Live from the PLAYERS Championship: PGA TOUR Embraces Cloud for All Access; Unreal Engine Drives Next-Gen Virtual Hole Flyovers
The production operation is ‘100% reliant on data’
The PLAYERS Championship is increasingly a collaboration between PGA TOUR Entertainment and NBC Sports, and it’s part of a bigger effort to give international rightsholders and golf fans what they want and need: access to more-personalized content, data- and graphics-driven storytelling, and a better understanding of the game and its players.
“When the new TV-rights deal began in 2022, we started sharing on-course and TV-compound equipment with our network partners, ” says Mike Raimondo, VP, broadcast technology, PGA TOUR. “With the TOUR’s expansion of coverage with PGA TOUR Live, we’ve been sharing cameras, microphones, and data like Trackman with them.”
As an example, Vox Media Studios, which produced the Netflix show Full Swing, is on hand this week, working on season two and operating a Hawk-Eye system out of the PGA TOUR Live truck in the PLAYERS compound. The TOUR put a couple of replay outputs on it and have made it available to others. As a result, rightsholders have access to additional camera feeds and replay signals, providing more opportunities to deliver what golf fans want.
Says Raimondo, “Those are the types of things that we’re moving more towards with shared resources.”
The biggest improvement that viewers will notice in the coverage will be course flyovers, whereby the announcers take the viewer from tee to green, discussing the hole and its layout. The PGA TOUR invested in two drones to make the flyovers even more detailed: one drone capturing topology, the other outfitted with LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) to create more-accurate 3D course surveys. LIDAR enables more-accurate capture of the bumps and dips that make TPC Sawgrass such a challenge. The data from the drones is sent to an Unreal Engine managed by augmented-reality–graphics specialist ARL to create the new experience.
According to Alex Turnbull, senior director, broadcast production, PGA TOUR, use of Unreal Engine 5 has been the primary focus of the TOUR’s work with NBC and Golf Channel.
“We now have a complete 3D representation of TPC Sawgrass rendered out using Unreal Engine,” he explains. “It is absolutely beautiful as we are integrating it through ARL’s engine. We’re taking all the bells and whistles that ARL brings to the table and putting Unreal on top of it.”
Undulations of the greens, for example, or the moguls on the right of the 18th hole will be displayed, Turnbull notes. The Unreal-powered graphics expected to be used this weekend range from flyover slab inserts with TrackMan tracing to custom animations telling stories via Stadium Stats.
Another important aspect of the technology is camera matching, with the end shot of the virtual flyover matched up with the POV camera on each tee box. During recent tournaments, viewers at home have been treated to a virtual fireworks-like display with all the tee shots to that point exploding off the tee at once. It has been great in terms of showing how many shots landed on the green.
“Going forward,” Turnbull says, “we’re going to try to visualize the data in a meaningful way and parse the data and trajectories and tell stories associated with the shots.”
All the new graphic efforts are going to be driven by a newly formed dedicated art team that will allow new ideas to be realized more quickly.
All Access Embraces the Cloud
One of the biggest initiatives at PGA TOUR Entertainment in recent years has been All Access, a production effort giving rightsholders and fans complete (every shot) coverage of every group teeing off over all four rounds. Launched in 2020, it required mezzanine-compressed camera and audio signals to be sent to the UK, where Hawk-Eye operators would remotely cut the high-resolution material, which existed at PGA TOUR Entertainment’s facility in St. Augustine, FL. At that time, every piece of equipment was located in the TV compound in six racks of equipment, including the Hawk-Eye servers, Trackman, and AWS Elemental encoders.
This year, All Access is vastly different from where it was at launch.
“We are now 100% live in the cloud,” Raimondo explains. “This year, the only thing in the truck are the AWS Elemental encoders. We are taking 80 camera feeds and sending all of them up into AWS, and the entire production is done in AWS. We’ve spun up Hawk-Eye servers in AWS, and now we’ve spun up TrackMan graphics servers in AWS, which provides traces of every tee shot. And we can take in our data from ShotLink powered by CDW and use Singular Live graphics to create elements.”
At a Hawk-Eye facility in Atlanta, 32 operators log in via laptop, connect to AWS, and begin cutting their Featured Group. They work in morning and afternoon sessions, allowing 32 people to create a stream for each of the 48 groups on the course.
The move to the cloud provides a number of benefits. One of the biggest is the ability to get ready for the show without having to wait until all systems are at the course.
“It allows us to test a month before,” notes Raimondo, “spinning up a whole bunch of instances in AWS, feeding in raw data, testing it out, and making sure everyone can connect. Then we can spin it back down and spin it back up like we did here on Monday.”
Also new this year is that virtually all the graphics for Every Shot Live are automated. ShotLink data is connected to the API, automating entry of such information as who is playing and what their score is. It can also do a dropdown with information like yardage or putting distance. In addition, an automated “breaking news” feature can deliver a message to all 48 streams with a scoring update, and PGA TOUR can automatically create a cut-down of each player’s round and deliver content from WSC Sports for social-media distribution.
The PGA TOUR Entertainment facility in St. Augustine, about 30 minutes down the road from TPC Sawgrass, is also heavily involved in this week’s action (as well as all in other PGA TOUR coverage this season). It’s home to the production of Featured Groups and Featured Holes seen on ESPN+. NEP Supershooter 24 is parked outside the PGA TOUR Entertainment facility and has been retrofitted so that four mini control rooms fit into the A unit. The B unit houses replay and audio mixing; the C unit, three voiceover rooms for talent.
“The switcher, the graphics, the EVS replay control surfaces are connected as data [from the course to St. Augustine],” says Raimondo. “If it’s 3,000 miles away in Pebble Beach, CA, we’re still controlling it from St. Augustine. We’re not sending any camera feeds but, instead, monitor-wall feeds from site. We’re 100% reliant on data, and, after some firmware updates, any issues around latency went away.”
Looking to 2024
One technology piece that the PGA TOUR is testing on six holes this week is optical-image tracking cameras using AI technology through Bolt6. The Sony imagers and lenses will be housed in waterproof housings, and multiple cameras will be located on each hole, gathering hundreds of points of data.
“It will drive data into our graphics engines and drive the use of data in other areas as we marry the Bolt6 data with TrackMan data,” says Raimondo. “There will be a lot of things we can do on the broadcast side. But, right now, we’re gathering data and figuring out what’s good, what’s bad. Next year, you’ll see more enhancements within both our app and the broadcast.”
Next year, PGA TOUR Entertainment will be rolling out a new production truck able to handle five shows (the four Featured Hole/Group feeds and full tournament coverage), ideally, in 1080p HDR for CBS and NBC or 1080i HDR for ESPN+.
“Everything in the TV compound will be IP-based, and it’ll be 1080 HDR,” says Raimondo. “Every hole will have a tee camera and a TrackMan device on every single tee box, and we’ll also have a TrackMan device on every single green like we do here at PLAYERS.”
Those efforts will raise the quality of every tournament, putting all of them on more-equal footing in terms of innovation and, ultimately, delivering more value for rightsholders, fans, and everyone involved with the PGA TOUR. And, when a new 165,000-sq.-ft. production facility opens in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL, in 2025, it will signal one more giant step for everyone.