The 2011 film Moneyball has a simple premise: The general manager of the Oakland A’s, Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt), must assemble a winning baseball team using the franchise’s limited budget. He meets Peter Brand (played by Jonah Hill), a young Yale economics graduate with radical ideas about baseball. He loves player data and wants to use it to help Beane assemble a team.
That season, as portrayed in the film, the A’s did not win the World Series, but the data-driven method Beane and Brand developed was sound, and would be used by the Red Sox to win the 2004 World Series a few years later. Today, sabermeterics is a standard in baseball, used consistently to pick players and win games.
It's just one aspect of how technology is now being embraced by professional organizations across a number of different sports. Some are using tech to improve the fan experience, and others for player safety.
Technology in sports
No matter the use, technology is taking sports to new heights through the following.
1. Numbers, metrics, and new ways of seeing old games
When you think about sports, you think about athletes competing and having fun; they’re playing a game after all.
But really, the game they are playing is a numbers game. Sports are dominated by data and data analytics.
Combine that with ioT (Internet of Things) and you’ve got the tech trend that will dominate sports for the next 10 to 20 years.
On-field cameras and tracking devices embedded into players shoes, helmets, and other gear track players and their statistics in real-time. This allows team coaches and managers to quickly assess undervalued players and dial-in team dynamics that need to be improved.
For instance, Major League Baseball introduced StatCast by rolling out cameras and radar equipment to every team's ballpark for the "gathering and displaying previously immeasurable aspects of the game."
The analysis helps team management pinpoint areas of improvement, award outstanding players, tweak lineups, and more. Once instituted, staff can eventually use the data to create trend-lines and get better at gaming their own success.
2. A balance of talent and analytics
The Golden State Warriors are the NBA team to beat. They’ve been to the finals for four consecutive years and have won the championship twice, with the outcome of their most recent showing still yet to be determined. After years of being among the association’s worst, almost overnight the Warriors have created a legendary organization, and a force of talent that rivals the all-time greats of the sport.
They’ve done it by building great teams, of course. But they’ve been able to build great teams - and get the most out of them - using data.
How? When the Golden State Warriors owner’s son, Kirk Lacob, a Stanford graduate, was made assistant GM of the Warriors’ G-league farm team, the Santa Cruz Warriors, he started using data and statistics to track players. It was a test program for the Golden State Warriors, who were looking to use analytics to improve team performance.
Lacob’s program was quickly a success, propelling the Santa Cruz team to the finals in his first two seasons. His methods were later adopted by the Golden State Warriors, with Lacob joining their front office full-time.
Today, the Warriors still crunch data to dissect their strengths and weaknesses, using a metric called EPV, or Estimated Possession Value. This data point is created by an array of high-tech cameras that track every player, every shot, and every inch of the court. The statistical model captures the action and translates it into formulas that the front office then uses to create plays. In the most simple terms, the model determines where (the specific location on the court, and specific defender guarding against) a player is shooting best to score points.
These high-tech cameras (which were originally designed and used by the military to track missiles) capture 25 frames per second, with six in total usually positioned to cover all the action at any given NBA game. The cameras and analytics system have given NBA teams new and unique insight into a treasure trove of data that has helped them supercharge performance.
3. Virtual reality and the fan experience
Virtual Reality is being used both on and off the field to help improve player performance and give fans a better viewing experience. From a player perspective, imagine a quarterback that practices his passing in a virtual space that looks and feels like a holodeck version of Madden Football. Coaches (and quarterbacks) don’t have to worry about injuries and they can review the data captured to refine the players training.
From a fan perspective, VR will get you closer to the game, and even on the field. FOX Sports partnered with NextVR to broadcast live sporting events using VR technology, and with ticket prices still headed toward the stratosphere, VR might be the best (and most affordable) way to enjoy a game in the future.
For example, don’t like your seat? With VR, you can move your view closer to the field or even take in the national anthem while standing right next to a player on field. Imagine being able to take that home run lap with your favorite pro courtesy of the VR cam mounted into his batting helmet.
4. Smart helmets and better equipment
Much in the way that the movie Moneyball exposed audiences to the fact that sabermetrics was a thing, Will Smith’s Concussion opened audiences eyes to the long-term effects of head injuries on pro athletes, particularly NFL and NHL players.
The NFL has mobilized to address the issue, improving and upgrading equipment using technology. Research found that traditional NFL helmets, for example, were actually not as helpful as once thought to protect players from brain injuries. To that end, Riddell introduced SpeedFlex helmet technology to offer players a customizable smart helmet. Sensors and magnets help detect the collision, and disperse/absorb the impact.
The helmet tech doesn’t end there, as the hit is tracked wirelessly to the sidelines where player staff evaluate concussion data in real-time. The same tech could be applied to helmets for snowboarders, lacrosse players, and more. Mouthguards and other type of equipment is also becoming IoT enabled.
Importantly, while technology is changing sports for us as fans and viewers, it’s doing wonders in the way of increasing player safety.
5. Officiating assistance
You don’t have to watch too many games to know that referees are human—and make mistakes. Technology is looking to change that. While instant replay technology has been around for a while, VR and 360 degree cameras are now giving refs (and sporting commentators) an unprecedented view of the action.
And if you’re wondering if such changes are actually needed or are simply for show, imagine how hard it is for a ref trying to keep an eye on ten different players at a time, all while being heckled from the stands. It’s difficult enough to follow the action from your couch.
Still, though, It’s a sensitive topic, as purists believe the introduction of such tech completely removes the human element; which is something that makes sports entertaining in the first place. Even so, the major sports associations are working to continue to find ways for technology to support human game callers. For example, FIFA implemented goal-line technology which works with live refs to make them aware if a goal was or wasn’t scored.
6. Young athlete development
Fancy player-tracking tech isn’t just for major leaguers—it’s also available for local high school baseball/soccer/football teams. Platforms and wearables like FieldWiz and PlayerTek help coaches and players capture data, analyze it and use it to improve performance. DribbleUp does the same thing for soccer.
In the future, as player metrics and goals become more refined, more apps and platforms will appear that do a whole host of things, from tracking what a player needs to eat to stay in top shape to gamifying a pick up-game of soccer.
7. eSports and new types of competition
eSports’ continue to rock traditional sports associations and their franchises to the core as viewership continues to drop on major sporting events. But major sports franchises (and their owners) aren’t turning a blind eye, and in fact, they’re looking to partner with eSports leagues, teams, and players. There’s even a fantasy league for eSports…
Should video games be considered sport? I think we have our answer. The question now becomes, are eSports the future of sports? It’s hard to tell, but it definitely is going to play more of a role in the future as younger audiences grow up on the platforms.
In the world of sports, tech is building better athletes, and keeping them safer on the field. As fans, it’s helping us follow the action, and in the case of social media technology, helping directly connect us with our sports heroes.
Tech is going to play an even bigger part in sports in the future. And it’s why if you’re an athlete, having an interest in STEM is going to help you in the long run. As these technologies become integrated into play, a solid understanding of STEM can help you make the most of them.
Want to learn more? eSports summer camps aside, enroll your child in any iD Tech program to get them started building the knowledge and skills needed to utilize and even create these incredible technologies.