In 2018, esports and traditional sports will continue to intersect, internet companies will double down on media rights, alternate realities will test how consumers watch sports and athletes train, and player-tracking data will be visualized in the NFL and NBA.
If 2017 was the year that leagues started tracking player data, streaming companies started investing big money in media rights and traditional sports team owners started snapping up esports teams, 2018 will be the year all of that starts to mature and play out on an international stage.
1. More streaming options from broadcasters
In the first half of 2018, Turner, ESPN and CBS will all launch over-the-top streaming services for sports programming, as traditional broadcasters work to cater to the cord-cutting consumer.
Time Warner Inc.’s Turner Sports service will launch a direct-to-consumer subscription service that will host the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League soccer matches for a three-year period starting with the 2018 season. Its content will be portalled through Bleacher Report, which Turner owns.
ESPN will launch a new mobile app this spring that will come with a subscription service for premium sports content. The service will feature an additional 10,000 live events to the roughly 16,000 that ESPN aired last year, as well as original content and docu-series.
Unlike Turner and ESPN, CBS plans to launch a free 24/7 ad-supported streaming service. It’ll be the sports version of its over-the-top news service CBSN.
The influx of so many subscription-based streaming options at once, however, may start to overwhelm consumers, experts at PwC warned in a recent report. As sports fans become inundated with options they’ll have to choose where to spend their money to access the events they care about, which will increase competition and force companies to compete both on value of content and other bells and whistles that differentiate their digital services and streams.
2. Amazon, Facebook compete for digital rights
One reason why traditional broadcasters are launching these OTT services is because of growing competition from internet companies such as Amazon and Facebook. These two, which are native to digital streaming, are expected to scoop up more sports rights in 2018.
Facebook hasn’t done much yet with acquiring the rights to major sporting events, but the company was looking last year for a high-level executive to buy sports rights and its founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has dropped hints that Facebook is looking to go in that direction. Facebook has been testing sports streaming at a lower level by acquiring rights for some MLB games and Champions League soccer matches. Facebook also bid $600 million to stream the Indian Premier League professional cricket tour but didn’t win.
Amazon surged onto the sports stage last year by winning rights to stream 11 Thursday Night Football games. The company also announced at the very end of the year that it plans to start testing live sports streaming on Twitch, a social video service that’s been popular within esports. Twitch streamed the final few games of Amazon’s Thursday Night Football deal with the NFL and will stream up to six NBA G League games a week during the 2017-18 season.
Expect both companies to continue to expand those digital partnerships with major leagues and compete for major rights, as well as a further democratization of sports rights now that Verizon Communication has lost its exclusive deal to stream NFL games to mobile phones.
3. Interactive statistics based off player data from wearables
The privacy battle about whether athletes can wear technology wearables during games and how their data may be used by teams and leagues will continue to evolve in 2018, particularly within the NBA.
In 2016, the MLB began to let players wear specific wearables during games and has since banned the use of that data in arbitration hearings. The collective bargaining agreement between the NBA and NBPA bans the use of biometric data collected from wearable devices for player contract negotiations, and it has limited the types of wearables that teams can have players use during practice to a list of approved devices.
While the NBA’s CBA still bans wearables during games, the league is still expected to experiment with wearables in the G League and find ways to visualize player-tracking data during games to enhance the fan-viewing experience in 2018.
The NBA struck a multimillion-dollar deal with Sportradar and Second Spectrum in 2016 to track and visualize game-day statistics, which it plans to use to enhance audio-visual game feeds and broadcasts.
The NFL plans to do something similar. It has placed RFID chips from Zebra Technologies in every uniformed player’s shoulder pads and game balls and plans to work with both Zebra and Amazon to uncover new ways of visualizing gameday data collected from those chips next season.
Expect much of this to begin to play out in 2018 via interactive statistics that increase engagement on social media. Twitch, for example, already supplements its streams with interactive stats and graphics as well as a livestream of comments from fans. If this takes off, other streaming companies, broadcasters and leagues will offer similar immersive content in hopes that it increases viewership.
4. Predictive games will be adopted by more teams
The gameday and player-tracking data will start to unlock opportunities for predictive analysis in 2018, which will help fans make more well-informed decisions about their fantasy leagues and potentially give them an edge in an emerging crop of mobile games that allow fans to call real-time shots during games.
Last season, the New York Jets, in conjunction with technology company Xperiel, launched a game called I Called It, which enables fans to make predictions on game plays in exchange for winning points that can be redeemed for merchandise. A few NBA teams are now offering fans similar games, including the Sacramento Kings.
