Spanish soccer is trying to be more exciting by copying the NFL and video games

LaLiga’s two biggest stars, from any angle.
LaLiga’s two biggest stars, from any angle.
Image: Reuters/Sergio Perez
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On a recent Tuesday, on the outskirts of Barcelona at the Estadi Cornellà-El Prat, a few thousand people braved uncharacteristically damp and cold weather to witness a bit of history.

RCD Espanyol, a middling team in Spain’s top-flight LaLiga soccer division, was hosting Real Madrid, one of the best-known clubs in the world, for a league match. Madrid chose to rest players, including their star Cristiano Ronaldo, thinking it would be a walkover. But a run of mixed results, and truly un-Spanish weather, seemed to knock their confidence. And just as the devoted fans were thinking of starting their journeys home as soon as the referee blew his whistle, Sergio Garcia floated a cross pass to Gerard Moreno, who scored—sealing Espanyol’s first victory over Madrid in 11 years.

As the goal bounced in, an overhead camera mounted on winched cables whizzed over Moreno’s head. The replays gave spectators at home 360-degree aerial views, and pundits could add lines in real-time to show how Madrid’s defense broke down, or how fast Garcia was running before he crossed the ball.

If you live in the US, this sort of technical wizardry might not look all that impressive. The Skycam, one brand of robotic camera that can shoot games from overheard—and zoom out of the way of any plays they might interfere with—was first used in a preseason NFL game aired on CBS in 1984. It took until the early 2000s for the technology to really take hold with major broadcasters, but has become a mainstay on replays—and sometimes the live action—since then.

In Spain, soccer long has been broadcast in a pretty traditional setup—cameras up high at the halfway line, and a few operators down on the sidelines. LaLiga has made strides to update how it shows off soccer, knowing that an increasing number of people from around the world—beyond just the Espanyol side of Barcelona and the Real side of Madrid—are tuning in. And it’s found a somewhat surprising source of inspiration from American football broadcasts.

At an event hosted by LaLiga as part of the annual Mobile World Congress trade show, for which  100,000 telco execs, mobile manufacturers, and tech bloggers descended upon Barcelona, the league showed off the broadcasting technology it has introduced into its games and stadiums over the past few seasons, mimicking actions from the far more lucrative NFL. LaLiga aims to increase its global viewership massively—which currently stands at somewhere between 150 million and 400 million, depending on which estimates you believe—and technology plays a big part in drawing in new fans. (For comparison, around 114 million people watched this year’s Super Bowl in the US.)

Broadcasting, licensing, and merchandising revenue for the NFL in the 2016 season topped $7.8 billion, which is split amongst the 32 teams. LaLiga’s entire revenue for the same season was €3 billion (roughly $3.6 billion), of which only €270.7 million (around $330 million) came from broadcasting. Real Madrid and Barcelona received about as much revenue from their league as mid-table teams in the UK’s Premier League did that season.

Inspired by American TV techniques

During LaLiga’s presentation, led by Roger Brosel, the league’s head of content and programming, there were near-constant references to the NFL and NBA as the examples the league had looked to for inspiration. Some technologies, like the Skycam, the league had directly lifted from the American leagues. The footage of Moreno’s goal gives you a perspective on just how much space he was in, and how awkward his shot was for Real’s goalkeeper. In other uses, it can show fans how a play builds as it moves up the field, almost identically to how it is in the NFL, where you can get the perspective of a quarterback scanning the field, letting fly, and finding his man downfield.

LaLiga is also borrowing other technologies that have recently debuted in NFL coverage.  Last year, Intel and Fox teamed up to bring what they called ”Be the Player” camera mode to 2017’s Super Bowl. A set of 38 cameras was placed around the stadium, and stitching together footage from all the feeds through Intel’s “True View” software allowed producers to create footage that sort of looks like it was shot through the eyes of a player on the field. Fox used it to show how quarterbacks and running backs navigate a wall of men rushing at them; LaLiga uses it to show just how inch-perfect some passes have to be to score even the more mundane goals. (The technology really helps cement just how much better some people are at sports than most people watching them.)

LaLiga is using the same Intel camera technology to overlay information in real time onto the field. It can flag a player’s name, how quickly he’s running, whether he’s staying in formation with his teammates, and whether he’s onside. Brosel said producers tend to keep this augmented-reality content to a minimum while the game is going on, as viewers might find it distracting, but it can be generated near-instantly for replays, and it’s in the future augmented feeds could be offered to viewers who prefer to watch in that style.

The influence of gaming

A lot of these augmented overlays, as well as replays from aerial angles and first-person views are already seen around the world every day—they just don’t happen to be real. Video games like EA’s FIFA and the Pro Evolution Soccer series both have all of the sorts of views and displays that younger generations are now craving in coverage of actual soccer matches, Brosel said. ”We wanted to get as close to video games as possible,” he added.

There are other affectations that have crept into US sports coverage in recent years that LaLiga touts as value-adding new features. League players are now filmed walking up and crossing their arms, so that they can be overlaid doing so on the field in pre-match coverage to show where they’ll be lining up. The NFL has done this for years, and it must be an absolute nightmare corralling hundreds of athletes into a room to film them all crossing their arms, while trying to convince them that this will look cool when it’s actually used in a game, trust us.

LaLiga is also investing in technology that can track players in real-time and send statistics to technical managers on the sidelines, information coaches’ decisions on whether players should be taken off, moved around the field, or motivated more aggressively. It’s calling this service Media Coach and it’s made it available to every club for free, all of whom are using it, the league said. Coaches can see live updates on iPads, and there hasn’t been an acrimonious sponsorship debacle with these as there has been with similar efforts in the NFL.

These broadcasting advancements have been tested in American football, a sport that is manufactured for television, with its constant breaks in play, heavily demarcated fields, and incessant replays. Whether all that can translate into more viewers for the more free-flowing, technical, and subtle sport of Spanish soccer, is unclear.

But LaLiga’s moves do show just how far the NFL’s impact—culturally and even technically—is felt around the world, even at a time when its own viewership is declining, and domestic debates rage over whether the sport is killing its athletes, stifling free speech, and encouraging violence.

We can all agree one thing, perhaps: Those True View shots look really cool, don’t they?