On Sunday millions will be watching the Super Bowl. Whether at a bar, super bowl party, or at the house, the focus will be on the game and the commercials. But to bring this game to millions require a lot of moving pieces, and technology is at the center of it.
Let’s start with the on field action.
During the pregame introduction, while the announcers are recapping the teams, equipment managers are testing out all of the communication systems. From booth to sideline, sideline to player, and even ref to ref. The biggest game of the year, with the world watching, will be relying on a system that allows each party to communicate to each other in clear digital, while not compromising the integrity of the game by allowing another team to listen in.
But let’s back up for a second and talk about the sideline to player aspect. In between each play a team has 40 seconds to come up with the next play, swap out personnel, get set, and snap the ball. This means that the Offensive Coordinator will need to have the play picked out, buzzed down to the coach, and the coach relay that play to the quarterback within 25 seconds, as all radio communication between sideline and player cuts off at the 15 sec mark. It’s a lot of information to communicate, which include the personnel (2 tight ends or no tight ends and all receivers), the routes, blocking schemes, and even who to look for during the play. And if it is a team that likes to run a hurry-up offense, then this may include two plays.
Teams rely on headsets provided by Bose to communicate with each other clearly, while blocking out some of the crowd noise. The OC (offensive Coordinator) discusses the next play with the coach, who will then communicate it to the quarterback (who has a helmet speaker to hear the play). And on the opposite side of the ball, the defensive coordinator can communicate the play call with the designated defensive player (usually the Mike or middle linebacker).
In the middle of a play, a team may get caught causing an infraction, whether it be a lineman holding a defensive player to prevent them from making a play, or a defensive back interfering with a catch, this is where the referees get involved in the game. In a move to help speed up the game, referees also have the ability to communicate with each other the call. So if a side judge threw the flag, he can relay the call and the player who committed the infraction with the head referee. The head referee will then communicate the call in real time to the teams and those watching in the stands and at home.
All of this communication must take place along side all the radio communication going on between security staff and law enforcers trying to keep the event safe, all of the tv and radio personnel trying to call the game for their respective networks, all of the broadcast personnel in the trucks trying to produce the game, all of the half time planners, the stadium announcers, and even the fans IGing how awesome their night is. This must happen in a confined area using all of these different radio frequencies, and not allow interference from one of the radio frequencies to compromise another.
Imagine a fan accidentally picking up on a transmission from a team’s offensive coordinator, a helmet call accidentally being broadcast to the world, or stadium security communication bleeding into a player’s helmet, these are the challenges that the NFL have to make sure doesn’t happen.
After a series, players and coaches are able to make adjustments by watching real time action to see how to adjust on the next series. This is made possible thanks to the partnership between Microsoft and the NFL. Teams have access to a Microsoft Surface, which they can use to gather information faster than the old school printing method. This allows for teams to be more environmentally friendly (save on the use of paper), while being able to make adjustments regardless of weather, thanks to the durability of the tablets.
The different angles of the game
Watching a player catch that ball from the right angle, getting to see the anger on a coach’s face after a player make a mistake, catching the view to see if that was actually a catch or a drop, all this requires a multitude of cameras capturing the game from different view points. And the NFL uses those different camera angles to be able to decide whether a play needs to be overturned or stand as called.
This is accomplished with a number of cameras, including the recently used pylon cameras. But where the real tech is used is with the SkyCam/CableCam. The SkyCam (and CableCam) uses a system of winches and pulleys at multiple points of the stadium to move the camera(s) along the x, y, and z axis. And the camera is piloted by a person who controls the movement of the pulleys via remote, which controls which winch and pulley system does what to get the camera in the right position at the right time. Another person will use his controller to control the actual movement of the camera (ie zoom, pan, tilt, etc).
And all of those shots are fed to a broadcast trailer who take all the camera angles and sounds to paint a picture. That picture being what we see on Sunday. A team of professionals provide us the up close and personal experience of the game from our living room.
All of this technology combined is used to bring us the NFL experience that we have come to enjoy for years. The NFL have a team of professionals in place who’s job is to make sure all of this happens fluidly (as we want limited to no interruptions to the flow of the game), and not provide one team an unfair advantage over another. And they do all this by staying at the forefront of technology. With 5G and 8K TVs on the horizon, it will be interesting to see how the technology of the game continues to evolve.