Sky Sports are deploying avatars to help them gain audiences for the new 100-ball cricket competition The Hundred.
Billed as a world first in broadcasting, the avatars of big cricket stars such as Jos Buttler, Moeen Ali, Heather Knight and Ben Stokes were created using motion capture technology to enhance coverage Sky TV.
Avatars are also available for fans to download and use at home as augmented reality experiences through The Hundred and Sky Sports apps.
Speaking to IBC365, Sky Sports cricket director Bryan Henderson said cricket stars were “gamified” as avatars to attract a younger audience.
The ambition is to make cricket more accessible and interactive, and thus win over new fans. “Everyone is invited to this competition, no one is excluded. The goal is to try to make the sport sustainable and engage a newer, larger and larger audience, ”said Henderson.
In fact, the avatars are just one of the many technological innovations Sky is rolling out for its cover of The Hundred, which itself is designed to attract a wider audience to cricket (see box below).
Bright, bold and colorful graphics are also used for The Hundred to attract and engage viewers. Sky also plays all of the women’s games and nine of the men’s games on its free Sky Cricket YouTube channel, rather than putting the competition entirely behind a pay wall. Sky Sports also produces The Hundred remotely and bases around half of the 100 production workers for the competition outside of Sky in London.
Sky’s in-house agency, Sky Creative, worked with Dimension Studios’ MetaStar avatar solution and motion capture specialists Target3D to create the avatars. The augmented reality experience was created by immersive experience agency Arcade using Unity gaming software.
The avatars themselves will appear on screen as augmented reality images to complement Sky’s commentary. Presenters will be able to talk about a player’s hitting or bowling action through the avatars.
Meanwhile, at home, the public will be able to use the Sky Sports or The Hundred app to pair the avatars with their smartphone’s video camera and overlay them on their garden, hallway or kitchen table.
Sky Creative Director of Innovation Jason Landau explains that before filming with all the players to create avatars there was a test day to walk through the technology and plan how to work with the cricketers. .
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The Hundred (July 21-August 21) is a new format of short and fast cricket, each game lasting less than three hours. The format is simple: 100 balls per team, most runs win.
The Hundred features eight new teams from seven cities, with men’s and women’s competitions side by side: Welsh Fire (playing at Sophia Gardens in Cardiff), Southern Brave (at Southampton’s Rose Bowl), Northern Superchargers (Leeds’ Headingley), London Spirit (Lords), Trent Rockets (Nottinghams Trent Bridge), Oval Invincibles (London’s Oval), Manchester Originals (Old Trafford) and Birmingham Phoenix (Edgebaston).
The matches will be broadcast live on Sky Sports and BBC throughout the competition. Sky broadcasts all 68 games on its dedicated channels The Hundred Channel and Sky Sports Mix. The BBC, meanwhile, will broadcast 10 men’s and eight women’s games as well as the two finals. Each match will also be broadcast on BBC Radio 5 Live or Sports Extra.
The English Cricket Board (ECB) is pushing the new format to attract new audiences to the game, amid research that cricket lags behind other sports in popularity with children and young people. Currently, most cricket viewers are from older, white, ABC1 backgrounds, and the ECB is keen to expand the game to a wider audience and communities. Research has also shown that 75% of families prefer shorter games and that non-cricket fans would be more interested if the game was easier to understand.
Sky’s commentary team is also diverse, with 50% ethnic minorities and given gender parity in coverage and promotion. Andrew Flintoff, Kevin Pietersen, Tammy Beaumont and Dinesh Karthik will be part of the Sky Sports broadcast team. The language around the commentary also changes to make the game more accessible; for example, the gender-neutral term “drummers” is used rather than “drummers”.
Cricketer Lauren Bell came in for the day and created an avatar of her game that could be tested for the app and for TV broadcast.
“The test day was so useful,” says Landau. “There’s obviously so much that you’re trying to do technically, but you’re also thinking about how best to work with the talent and make it the best experience for them. We have learned a lot. Adding to the complexity of the shoot, the production team also had to plan with Covid’s safe shooting protocols in mind.
The shoot itself lasted three days at Twickenham Stadium, in a large reception hall furnished with a cricket net inside.
First, the players were taken to a dark room for a facial scan, with images taken by 19 cameras arrayed 180 degrees around their heads. Each player had to put on a headband to pull their hair back (avatar hair is added later in 3D, so it can react to movement).
Then the players were placed in motion capture suits with around fifty optical markers on each. Then they were taken to the cricket net, which was surrounded by 30 cameras. These cameras track optical markers as the player’s bats, bowls or wicket guard them, helping to create an accurate interpretation of their unique movements as the basis of their avatar. They also wore special sensitive gloves so that they could follow the movements of their hands. For bowlers, this was especially important as it allows viewers to see what each player’s fingers are doing as they play.
Finally, a facial capture rig is placed around each player’s head to record their manners such as smiles and blinks so these can all be applied to their avatars to add personality.
The images were then delivered to Dimension so that they could create each player’s specific avatar.
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Landau says each of the players were keen to get involved during the shoot and took the time to perfect their shots or bowling actions for the cameras.
“I’ve never been on a shoot before where the talent asks if they could have one more. They know it’s their specialty [cricket] shot, and they want to get it right because they know it’s going to be crawled on TV or available to people in the app.
As The Hundred prepares to air, the big question is how the avatars will be received. Sky may be able to roll them out on its other sports covers.
“If they’re good and people like them, there’s obviously going to be a lot of interest,” says Henderson. “Who knows where this could lead.
- The avatars will make their broadcast debut in The Hundred’s opener on the 21stst July from 6 p.m. on Sky Sports The Hundred (404).