Tech brings soccer back – with a twist

Picture:: iStock

The world’s football leagues have been on hold for three months, but technology is helping soccer come back.

It was a triumphant declaration: “La Liga is coming back,” said Marcos Pelegrin, country managing director of the Spanish football league in South Africa, one of the organisation’s network of international offices. But it wasn’t just for the sake of soccer that he was so upbeat.

“It’s a sign of normality, of society getting a little bit out of this crisis,” he said in a briefing to African media last week.

La Liga restarted its season last Thursday, setting the scene for 39 days of non-stop football, with matches every day until 19 July. But in-depth preparations have been under way for some time, in six phases, which would provide a useful template for South Africa’s Premier Soccer League.

The phases moved from preparation for training, training alone, training in groups, and collective training, to the start of La Liga, and the conclusion of the season

“La Liga has been working on securing, first of all, the health of our players and the staff of the clubs and also the return of the competition because there there’s a lot at stake, it’s a big industry, with a revenue stream that represents 1.37% of Spanish GDP, employs nearly 200,000 people in the country, and pays 4 billion euros (R77.3 billion) in taxes every year.”

It is no surprise, then, that La Liga invested heavily in technology to help with preparations, especially from the second phase onward.

“Everyone received individual training sessions for every day, the night before, on their computers and tablets, with detailed instructions of the timing that they could go to the facilities.

“In stage three, every club had a roster in which players were separated into different groups that were able to train together. They got different times to go to different places to train, and different exercises to perform.”

Thanks to strict social distancing and sanitisation protocols, not a single players had been infected by Covid-19 by the time La Liga restarted – despite 2,500 tests. Matches are being held behind closed doors, stadiums are divided into security zones, movement is regulated, kits are changed at half-time, and non-players all wear masks and gloves.

Pelegrin acknowledged this was not ideal, but this was where technology lent a hand. “We’ve been working on technological solutions to make the product more appealing.”

Last week, the Spanish league announced matches in its two main divisions, La Liga Santander and La Liga SmartBank matches, “will look and sound different”. The main innovations are virtualisation of stands, fan audio and new camera positions.

La Liga president Javier Tebas said: “For us it has been important to be able to adapt and offer a compelling, cutting-edge broadcast to our fans.”

Just what does this mean? La Liga offered the following breakdown:

Virtualised stands, new camera angles

“The biggest change for the return of the competition is the virtualised broadcasting that La Liga will offer to international broadcast partners, which will allow matches to be seen in a way that closely resembles how they looked and sounded before the competition was postponed.

“The stands will be virtualised and will always offer to scale images of seated fans wearing the colours of the home club. “To develop this digital experience, La Liga collaborated with Norwegian company VIZRT, which also works with other European leagues.

“In moments when the game is stopped, this image of fans can be transformed into a canvas that matches the colour of the home team and will carry institutional messages among others.

“This innovative broadcast will also feature virtual sound, obtained through collaboration with EA Sports Fifa, in a project called Sounds of the Stands.

“Through this, the audio library of La Liga official sponsor EA, recorded in real stadiums, has been digitally adapted so it can be implemented in real time during the match. It will be adapted to the flow of the game as certain situations occur, such as a goal or a foul, creating what is known as Atmospheric Audio.

“Some cameras will shift their location to positions where they would previously have affected the sightline of fans in stands.”

Bundesliga brings new insights

To the north, the German Bundesliga last month became the first major football league to restart, but with similar restrictions in place. The league partnered with Amazon Web Services (AWS) to provide fans watching in more than 200 countries with a new experience.

They debuted Bundesliga Match Facts, providing two new sets of statistics for commentators and fans to gain a deeper understanding of play: Average Positions, and Expected Goals (xGoals), providing insights into intended playing style based on real-time analysis of data.

The data is generated from live video feeds, streamed into the AWS cloud, analysed by a machine learning tool, and then fed instantly back to broadcasters as live statistics.

According to the IoT Newsdesk, the statistics help audiences better understand things like the strategy involved in decision-making on the pitch.

Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee

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