The NHL’s tech-heavy strategy to attract young fans

NEWARK, N.J. — Although the Buffalo SabresYou were playing New Jersey DevilsThe digital avatars of the participants mimicked every move in virtual reality.

Get your VR goggles. You can touch a button and see the game through the eyes a skater is making for the shot. You can touch it again to switch your view to the goaltender trying to save the puck.

Thanks to the NHL’s puck-and-player-tracking technology, it’s in real time and it’s immersive. It can also be delightfully silly depending on the way the user views the game. This one featured the Roblox-inspired blocky design characters of the Sabres, Devils, and the Virtual Universe.

This is by design. NHL Edge is a tracking system that can be used to assess players and plan coaching strategies. However, the NHL sees data as a way for younger fans to be attracted to hockey.

“How can we make the game more fun for children?” The NHL’s executive vice President of business development, and innovation Dave Lehanski stated that what they want to do is add something new to the experience. The in-arena experiences are what we can improve. You can stream live-games from anywhere outside the building. There’s also the “crazy stuff”.

The NHL and its technology partners gave a glimpse into the future of fandom on April 21st during the Sabres’ visit at Prudential Center. Many of the presentations seemed to be targeted at Gen Z, a tech-savvy audience that Gary Bettman has long aimed for.

Bettman led the NHL’s first ventures into esports. In fact, in 2019, the NHL created a youth advisory panel called NHL Power Players. But it was puck-and-player-tracking tech that Bettman has indicated could be something that breaks through to Gen Z. It was difficult not to notice that potential in New Jersey.

Augmented reality

In the first period, Sabres & Devils traded scoring chances. The scoreboard showed the total number of goals and shots on goal. A running clock kept track of how much time was left before intermission. Beyond that, the Jumbotron did not provide much context to tell the game’s story.

The screen of the iPhone, which was pointed at the game via a luxury box made from center-ice, told a different story. Reality can only tell so much. Augmented reality paints a complete picture.

Lehanski explained that it uses the NHL Edge tracking data to allow fans overlay it onto the actual game.

The game changes when you point your phone at the ice. The puck’s movements around the ice are accompanied by streaks of color. If there is a faceoff, both players will be displayed their success probabilities. Click on any player to see real-time tracking stats such as skating speed or on-ice time. These can also be displayed in percentages for each zone.

Eric Nagy, Verizon’s director of innovation and sports partnerships, said, “Here you can see the speed and it’s tracking him in the real-time.”

Each player and each team are tracked on their shots and attempted shots. Click on “attacking map” and blue blotches will appear on the Ice to show where a team attempted shots during a specific player’s time on the Ice. This can then be used to help focus on that player’s chances. The “defending heat map” shows where a player was during the opponents’ offensive chances.

Each player has real-time tracking stats, which range from average icetime to average skating speeds. Video highlights are also available, and can be viewed during the game.

This is the type of trivia and data that will keep fans engaged during live action in arenas, as well as allowing them to enjoy an enhanced version of their favorite game.

The NHL, Immersiv, Verizon and Verizon created the AR in partnership. It is expected that the AR will soon be available in arenas for fans to view from their iPhones. However, the ultimate goal of the AR is to be integrated into wearable technology like Nreal glasses or other innovations.

Lehanski explained that season-ticket holders who show up in their suites 41 nights a calendar year should have 16 seats and 16 pairs glasses. They can also put on sunglasses if they wish.

Virtual reality

Watching Sabres Forward Kyle OkposoIt’s enough to make anyone flinch when you do a forecheck, even though it’s taking place in virtual reality headgear.

Beyond Sports has developed the digital real-time recreation of NHL games. This allows for the fulfillment of one of the long-term goals of player and puck tracking: The ability of players to view the play in 3D and from different angles. Beyond Sports has already developed this technology for professional soccer matches, and it is now perfected for the NHL with real-time tracking data.

Two examples of the VR tech were displayed at the Sabres Devils match. Oculus headsets allow for an immersive experience, allowing one to feel like they are in the arena on the ice. There was also a 2-D digital replica of the action with “Roblox-like” players. The NHL considers this to be an alternative stream to live games. It is something that young fans might view on Twitch.

Lehanski views the VR experience as an entry point to the NHL’s Metaverse network, which is a series of 3D virtual worlds that are focused on social interaction.

“Most people see it and say, “It’s VR!” You can put on the goggles and you can see the game in any way that suits your needs. He said that this is not the real point. It’s all about the 2-D experience you experienced on the screen. Roblox is an example because it looks exactly like that. That’s how the NHL got into Roblox and all of these Metaverse possibilities.

Lehanski sees something similar: A young Roblox gamer. The game requires them to climb up a snow-covered mountain. The NHL’s Winter Classic is a virtual stream that plays once they have reached the top.

Other broadcasts

One common thread in all of his technology is this: The NHL wants to present hockey in ways that appeal to Gen Z.

Why not a complete broadcast that does that?

The NFL has successfully broadcast games on Nickelodeon, for example. The NHL might not be skating through virtual slime pits anytime soon but it may try to do something in the same tradition. Problem is the infrastructure required to broadcast.

According to Vizrt, an NHL partner, the solution is cloud-based production. Alternate feeds can be created remotely by three people, but none on-site.

AWS and Cloud were used to create an alternative feed for the Sabres/Devils game. It was created by three producers: one in New York’s NHL offices, one in Hermosa Beach (California), and one in Toronto, which created game-analysis clips. AI was used to create graphics using information from the Cloud.

Vizrt’s Kevin Bovet said, “We truly believe this is production’s future and we want to demonstrate that it is available today.” “You can create as many feeds and as many viewers as you wish. You can even combine hand-held cameras with fans in premium seats.

Lehanski suggested that NHL’s nimbleness might allow them to produce a youth-oriented broadcast.

“We don’t need three trucks for one broadcast. Let’s get rid all the infrastructure. We want to produce five broadcasts. We need more creators. There is a broadcast for children, a broadcast for betting, and a broadcast about statistics. We want that to be our goal.

The Sabres won 5-2 over New Jersey at the last buzzer. Young Devils fans wearing Jack HughesThe concourse was filled with jerseys that were carried into the evening.

Upstairs were the iPhones, VR headsets, and tablets. These items were packed away, as they displayed ways to get fans excited to return the arena and get their friends excited for the NHL.

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