With technology tracking factors such as location, speed and acceleration of players and balls in real-time, fans might be able to receive probabilities regarding certain outcomes on the field, such as a receiver’s ability to get open and an offensive line’s ability to protect the quarterback.
For now, teams are using these predictive games to drive advertising revenue in the form of interactive advertisements, such as encouraging fans to buy and scan barcodes of sponsored products to receive bonus points in games. But one could see how this data could further enhance the fan experience once the privacy issues are worked out and more wagering games come to market.
5. Multiple ‘realities’ begin vying for sports fans’ attention
In 2018, Magic Leap will finally unveil its mixed reality headset after years of stealth development. When the Magic Leap One Creator Edition ships in 2018, it will host a range of sports viewing experiences, including watching multiple sports events at once by virtually imposing screens in a user’s field of view, while bringing the user’s room to life with a stream of interactive statistics and a leaderboard.
Another company called ThirdEye Gen Inc. plans to launch an augmented reality device that can also enable multiple screen viewing and data overlays at the Consumer Electronics Show next week.
These follow efforts by the NBA this past year to expand the use of virtual reality content through a partnership with NextVR, and Taqtile’s efforts to use mixed reality from Microsoft’s Hololens to inundate sports fans with data about athletes at live events.
Sports viewing in alternative realities has been talked and experimented with for years. With Magic Leap finally launching a product after several years of secrecy and hype, though, expect augmented and mixed reality companies to double down on efforts to vie for sports fans’ attention.
These multiple realities will also play a larger part in the way athletes train. Several NFL teams, including the Dallas Cowboys, and NFL referees are already using STRIVR virtual reality technology to train. And that will continue into 2018.
Other companies, such as Everysight, are working on ways to supplement training with data overlays in augmented reality. In February, Everysight will begin shipping an augmented reality headset that will place GPS, navigation, speed, distance and other key informationin the line of sight of cyclists. The company eventually plans to expand to other sports where athletes could benefit from hands-free information, such as sailing, snowboarding or skydiving.
6. Stadium connectivity upgrades
New Wi-Fi standards and LTE upgrades in 2018 will begin to solve the connectivity issues at stadiums, enabling stadiums to up their technology game to enhance the fan experience.
In 2018, manufacturers will begin making available 802.11ax, a new wireless standard that is expected to significantly improve WiFi access and efficiency in high-density public spaces, such as stadiums.
While it may not begin popping up in Wi-Fi offerings and enhancing stadium operations until the second half of 2018, new upgrade plans being drafted for venues this year will begin to take 802.11ax into account, according Benjamin Brillat, Chief Architect for IBM’s Global Sports & Connected Venue services team.
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802.11ax will be anywhere from four-to-10 times faster than existing Wi-Fi, according to Zeus Kerravala of Network World. But even a bigger deal than that, the network will appear to be much less congested than the existing WiFi standard of 802.11ac.
Brillat believes it will be a “game changer for WiFi” and “be on top of anyone’s mind looking at new WifI projects.” As stadiums and arenas increasingly become tech-savvy with mobile games, apps, social interaction, augmented reality experiences and contactless payment solutions, this will be an important next step that venues will look toward to make operations run more smoothly during games.
Also look toward the Winter Olympics and Super Bowl this year for the introduction of 5G LTE at high-density events. Intel will bring 5G connectivity to the Winter Games in PyeongChang, while AT&T will deliver 5G services to the Super Bowl in Minneapolis.
7. Esports mimic traditional sports
In 2017, traditional sports owners flooded the world of esports. Their influence will begin to take shape in 2018 as a number of esports leagues kickoff their first seasons and rely on their traditional sports franchise owners for guidance.
When the new Overwatch League’s regular season begins next week, it’ll include teams hosted by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, New York Mets Chief Operating Officer Jeff Wilpon, Los Angeles Rams and Denver Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke and Philadelphia Flyers governor and parent company Comcast Spectacor CES Dave Scott.
While sports owners and franchises are investing in multiplayer online battle arena games that are typical of esports, 17 NBA franchises will also start operating teams in an NBA-run professional esports league called the NBA 2K League, featuring Take-Two Interactive Software’s basketball video game.
These investments in esports could start to vastly expand the lucrative sports franchises that already exist. The Golden State Warriors, for example, will have both an NBA 2K team and a League of Legends team in the North America League of Legends Championship Series.
This complements Twitch’s plan to start streaming NBA G League games — representing a further meshing of what had up until recently been two distinctly separate but equally competitive worlds.
Traditional sports team owners will look to learn more about streaming, which has driven esports’ success to date among a younger demographic of global consumers, while esports will benefit from the extensive experience traditional sports owners have in merchandising and running live events.