Every professional sports team looks to gain advantage over opponents.
Take the Seattle Sounders FC. This Major League Soccer team has invested heavily in sports science. During practice, each player is outfitted with GPS and heart rate monitors that track where they’re running and how hard their heart is working. That data is fed into a relational database, which allows the Sounders to optimize the training regimen for each player, says Ravi Ramineni, director of soccer analytics for the team.
To truly see the bigger picture, teams increasingly deploy drones, which improve visibility on several fronts. A growing number of professional sports teams gain a competitive edge through technology that includes drones and virtual reality, which offer powerful insights on both micro and macro levels.
Drones Offer a Bird’s-Eye View
“We use drones to film training sessions from a wide angle, so coaches can see if we’ve achieved the goals of that training session,” Ramineni says. “If we’re doing a drill where players need to be spaced a certain way, and if a certain player isn’t doing it right, we can bring him in and show him what he needs to do.”
Drones are more flexible than hand-held or fixed cameras and offer a wider choice of angles, Ramineni says. Because the team usually runs separate drills for forwards, defenders and goalies — options that are difficult to capture on film all at once — drones let the Sounders zero in on specific drills or players in each session.
“If we want to record multiple drills, we bring in a second drone. And because the resolution with a drone is higher, we can zero in on specific parts of each drill with great precision,” Ramineni says.
The use of drones by sports teams isn’t universal, but it’s definitely on the rise, says Michael Blades, a research director for Frost & Sullivan.
“We see professional, college, even high school teams using them to shoot plays,” he says. “That’s because there are almost no barriers to entry. You just put them in a spot over the field and set them to record for 20 minutes. The consumer market is selling drones like crazy because they’re so affordable and easy to use.”
Battery Life and Other Technology Challenges
Filming with drones introduces several new challenges, the primary one being battery life, says Tom Childs, first team video analyst for the Sounders. Childs uses a DJI Mavic Pro to shoot the teams practices and carries six spare batteries with him during each session.
“One fully charged battery will last 25 minutes,” he says. “Luckily, most of our training drills come under that, so it’s just a case of making a quick battery change between drills.”
Other obstacles involve the notoriously inclement weather in Seattle, he adds.
“A strong wind will certainly make the drone harder to control and manipulate in the air,” he says. “I will usually film in light rain, but when it’s heavy, I bring the drone in.”
Team drone operators should ensure they’re in sync with what the coaches look to achieve, Childs advises. That includes everything from the coaches’ desired viewing angles to which players and positions they want to focus on.
“You want to make sure what you’re filming is relevant and useful for coaches and player feedback,” he says. “You need to have an idea of the session you’ll be filming and plan battery changes accordingly.”
Virtual Training in the NFL
The NFL began using drones about three years ago. At the same time, the league also started to experiment with virtual reality as a way to help players improve their skills. Today, the San Francisco 49ers, Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Jets all use technology from Palo Alto-based STRIVR to improve performance on the field.
STRIVR works by placing a stationary 360-degree camera behind the line of scrimmage to record plays during practice. Later, quarterbacks or linebackers can don a VR headset and react to the recording, allowing coaches to see what players see, and whether they’re making the appropriate reads on each play.
The Dallas Cowboys were the first NFL team to sign up with STRIVR in 2015. Shortly thereafter, the team built a dedicated VR training room at its practice facility near Irving, Texas, to help train quarterbacks without requiring the entire squad out on the field.
It’s especially handy for backup quarterbacks who don’t get enough snaps during practice, Head Coach Jason Garrett, a former third-string QB for the Cowboys, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
“As a backup quarterback, you never get enough reps,” Garrett says. “Often, you’re in a situation where you haven’t had the reps in practice and you have to go into a ballgame and play. So for a lot of backup players, we emphasize doing whatever you can do to get yourself ready. This virtual reality system is a good tool for us to take the next step.”
In an interview with ESPN, Garrett added that VR can help coaches do a better job as well.
“It's interesting, because it gives you the chance to see all 11 guys on offense and all 11 guys on defense, but from a closer angle,” he says. “You can see hand placement. You see where they have their feet, where they have their eyes. I think that’s important. You can look at that and coach them better being that much closer to the action.”
Since 2016, the NFL has also used VR to help referees, says Omar Azim Ahmad, director of sports partnerships for STRIVR.
“We’ve built them a library of hundreds of different play situations from all seven officiating positions on the field,” he says. “They use this content to refine officiating mechanics at clinics and meetings throughout the year.”
NBA Offers Fans a New Perspective Through Virtual Reality
The VR revolution hasn’t escaped professional basketball. For the past two years, the NBA has broadcasted one live game per week in virtual reality using technology from NextVR.
Last May, the Detroit Pistons upped the ante by using VR to evaluate draft prospects’ decision-making abilities. Players at the NBA combine were asked to wear a VR headset and answer roughly a dozen questions about where the ball should go based on how the defense was playing.
“The goal is just to get your team better, any way possible,” Jordan Brink, assistant video coordinator for the Pistons, told the Detroit Free Press. “If there’s a feasible way out there to improve performance, we’re ready to navigate those routes.”
VR has begun to replace film for some pro sports teams, in part because studies show that 3D immersive training environments are more effective, says Michael Inouye, principal analyst for ABI Research. It’s also more flexible and efficient. Players can train by themselves, at night, indoors, without having to involve coaches or other players — and that extra bit of training could give them the edge they crave.
“Early studies show that VR has a positive effect on memory retention and processing,” Inouye says. “So, at least initially, teams that use it could have an advantage.”