How the NHL invaded ‘Big City Greens’
Less than a week away from the Washington Capitals’ game against the New York Rangers on Tuesday night, the Sportzshala crew still wasn’t sure how they’d handle the goal video during the game.
Usually this shouldn’t be a cause for concern. But usually the referee is not an animated 3D chicken.
“When the referee comes out to make the announcement, we’ll just listen to the referee’s microphone,” Sportzshala director Jeff Nelson said. “But wait… this is interesting. I need to find out if the chicken is really going out on the ice for something like this.”
These were the questions asked and answered backstage for months as Sportzshala, Disney and the NHL teamed up for the first broadcast of its kind: an entire hockey game recreated in real time in a virtual environment featuring 3D animated players. whose movements were synchronized with what was happening on the ice at Madison Square Garden thanks to puck and player tracking data.
NHL Classic Big City Greens is a live, real-time 3D animation of players and teams modeled after characters from the Emmy award-winning Big City Greens show. It’s scheduled to air Tuesday at 7:00 pm ET on Sportzshala+, Disney Channel, Disney XD, and Disney+. The traditional TV broadcast of the game between the Rangers and the Capitals will be available on Sportzshala and Sportzshala+.
The virtual game will take place in the “Times Circle” of the big city and will feature animated avatars of real players in an NHL game. When Alex Ovechkin hits MSG, the NHL Edge tech on his jersey and puck will record it, and the player in the Big City Greens Classic jersey will do the same.
But along with real players, characters from the show will participate in the game. Gramma Alice and her son Bill will replace the starting goaltenders for the Capitals and Rangers. Cricket Green will replace a player at the Rangers and Tilly Green will replace one at the Capitals. Other characters may be involved later in the game and during intermissions.
The game’s announcers, Drew Carter and Kevin Wicks, will be broadcasting from Sportzshala’s Bristol studios in motion capture suits. Their animated avatars will appear on air.
“We were amazed. It’s an incredible achievement and such a cool way to watch hockey,” said Chris Houghton, who co-created the animated show with his brother Shane. “It all came together so quickly and it’s all visualized live with real players skating on the ice.”
Real players… and one chicken referee.
“Chicken referee,” said Nelson, smiling. “As soon as he shoots the puck, he runs off and reappears when the faceoff comes.”
Less than a week before the broadcast, Nelson and his team were still trying to determine what viewers would see and hear from the chicken referee in the goals review.
Can a chick just say the sound taken from the microphone of the judge on the ice in MSG? Well, that would lead to another complication: it was already determined that a chicken would sound like a chicken. For example, if a controversial penalty is awarded during a game, virtual announcers will be able to interview the chicken judge, who will justify his challenge with passionate clapping, clucking and other bird sounds.
The chicken judge wasn’t always the chicken judge. In fact, many aspects of this landmark broadcast have morphed and changed over the past few months. But none of this would be possible without the data that will be used to run virtual capitals, rangers, cricket, and Grandma Alice on Tuesday night.
“It’s been almost a year since we figured out the technology,” said Joanna Goldblatt, programming and purchasing manager for Sportzshala, who helped lead the project. “Tracking the puck and the player was critical to making this happen.”
Big City Greens visits the Big Apple! Don’t miss the Big City Greens Classic tomorrow at 7pm ET. @DisneyPlus, @Sportzshala & @Sportzshala Plus! pic.twitter.com/EuoWUKewFo
— NHL (@NHL) March 13, 2023
NO NHL start tracking your players and pucks, meaning referee chicken or whatever immersive technology she can use today.
“Did we think about the metaverse then? No, we didn’t think about the metaverse,” said David Lehansky, NHL executive vice president of business development and innovation. “We thought about statistics and analytics, new data and storytelling. We thought about visualization of broadcasts. We thought a little about games. But we didn’t think about it.”
For years, the NHL has been trying to figure out how to collect real-time data during games using technology. The 1990s saw the derision of the FoxTrax “glowing puck” which housed an array of infrared emitters and electronics inside the puck. The NHL began to get serious about puck and player tracing again in 2014, although its cost and some quality control issues with pucks posed problems for growth.
