Sports Graphics Forum: Augmented Reality Shines as Storytelling Tool When Virtual, Real Worlds Blend

Execs from ESPN, SMT, Fox Sports, and The Future Group share how they use AR

Augmented reality is all the rage in live sports production, with networks like ESPN and Fox Sports trading in some physical sets for virtual studios and live AR graphics — most notably, during CBS Sports’ Super Bowl LIII open — taking the place of traditionally preproduced elements. And while AR is a fun addition to the producer toolbox, broadcasters must find ways to elevate AR from mere eye candy to something that informs the viewer and helps tell the story.

At SVG’s Sports Graphics Forum early this month, a panel of creative directors discussed best practices in AR design and development. Charlie Collin, senior manager, motion graphics, ESPN, described his work with ESPN staple Around the Horn, and how his team went to great lengths to ensure that the show would not be overpowered by virtual graphics.

“Our challenge was to figure out how to reimagine that presentation but still maintain the editorial content,” said Collin. “The show itself wasn’t changing, but we wanted to change the overall presentation. So that was a really tough request, and it took quite a long time for preparation and concept development.”

From left: CBS Sports’ Komal Bhukhanwala, ESPN’s Charlie Collin, SMT’s Ben Hayes, The Future Group’s Lawrence Jones, and Fox Sports’ Danny Tello

With limited space in ESPN’s new South Street Seaport studios in New York City, Collin’s team initially considered creating a green-screen environment for host Tony Reali. However, such an environment would detract from the main purpose of the show: Reali’s interaction with his panel of journalists.

“We got to the point where we realized that the main piece of the whole show — what makes the show the show — is Reali’s eye connection with his guests,” he added. “That’s the authentic piece of the show that we didn’t want to interrupt.”

Balancing the real world and virtual world is pivotal to leveraging augmented reality in an organic way. For years, iconic AR tools, such as SMT’s 1st & Ten line in football, have been deployed to enhance viewer’s understanding and enjoyment of the game without interfering with the production.

“The key for SMT is taking kind of real-world use cases, real-time production value, and executing that immediately in a workflow that is convenient for the whole production,” said Ben Hayes, director, client services, SMT. “There are lots of big ideas out there, [but] how do you get that on television in a very short amount of time and [often] with limited budget, workspace, or resources available to you and still make it look big and flashy and exciting and engage your audience?”

Another point to consider, said Fox Sports Design Director Danny Tello, is how to make compelling AR and virtual graphics after the novelty has run out for the viewer. Fox Sports has sought new ways to engage viewers of its NASCAR Race Hub through virtual elements like an in-studio track and racecar.

“Our focus really has become to make sure the viewers watching the show are getting the same product that they got in previous years when we were in a more controlled environment,” he explained. “And so I think it’s really exciting for us because we’re getting to the point where the set’s on-air, the dust has settled so to speak, and we’re teaming up with many people and vendors and potential clients to provide help on these tools to bring some of that stuff to life.”

CBS Sports accomplished one of the most eye-catching uses of AR with its Super Bowl LIII open. The creative and technical feat was made possible in part by The Future Group, and Lawrence Jones, EVP, Americas/ECD, The Future Group, described how leveraging the real-world environment — Mercedes-Benz Stadium — made the virtual graphics even more impressive.

“If you look at something that may be eye candy, like the Super Bowl open, what was the function of that? The function of that was being able to use the brand equity of the environment of the Super Bowl, which is the field, Mercedes-Benz Stadium,” he said. “It’s not to bounce off of that and go onto a whole other CG world but to use that as your canvas to have all these other really cool things happen. That evokes an emotional response when you see it.”

Besides telling the story, broadcasters are finding ways to use AR and virtual graphics to inform the viewer. CBS Sports Art Director Komal Bhukhanwala, an integral player in getting the Super Bowl LIII open to air, explained how data integration into AR and virtual graphics is the next step.

“That’s changing the way people are even viewing the game,” she said. “In the past, CBS has always taken a step back and let the game take over. Now, more and more, the audience wants that extra data, and putting it in the AR space is the perfect opportunity.”

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