along in demos and now come to reality tonight, it’s very exciting for everyone involved.”

It has been a rollercoaster ride for the NHL over the past handful of years as it has looked to refine and implement an accurate player- and puck-tracking system, and it now believes it has what it wants in a chip-based system developed by SAP. NBC Sports, meanwhile, has spent more than two months building a broadcast production designed to leverage all of this new, real-time data in the most effective way. The network tested out the system at SAP Center in San Jose in December and even got some more practice reps in at T-Mobile Arena (home of the Golden Knights) in Las Vegas.

“This is one of the bigger things we’ve ever done,” says John McGuinness, senior coordinating producer, NBC Sports, “in terms of meetings and sending people out to test the gear. We’ve invested a lot of time and money into this project because we want it to be successful.”

Although many of these elements will make their way onto the linear presentation, the NBC Sports Digital team is going the extra mile to showcase the tech and data being gathered: it’s producing a second production exclusively for digital audiences, which is available on NBCSports.com and wherever the NBC Sports App is available. Its viewers can experience a game complemented by tracking data and enhanced graphics.

Designed by NBC Sports Digital, an L-shaped overlay for the screen will feature headshots of the six players on the ice at a given time during the 3-on-3 matchups. The horizontal bar will spotlight tracking data ranging from live shift times, how fast a player is currently moving, the distance the player has skated on this shift, and more, in addition to basic stats like goals, assists, and +/-. The right side of the screen will be dedicated to overall game stats.

The display can be completely removed by NBC Sports’ production team or altered to spotlight a specific player. Steve Greenberg, the producer behind NBC Sports’ digital experience, notes that the presentation will play around with iso player cams and may even show chunks of the game from a high-end-zone cam, offering a view similar to that of the latest NHL videogames.

“My job tonight is to use it all,” says Greenberg. “We want to show everything that these chips are able to provide us. We’re going to throw a lot out there. Do I think that games are going to be watched all the time with trails and circles around players? I don’t know, but there are definitely things that these chips can give us that can be implemented into a game tomorrow and make a difference.”

As mentioned, many of these enhancements are likely to find their way into the linear production of the game as well, and, with the front bench manned by producer Matt Marvin and director Charlie (Chuck) Dammeyer — both of whom have a lot of experience on NBC’s NASCAR product — all of these added elements are in capable hands.

“If anyone is suited to do this, it’s [them],” says McGuinness. “They are very used to getting this kind of stuff in. We want to be aggressive with it, and we will.”

Not to be overlooked is an impressive camera complement being rolled out by the three broadcasters onsite for this game: NBC Sports (U.S.), Rogers (Canada, English), and TVA Sports (Canada, French). A total of 48 camera feeds are at NBC Sports’ disposal: 29 are NBC’s, which also has the ability to use 12 more from Rogers, two from TVA, and five from the league.

For the second consecutive year, JitaCam, a 360-degree jib, has been erected on the base of the center-hung videoboard at SAP Center. An RF MōVI camera will also find its way onto the ice in the hands of an operator on skates. The shots from that camera proved very useful during Friday night’s Skills Competition. NBC also has its own aerial shots via a helicopter above the arena and is borrowing net-cam feeds from TVA.

Out in the compound at SAP Center, facilities have been expanded to accommodate the second-screen production. The linear production will be supported by its traditional top truck, NEP’s ND6 (supported by the B unit SD28), and the streaming component gets its own complete A unit (NEP’s MIRA M8).

NBC is using fiber for its primary transmission (with origination taking place at the company’s Englewood Cliffs, NJ, facility), with satellite serving as backup. Also, a 1-GB file-transfer network has been set up. All editing will be done at NBC Sports headquarters in Stamford, CT.