Every year broadcasters roll out some spectacular new technology to add a bit of sizzle to their production of the Super Bowl, and this year’s contest in Houston will be no exception. Fox Sports along with its partner Intel will deploy “Be The Player,” a high-tech system that relies on 38 4K cameras and two racks full of Intel Blade servers to give fans a point-of-view perspective of an individual player on the field. Above: The Fox Sports Super Bowl LI broadcast team will provide game coverage from this booth overlooking NRG Stadium in Houston. (Fox Sports photo)
Fox To Deliver Fresh Super Bowl Perspective
Ever wondered what it’s like to read the defense just like New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady?
Or, perhaps what Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman sees as he fights his way through a defensive line?
Fans tuning into Fox Sports’ coverage of Super Bowl LI from NRG Stadium in Houston on Sunday will likely get the chance.
Thanks to a new technology Fox Sports is calling “Be the Player,” the producer of the game can select any player, coach, referee or even a fan in the stands and give viewers a point-of-view perspective of that person in about 60 seconds.
“We essentially can fly around and get the perspective of anyone and see things the way that person sees them,” says Kevin Callahan, Fox Sports VP of field operations and engineering.
But Be the Player, the brainchild of Fox Sports and computer processor manufacturer Intel, is just one of the tech marvels the broadcaster has in store for coverage of this year’s Super Bowl.
Virtual reality, extensive use of 4K cameras, an 8K camera and high-speed data connections to leverage production capability, including editing suites, at the Fox Sports headquarters in Los Angeles, are among the other tech highlights Fox will rely upon for game coverage.
That coverage includes the Fox Sports domestic broadcast; a clean feed for NFL Broadcasting, which makes the game available for international distribution; a feed for Fox Sports Deportes; a virtual reality internet stream; and pre-game raw audio and camera feeds from the field for FoxSports.com and Fox Sports GO, says Callahan.
To make all of that happen, some 600 people will be working in the stadium and the production compound for Fox and another 400 in the Houston area, he says.
Behind Be The Player
Fox Sports began talking to Intel about Be the Player in April 2016 at the NAB Show in Las Vegas.
After some back and forth to determine — and ultimately deliver — what Fox wanted, the sports broadcaster began to conduct offline testing of the system from the start of the NFL season, says Callahan.
For the Super Bowl, the broadcaster has mounted 38 industrial 4K cameras on the facia of the 400 Level of the stadium — about 60 feet above the field of play. Video from the cameras is fed to two racks filled with Intel-based Blade servers.
“When our producer selects a play we want to do the Be the Player enhancement on, all of the frames for about 10 seconds from all of those cameras will be clicked off,” he says.
The Blade servers running 3D software will create a three-dimensional model of the entire stadium, including the field. The model will include where every player and every object is located.
Video from the 4K cameras needed to render out the point of view of the desired player is mapped to the model and the Be the Player enhancement is created. In all, the process takes about a minute, Callahan says.
While the effect for the Super Bowl is being created on servers under the control of Fox Sports, ultimately Be the Player could be rendered in a public cloud and made available as an interactive viewing enhancement for online viewers in the future, he says.
4K, 8K And VR
In all, Fox Sports is deploying 70 cameras to cover the game. Among them are high-speed 4K cameras positioned on all boundary lines, including the goal and end lines and sidelines, that provide video for zoomed regions of interest, says Callahan.
Fox Sports is deploying a fixed-mount Astro Design 8K camera with a fixed lens at the “high-high 50” yard line position, he says.
The camera, which was used successfully during the Fox Sports coverage of post-season baseball, can capture the entire field.
“We’ll use it for revisionist camera work and to go back and pan and zoom and extract as we want throughout the 8K image,” explains Callahan.
For its 360-degree VR game coverage, Fox Sports has partnered with LiveLike to deploy its platform to stream VR game highlights.
No special VR headset or cardboard is required, just the Fox Sports VR app and an iOS or Android device, Callahan says.
In The Compound
Office trailers arrived on site in Houston on Jan. 10, and work on the technical infrastructure began about a week later.
The Fox Sports technical crew has run about 180,000 feet of cable, 14 miles of tactical fiber cable and about 1,000 strands of single mode fiber.
Mobile production units arrived Jan. 24. In all, 13 mobile units have been deployed. The pre-game and game production will be done from Game Creek Video units and the half-time show, which is being produced by Touchdown Entertainment, will be done from one of NEP’s Denali production vehicles, says Callahan.
The 5.1 Surround Sound mix will be created with three Calrec audio consoles, including the main Apollo board, and two Brio consoles — one for the crowd and field effects mix and other for additional EVS machine sources, he says.
To distribute video and audio throughout the compound, Fox Sports has deployed an IPTV system rather than running HD-SDI router feeds, and intercom communications and data are distributed via an IQ Network, he says.
A 10 Gigabit IP connection provided by Level 3 Communications ties the compound to the Fox Sports Los Angeles headquarters to take advantage of its extensive editing resources.
Three megawatts of power, including double redundancy, multiple UPS’s and redundant generators, will keep the production humming and protect against any power interruptions, Callahan says.
Fade To Black
While Fox Sports is hoping the Be the Player enhancement, 360-degree VR streams and other production elements and technologies will create some production sizzle, they ultimately will only be as good as their contribution to helping Fox Sports convey what happens in Houston, says Callahan.
“The big thing we have to remember as engineering and operations people is at the end of the day it’s a football game,” he says.
“We want to make sure that with everything we do, we are helping to tell the stories of the game, not getting in the way.”
(Editor’s note: For a list of the technology Fox Sports is deploying for its Super Bowl LI coverage, check out TVN’s Playout blog here.)