The latest incarnation, dubbed the NHL Edge and based on SMT, has become the league’s most successful version of puck and player tracking. It collects data using sensors on players’ uniforms and inside the puck itself. There’s also an optical tracking component that checks this data “within milliseconds,” Lehansky said.
The data goes beyond the location of the player and the puck. Sensors measure speed and distance for skaters and their strokes, among other data points.
Now that it had a tracking system it was confident in, the NHL began chasing the big ideas it had for that data. For example, using real-time puck and player tracking to recreate a hockey game in a virtual 3D environment with animated players and camera angles that could not be achieved in the real world.
This is what the Netherlands-based company Beyond Sports has already done for professional football matches. The NHL partnered with the firm to show demonstrations of virtual hockey games that could be viewed on screens or in VR goggles. The players were big and blocky. The action was slower than in the actual game. But the potential of the technology was obvious, and since then it has only improved.
When the NHL entered into new media rights agreements in 2021, brainstorming began on how to use the technology for an alternative virtual broadcast of NHL games.
“In a very short time, it kind of exploded. At some point, we just thought about doing something small,” Lehansky said. “Then it quickly grew and grew because of the purchase from Disney.”
Beyond Sports and the NHL presented their technology to Sportzshala during the 2022 Stanley Cup Finals. Ed Placey, vice president of the Sportzshala Event and Studio Production team, was one of those invited to watch.
“I dive into many of our innovative manufacturing approaches and new technologies,” he said. “So I get called to a lot of meetings to look at technologies that someone finds interesting and want to know if there is something “out there”.
Placey was sitting in a conference room at Sportzshala Seaport’s New York offices watching the game between the Colorado Avalanche and the Tampa Bay Lightning on two screens: a live game on one and a real-time re-creation of the game in virtual space on the other.
After hearing real game after game and watching the virtual game, Placi said the way forward is clear: take the game seriously…but laugh a little in the presentation.
Since it was established that there was something “out there”, Goldblatt started talking to Disney Family Networks and found interest from Disney XD.
“They study sports more and are really intrigued by technology,” she said. “The greenery of the big city seemed like a great opportunity, especially with connections to the Houghton brothers.”
Green Big City by Chris and Shane Houghton first aired on Disney Channel in 2018. It is about a farmer named Bill Green who loses his home in the countryside and takes his children Cricket and Tilly to move in with Grandma Alice on a small farm in the middle of the Big City. (They will eventually return to their farm in Smalton.)
Shane Houghton said the brothers have always loved hockey.
“When we were kids, there was a pond on our parents’ property, and when it froze over in the winter, we would lace up our skates, grab hockey sticks, skate and hit each other with the puck,” he told Sportzshala. . “I don’t know if I would call it ‘hockey’ correctly, but it was definitely ‘hockey style’.
Over time, the brothers entered the University of Michigan and went to the Spartans hockey games there. “We often got great seats right next to the action. No sport makes the blood beat faster than watching hockey,” said Shane Houghton.
For the NHL and Sportzshala, the partnership with the Big City Greens has provided an opportunity to attract new potential fans to hockey — those that the NHL is pursuing demographically.
“We want to meet the fans where they are,” Goldblatt said. “And if this is an environment where you’re more interested in watching hockey, then why don’t we take advantage of, you know, Disney as a whole? it only makes sense for us because we want to develop hockey and grow fans who are interested in it.”
Even if the sport in question is not always brought up on ice.
“Will we see Cricket and Tilly Green in a fistfight?” Goldblatt asked with a laugh. – That’s a big question, right?
SHORT ANSWER No, there will be no fisticuffs between Big City Green characters or virtual capitals and rangers on Tuesday night.
“The most important thing they ask us is what happens if a fight breaks out,” Placey said. “Well, you won’t see punches being thrown or arm waving or anything. At best, you’ll see players bellybutting more than anything else.”
Chips on players’ jerseys do not track the movement of body parts. They interpret the position of the puck in relation to the player. The Virtual Capitals and Rangers will fight with their sticks and control…