At the Rink: Washington Capitals Approach Regular Season With Virtual Gameday Digital Experience, Traditional In-Venue Flair
Fans are returning on April 27 vs. the New York Islanders
The National Hockey League was the last of the four major U.S. sports leagues to host a non-bubble regular season. As fans gradually make their return to the seats, how is that affecting in-venue productions and digital content? Similar to At the Ballpark, On the Gridiron, and On the Hardwood, At the Rink looks at the operations of NHL organizations to see how they are coping with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and adapting to a sense of normalcy.
The talisman of the Washington Capitals, Alexander Ovechkin, is continuing to rewrite the history books with each passing game. Throughout his NHL career in the nation’s capital, the franchise’s in-venue production team has been their every step of the way to convey the importance of these accomplishments to fans in attendance. This year, while they’re away from the stands, the crew is tapping into new forms of entertainment outside of Capital One Arena and traditions inside of the building to capture the play of “The Great Eight” and the entire team.
“I’m extremely proud of our game presentation team and what they’ve been able to accomplish,” says Cassidy Lien, VP, game presentation, Washington Capitals. “It’s sometimes hard to stay motivated, but they’ve been able to maintain that motivation and determination throughout the entire regular season.”
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Preseason Planning: Team Devises a Strategy Before the Start of the Regular Season
As Vice President of Game Presentation for Monumental Sports, the entity that oversees the Capitals and the NBA’s Washington Wizards, Lien had his hands full at the beginning of 2021. Due to the persistence of the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization made the decision to play the new season behind closed doors at Capital One Arena. Prior to the team’s first contest on Friday, January 22 vs. the Buffalo Sabres, Lien and his team brainstormed a production plan for a season unlike any other.
“I don’t think any of us knew exactly what we were doing, what was going to happen, or how it was going to work,” he says. “No one’s been through this before, so we got together with the league and shared all of our resources and ideas. As we were planning and getting everyone together, we all said, “Well, why don’t we just produce the show in the arena as if fans were there?’”
Throughout franchise history, the Capitals have been known to have one of the loudest and most passionate fanbases in the National Hockey League. Despite the emptiness that was to accompany the team’s home opener, the production crew still wanted to harness the fans’ love for the team and energy that they bring every night. After contemplation and thought, the club concluded that they would continue their normal show to supply an intriguing canvas for the television broadcast on NBC Sports Washington.
“We’re dressing up our LED boards and some of the tarps [near the ice] to make the arena look less empty on television and get the logos of our sponsors seen [by fans at home],” continues Lien. “We’re also showing our opening video sequence and on-ice 3D projection.”
Boots on the Ground: Control Room Staff Handles Productions in an Empty Venue
With a thorough plan in place, the individuals running the show inside of the venue are diving headfirst with a clear goal in mind. Manager, Game Presentation Alexa Tanzi has taken charge of some of the most important production elements this season, but from her point of view, it’s been a unique challenge to overcome the abnormal silence that fills the building prior to puck drop.
“It’s one of the strangest feelings I’ve ever encountered in my life,” she says. “It’s almost a culture shock when you walk in and see something completely different.”
On the production side, they’re combating the silence with different in-venue elements including fabricated crowd noise, but when it comes to the typical fan interactions, those have been unfortunately altered.
“It’s been a shift in my planning procedures,” she adds. “In my normal rundown of scripting out a game, I would usually play something towards the crowd and integrate something as small as a t-shirt toss or as large as our pre-show open sequence to connect the fans. Now, I’m doing that for people who are watching on television or on their laptops at home.”
At-Home Entertainment: Virtual Gameday Provides Supporters With Second-Screen Experience
Another priority for the organization was providing a centralized location where fans could flock to on game night. After second-screen experiences gained momentum at the beginning of the pandemic last year, the Capitals teamed up with Kiswe to develop a digital platform dubbed Virtual Gameday. On this go-to destination for those watching from home on their mobile devices or computers, it allows real-time interactions with other fans, bonus content, giveaways, cut-ins from in-arena hosts, and much more.
“Alexa has taken the reins [on that project] to produce different shows with partner promotions and entertainment elements,” says Lien. “We went from not knowing what we were going to do at all [at the beginning of the year] to putting on a top-notch show.”
A lot of the heavy lifting for this endeavor is done in advance. Prior to a Caps home game, the digital and production teams are working together to create pre-produced content that runs throughout the course of the show. To make this process a bit more streamlined for Tanzi and her colleagues, Virtual Gameday is tapping into the videoboard show being done at Capital One Arena.
“We decided that there shouldn’t be two separate shows and having to worry about this host in one location for the in-venue show and other elements for Virtual Gameday,” he continues. “During commercials, we’ll pull up stats and the radio broadcast, but when we flip back to what we’re doing in the arena, we really want it to feel like you’re there and seeing everything going on.
Welcome Home: Shows Get Extra Boost With Return of Fans on April 27
After a longtime away from each other, Capitals fans will be able to watch a game in person starting on Tuesday, April 27 vs. the New York Islanders. More than 2,000 fans will be a small sign of the slow return to normalcy and a welcome sight for the crew that has produced a total of 22 home games so far. The composition of games will change when fans get in their seats, and Tanzi will adapt to that change on the audio front.
“We’re going to mix the cheers of our real fans and the fake crowd sound,” she says. “While we’re excited to have them back and we know that they’re going to rock the building, we still want to provide that atmosphere of an extremely loud audience.”
The visual side of the production will also receive an enhancement as well. While the in-venue videoboard has been leveraged to display content, the more intimate moments and activations with fans during timeouts will be back on the big screen.
“We’ll finally have our FanCam with real-life reactions, emotions, and overall excitement,” says Tanzi. “We’ve been waiting a long time to get fans back and we wanted to do it in the safest way possible. We need them more than ever again as we head towards a tight playoff race.”
The Ones Who Get It Done: A Shoutout to the Capitals’ Production Team
Throughout the last four months, all departments within the organization have learned new skills and have relied on each other to succeed. Whether it’s sponsorship, digital, or game presentation, the team has greatly benefitted from everyone’s efforts. Inside a soon-to-be populated Capita One Arena, they’ll continue to improve together as they move closer to the postseason.
“[My colleagues] are some of the most wonderful people I have been able to work with in my career and I would not be able to put on a Caps Gameday without them,” concludes Tanzi. “I love coming to games and putting a whole show together, but to get on a headset and chat with these folks is my most favorite part about the job.”
After a four-game road trip, the Washington Capitals will return to Capital One Arena for their first game with fans against the New York Islanders on Tuesday, April 27 at 7 p.m. ET.