How We’ll Watch Sports in the Future

New viewing experiences for the NFL and other professional sports are literally changing the game.

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This article was originally posted on February 2 and updated on February 13.

On Sunday, February 5, more than 100 million Americans watched the New England Patriots take on the Atlanta Falcons during Super Bowl LI in Houston.

It was the culmination of a somewhat revolutionary football season — not necessarily because of the team matchups, but rather due to the fact that for the first time ever, between September and December, fans were able to watch live football games streamed for free on Twitter, thanks to a deal between the social media platform and the National Football League. Anywhere from just over 2 million to more than 3 million people tuned in to watch each of the 10 Thursday Night Football games that Twitter broadcast; that’s not an insignificant number, considering those games typically average 17.6 million TV viewers. In fact, Twitter has signed similar deals with other sports leagues including the NBA and MLB, the latter of which, according to Geekwire, plans to stream one game per week on Twitter in 2017.

Indeed, the way we watch sports is already changing. And now advanced technologies are entering the market that target these live streams and could alter the sports-watching landscape even further, says Jacob Navok ’10, founder of Genvid Technologies, a media technology firm.

“Games are fundamentally interactive pieces of content,” Navok explains. “The difference between a game and any other piece of content out there, whether it’s movies or music or television, is the fact that a game is interactive. But we lose all of that interactivity the moment that we encode it and make it into a video stream.”

He founded Genvid last year to bring not just this interactivity, but also customization and monetization to live-viewing experiences. In January, Genvid launched software that allows users to click on, customize, and otherwise engage with a live video stream. So, for example, while watching a live video feed, a user could click on the players to get more information about them or click on different cameras to change the viewing angle.

The company is focused right now on applying this technology to the video-game industry, which draws an annual viewership of half a billion people globally — 125 million in the United States, by some estimates — who watch live feeds of other people playing games via online channels such as YouTube or Twitch. (This phenomenon — people watching other people play video games — has resulted in a hot new industry dubbed eSports, and its revenue is expected to top $1 billion by 2019.)

But Genvid is also wooing broadcast companies with the promise of applying this technology to live sports viewing (on their websites and apps) as well.

“Imagine being able to click on a football game and being able to have that feed understand that when you click on a player, that's the player you're interested in,” Navok says. “Imagine being able to watch an NBA game and you can click on Stephen Curry and all of his data pops up. Where we see the future here is that an individual viewer is able to customize everything they’re watching.”

Razak Dawood
An example of how Genvid software allows individual users to customize a live video feed, applied here to a video game

Perhaps even more interesting, imagine if team franchises could sell viewers the opportunity to digitally outfit players in customized hats or jerseys in real time — opening up “new revenue models that up until now have never been available,” Navok says. “In eSports, for example, they sell what's called skins, different textures on top of the players [that allow gamers to clad them in different clothing or accessories]. They sell them to players. [With this technology], they can sell them to viewers,” he continues. “Up until now that's not been an audience that game developers monetized. This ability to make these broadcasts interactive…blows open a completely new form of monetization.”

Further, advertisers could use technology like Genvid to customize their advertisements to particular audiences, targeting not just large swaths of fans but individual viewers, Navok says. “[You could] target viewers in New York City based on their Google search history, so that if they've been searching for ski equipment, ski equipment is what appears there,” he says. And because it’s all done digitally, the ads could be clickable, he adds. “This is something that the media agencies have wanted forever but the tech has not been there to be able to deploy it, so we are building that.”

Last spring, Intel bought Replay Technologies, which uses high-resolution cameras and graphics to track players’ positions in real time and give viewers an almost-3D viewing experience. Paired with technology like Genvid’s, this could further impact the way we watch sports, Navok says. “Imagine that NFL uniforms all have these RFID trackers, and that information, in real time, is thrown into [Replay]. The next step is you hook us into it, and then it’s all clickable and interactive in a real football game.”

This insight into viewer activity can also have wider repercussions for how the teams are managed, Navok says. “This is about understanding much more carefully what your individual viewers at home … are interested in, who they're fans of, et cetera. The players might not like this, but imagine if you find out that everybody’s clicking on or interested in this specific player, and you didn't know that. That could affect your negotiations.”

The real-time data on player positions can also lead to insights about plays that weren’t executed according to plan or ideas about other plays that could be executed. “That kind of data has never existed until now,” Navok says. “It is very, very powerful for your competitive analysis — and also potentially scary, because other people can use and track that as well. So we’ll see where it goes.”

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