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ESPN merges reality with gaming graphics

ESPN has collaborated with EA Sports, a division of Electronic Arts, to develop a new system that allows its commentators to interact live with realistic-looking, 3-D virtual players. Together, the two companies have combined the look and feel of a video game with live television for a high degree of interactivity, flexibility and a new enhancement tool for in-studio sports analysis.

Called EA Sports Virtual Playbook, real-world studio and game images of virtual characters are combined to create the effect of “augmented reality” — virtual players appearing in the studio alongside real hosts and analysts. The network has big plans for the technology. In addition to its normal use, they want to use it in reverse to play the ultimate Monday morning playback. Using real information from a game, ESPN anchors can reprogram an actual sequence to show, for example, what would have happened had a quarterback thrown right instead of left.

EA Sports Virtual Playbook debuted Sept. 7 as part of ESPN's “Sunday NFL Countdown” show. The technology will also be used throughout the season for the sports network’s “Monday Night Countdown” and “NFL Live” shows. ESPN said it might also be used at times in other ESPN programs.

The visual effect is created using feeds from in-studio HD cameras as well as an in-game camera that captures EA Sports in-game graphics depicting real game scenarios. Both real and virtual people are able to move realistically around the studio set to demonstrate plays and scenarios. The system accommodates, and in fact is controlled by, multiple HD cameras that are in the studio.

For the 2008 NFL season, commentators on ESPN’s shows will use the EA Sports Virtual Playbook technology to analyze game matchups, demonstrate offensive and defensive schemes, and highlight mismatches as if the players were alongside them in the studio.

In 2005, ESPN and Electronic Arts announced a 15-year integrated content and marketing agreement for ESPN media and personalities and EA Sports games that includes ESPN content integrated into multiple EA Sports titles and EA Sports content appearing across a variety of ESPN media platforms.