American Family Insurance T’d Up Invitational on Twitch Offers Celebrities, Simulated Golf

VISTA Worldlink, Group 33 allow virtual matches be played around the country

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, live sports were at a premium. To fill the void, personality-filled events like Turner Sports’ The Match: Champions for Charity and The Match: Champions for Change occupied the television landscape. More recently, VISTA Worldlink and its partners are allowing golf fans of all ages to enjoy a virtualized version of the game with the American Family Insurance T’d Up Invitational on Twitch.

“We originally looked to launch in April,” says Rob Striar, president, marketing and managing partner, T’d Up, M Style, “but, in early May, we shifted the concept from having only professional golfers involved to adding celebrity golfers that would add broader appeal, provide more banter, etc. We spoke with several broadcast partners, but, ultimately, we thought Twitch was a fantastic partner for us because of their engagement and the ability to build an audience and community.”

More Than Golf: Digital Show Highlights Variety of Content

A 10-person crew producing American Family Insurance T’d Up Invitational work in two separate control rooms.

Since March, the pandemic has emptied the normally full sports schedule. With minimal televised activities over the summer, the creation of T’d Up was conceived during a perfect time to capture the attention of fans who have more free time on their schedules. With the new opportunity, Group 33 and JP Sports & Entertainment, a specialist in sponsorship marketing and celebrities’ charitable events and the entity driving T’d Up, are relying on their experience with golf simulators and unique events alike.

“It certainly required some modifications in how we approach an event,” says Pete Falcone, CEO, JP Sports & Entertainment, “but [our history with simulators] helped us avoid a learning curve. It also helped us turn this project around quickly when we had to get started.”

Digital gaming platforms like Twitch have seen an uptick in traffic because so many people are at home, and, with a refreshed take on the traditional game of golf, both avid and casual supporters from all demographics flocked to the product.

“We’re attracting an entirely different demographic,” says Striar. “If you’re not into golf, we’ll open you up to a sport that you may not have been focused on. If you are, you’ll enjoy celebrities that may be some of your favorites or you may not have had exposure to previously.”

While old-school competition is one reason to stick around, the show brings another wrinkle of interest: the stories that the celebrities have to tell. With participants ranging from actors Don Cheadle and Anthony Anderson to former athletes Eric Dickerson and Matt Leinart, the show covers the gamut of experiences and topics of discussion.

Talent and guests participate from offsite locations.

“I think people come for the golf but stay for the conversation and are engaged by the entertainment,” adds Striar. “We’re able to capture these unique moments from the celebrities. When we had [actor] Tom Felton on, we thought the Twitch chat got hacked because there were so many different languages in each of his huge fan bases in Portugal, Spain, and Italy. It really spoke to massive response to the show we have had.”

With the postponement of film recordings, photoshoots, and other public events, the celebrities who participate in these digital live streams are searching for something to do as well. From a logistical standpoint, JP Sports & Entertainment VP Kevin Marsh is responsible for coordinating the celebrity appearances. It’s an impressive juggling act to book new personalities and refresh the content for every show, but the relationships that have been made over the years have helped maintain a consistent flow of faces.

“We’ve been working with celebrities for a while,” he explains, “and we know that their schedules are always TBD until the last minute. We’ve managed events that benefit their foundations or charities, and, now with [COVID-19] restrictions, they’re unable to raise money for these causes. They’re happy to [join] to do something different but also to raise some awareness for the things that they care about.”

The Engine Behind the Match: Remote Production Takes Over VISTA Worldlink Facility

Looking for a partner to execute the technical side of the project, JP Sports & Entertainment turned to industry veteran Michael Cohen and his expertise. Cohen, who helped produce the 2018 USL Cup and 2020 NWSL season, brought VISTA Worldlink into the picture as technical lead for these digital shows on Twitch.

A second control room is being used to ensure a steady transmission workflow.

“VISTA has shown that they’ve been ahead of the curve in the remote-production world,” he says. “When you take a look at what T’d Up is, it’s a show that would not have been televised years ago, but now, with the technology that’s available, it was the right time for this to all come together.”

With the ongoing pandemic, producing this show with maximum health and safety protocols was a high priority. Traditional productions have become difficult to do, so remote production was the most responsible approach.

“[Shows] don’t want a 40-person crew and additional mobile units and uplink trucks,” says Cohen. “The traditional way we were always thinking about producing television has yielded to this new form of technology because it allows us to bring the same product with an alternative method.”

The on-screen element has become a sure-fire success, but it wouldn’t be able to get online without the remote-production workflows. The company’s facility in Dania Beach, FL, is housing a 10-person crew in two separate control rooms. In one, a director, technical director, producer, graphics operators, and A1 cut the live show; in the other master-control room, a team that comprising a transmission coordinator and two engineers-in-charge handles signal acquisition and connectivity.

Celebrities of all kinds participate in the show, including former Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon.

To further ensure social distancing, Holly Sonders hosts from her home in Las Vegas, players compete in either Scottsdale, AZ, or Beverly Hills, CA, and their coaches participate from their respective homes across the country.

On the backend, a mixture of cloud-based technologies — Net Insight Nimbra VA 225’s, LiveU LU600’s, Comrex Liveshots, Skype, Zoom — links all the participants to the production hub at VISTA and capture their gameplay through the Foresight Sports simulator. Signals are distributed on Twitch via encoders from AWS Elemental.

As another safety net, a seven-person crew – including a tech manager, engineer-in-charge, A1, and A2 — facilitates operations at the players’ location.

All Hands on Deck: Tech Innovation, Teamwork Make the Competition Possible

Despite the return of live sports, golf fans are clamoring for more content, which in turn generates staggering numbers for the shows. From Falcone’s perspective, the virtual golf competition will continue to play a role in his company’s portfolio when the pandemic goes away.

Foresight Sports translates the player’s swing into the golf simulator.

“Even when we get back to physical events, which will be a great day, I don’t think this type of opportunity goes away at all,” he says. “I think it has unearthed a whole new arena for us.”

If that’s the case, VISTA will be ready to go. Since the first presentation of T’d Up, VISTA Worldlink President Joshua Liemer and his team are perfecting their craft by going back to the drawing board after each live stream.

“This is a sophisticated event ,” he points out. “The amount of technology and innovation that is required to pull it off week in and week out is a lot. I’m incredibly proud of my team because they analyzed the challenge at hand and designed a workflow to put VISTA, our client, and all of the participants in the best position to succeed.”

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