FOX and ESPN brought a host of new technologies to Washington, D.C. for All-Star Week. There were cameras in the sky and inside ball caps. Fornite’s game engine powered 3D visuals, and an array of 60 cameras produced replays in 4D. Are these a glimpse into the future of baseball broadcasting or just over-hyped toys?
SkyCam is easily the most recognized and debated broadcast production technology among sports fans. The camera system made national headlines last NFL season when NBC tested it as the main game angle on Thursday Night Football.
When FOX announced the list of technology it would be deploying at the All-Star Game, the SkyCam news drew coverage from mainstream media like USA Today’s The Big Lead, Forbes, and Yahoo! Sports. This wasn’t the first time a wired camera system had been used in baseball, but this was certainly SkyCam’s most high-profile MLB appearance.
The infrastructure at 10-year-old Nationals Park made SkyCam’s voyage doable, according to FOX VP Brad Cheney. FOX needed the light tower in left field and the scoreboard in center field to serve as anchor points, and the Nationals had to supply enough power to fly the system. So no matter how popular SkyCam might be, you’re probably not going to see it flying through a rickety 100-year-old ballpark anytime soon.
Aside from the beauty shots we’re accustomed to from SkyCam in any use, its in-game role was underwhelming to most of us looking for it. SkyCam probably went unnoticed to the majority of viewers. That’s especially noteworthy because it patrolled home run territory in left-center field. Last week’s slugfest had the most home runs in All-Star Game history, and eight out of the 10 were hit to left-center.
Check out SkyCam in the replay of Trevor Story’s home run:
#StoryTime: The All-Star Chapter ? pic.twitter.com/xCwWrmCrUY
— Colorado Rockies (@Rockies) July 19, 2018
Compare that to this replay sequence from another Nationals Park home run that includes a traditional left field camera angle:
The @Nationals were down 9-0.
This swing completed the comeback. #PapaSlam pic.twitter.com/HXZcXlOIt9
— MLB (@MLB) July 6, 2018
The number of times a camera angle is used on air, or is overtly noticed, is hardly the barometer for success, but the video evidence seems to show that SkyCam in baseball is unlikely to be revolutionary. That’s an important consideration for SkyCam’s potential baseball customers, who know the system is expensive and logistically complex, and would have to weigh that investment against a bevy of other technological upgrades like 4K and high frame rate cameras.
CatcherCam, CoachCam, and UmpireCam
FOX’s greatest innovation came at eye-level. Cincinnati-based startup ActionStreamer debuted HatCam for coaches and referees in the Arena Football League earlier this year, and now has cameras in football helmets. Last week the company unveiled cameras in base coach batting helmets and hockey-style catchers mask helmets.
At the All-Star Game, viewers were given in-your-face high fives by players after home runs, via those players’ base coaches:
Hit a dinger, get a high-five from your 1B coach.
?: @ActionStreamer. pic.twitter.com/Y19zF1vDcz
— All-Star Game (@AllStarGame) July 18, 2018
While there weren’t any bang-bang plays to evaluate with CoachCam, a HatCam on the Futures Game second base umpire, broadcast by MLB Network, brought viewers inside a double play from a perspective likely never seen before on TV:
Ever wanted to experience the game from the umpire's perspective? Thanks to @ActionStreamer, you could do just that in the @SiriusXM All-Star #FuturesGame. pic.twitter.com/PBIMdsOAkL
— All-Star Game (@AllStarGame) July 16, 2018
CatcherCam probably offers the greatest potential in baseball, allowing fans to view pitch location and swings up close. But at the All-Star Game CatcherCam was limited to the bullpen since it is still undergoing further safety testing, according to ActionStreamer CEO Max Eisenberg.
ActionStreamer’s football product is amusing, but very shaky, as one might expect for athletes sprinting and tackling each other. However, the company’s baseball product will likely attract a lot more eyes, functioning like a police body camera for umpires.
While the cameras don’t provide the clarity or high frame rate of the broadcast cameras used by MLB’s replay operations center in New York, they could provide potentially valuable evidence when upholding or reversing calls. Once the cameras become game-ready, the debate surrounding their implementation could turn political.
ActionStreamer understands its entire business model hinges on players and officials being able to perform their respective jobs without being hindered by the paraphernalia in any way. If the company can accomplish that, it will eliminate most of the arguments made by those who will be asked to wear their cameras.
On-Field, In-Game Interviews
After Joe Buck had a conversation with Bryce Harper and George Springer during last year’s game, and ESPN chatted with Mookie Betts in Spring Training, FOX returned with more on-field, in-game interviews:
Charlie Blackmon “checkin’ his hole for gloves.” #2018 ASG pic.twitter.com/Rsqg5Jx2QN
— JBisKeyserSoze (@keysersoze64) July 18, 2018
Home Run Derby in 4D
Korean company 4D Replay mounted 60 DSLR cameras around the suite level between first and third base to bring a “Matrix effect” to the Derby. 4D Replay is emerging as a competitor to Intel’s True View, which has featured in NFL broadcasts, and the Korean firm is coming after the baseball market.
The 2018 T-Mobile Home Run Derby telecast features 4D replay technology, which shows us 360-degree replays of some of Kyle Schwarber's 16 first-round home runs! pic.twitter.com/gThSSPOMGd
— ESPN PR (@ESPNPR) July 17, 2018
ESPN’s analysts struggled to sell why the 4D Replay effect illustrates an aspect of a swing that traditional replay angles cannot. The system’s potential was better seen in a outing last month with a play at the plate:
The cost of 4D Replay’s system is likely to be significant. A single 4K capable Panasonic GH5 and lens retails for about $2,000, meaning a bulk order of 60 could cost as much as $120,000.
Intel’s True View has shown promise in breaking down football plays. Right now might be too early to evaluate 4D Replay’s potential in baseball, but the system could be more attractive if it can provide truly 360-degree looks from a much wider array of locations on the field.
ESPN built upon its existing 3D K-Zone technology and developed a home run spray chart for the Derby. Those visuals—and Game Changer MVP’s video board applications, which also featured at Nationals Park throughout All-Star Week—were rendered in realtime using the same Unreal Engine that powers the videogame Fortnite.
Extra Innings: Major League Field Projection
The post-Home Run Derby field display didn’t make the broadcast, but still deserves a mention. D.C.-based Quince Imaging projected highlights from Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper’s thrilling Derby victory, moments after Harper hit his 45th and final home run.
After the show @BHarper3407 put on during the derby, @QuinceImaging lit up the field with the encore. pic.twitter.com/UJgM67sL5S
— All-Star Game (@AllStarGame) July 19, 2018
Quince Imaging is also responsible for many of the video projections fans witness in arenas across the U.S. However, displaying video on top of a baseball diamond is challenging. A field’s multi-colored, vast and oddly shaped canvas doesn’t handle like a shiny NBA court or bright white NHL sheet of ice.
Fireworks at Nationals Park are now a rare occurrence, usually saved for Fourth of July celebrations and postseason play. Perhaps Quince Imaging’s system could become a modern alternative, and team executives across MLB should be weighing the costs of Friday Night fireworks against a permanent projection installation.