Football mad: enhancing the fan experience with 5G and Augmented Reality
“Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it's much more serious than that.” (Bill Shankly, former Liverpool Football Club Manager)
On 16 December 2020, Vodafone, Sky and Ericsson collaborated with Germany’s Bundesliga to trial the impact of 5G on the football experience at Dusseldorf Fortuna’s Merkus Spiel-Arena in Germany. The trial used Dusseldorf Fortuna’s 5G-enabled stadium to experiment with new ways of producing sports coverage as well as investigating how 5G could improve the fans’ experience.The impact of COVID-19 on live sports
In 2020, live sport was devastated by the pandemic. Major sports fixtures from Wimbledon, the Grand Prix and even the 2020 Tokyo Games were cancelled, but arguably the biggest impact on professional sport was seen in European football arenas. By March 2020, Belarus was the only country in Europe that was still playing professional football, which did wonders for their TV viewing figures.
Currently, the status of football in Europe varies. Matches are played in front of extremely limited crowds or empty stadiums. – nothing like the capacity crowds that Europe’s football leagues are used to. In the UK, there is much debate over whether English Premier League games should continue at all, with fixtures regularly being cancelled due to coronavirus outbreaks or key players being forced to self-isolate allowing junior players to take the field. There are huge concerns about the lack of socially distanced celebrations. Most of us accept that the football experience has changed forever (or at least for a long time).
The Fan Experience
My brother took my nephew to see “his team” Arsenal Play at the 60,000 seat Emirates Stadium.
My 9-year old nephew asked after hearing a loud cheer, “Did they just score?”
“No”, said my brother, “trust me. You’ll know when Arsenal score”.
When they did the noise was incredible. Thirty-thousand people cheering. It is an incredible feeling and an incredible experience.
TV today can’t give you that experience, but perhaps using 5G, it can offer a better, more immersive fan experience.
There are two major challenges that live football faces in the post-COVID world. The first is how to improve the experience of fans in limited capacity stadiums and at home. The second is how to improve the technical process of filming, editing, producing and broadcasting live TV in a more immersive but COVID-secure manner. Thankfully, 5G can solve both these problems.
Andreas Heyden, Executive Vice President Digital Innovations of the DFL Group:
"5G will permanently change the production and distribution as well as the interaction with the content of the Bundesliga. We look forward to the results of this test."
The Deutsche Fussball Liga (DFL) – the operating company behind Germany’s Bundesliga – is well-known for being innovative. In 2020, the Bundesliga beat the National Basketball Association (NBA) and World Wresting Entertainment (WWE) to win the prestigious ‘Best Sports Project Award 2020’ at the DreamlandXR Music, Technology and E-Sports Festival in Las Vegas for their collaboration with Vodafone on the use of 5G in sports, and 5G is one of the five key technological innovations that DFL is investing in to digitize sports.
During the 2019/2020 season DFL developed a new immersive AR application for fans. The application provides images, statistics and match analysis as an AR overlay in real-time, and in the future, the application will show even more granular data about players and their performance.
One of the limitations of watching sport live is that the spectator doesn’t have access to the match analysis and commentary that the TV viewer has. With augmented reality, application spectators have access to real-time analysis, video playback and goal-line technology – and can even hear what the referee is saying to players or the line judges. In fact, with 5G, the spectator in the connected stadium may get an even richer experience than the viewer at home.
To enhance the 5G fan experience and improve media production, the Bundesliga stadiums have to be fully 5G-enabled to provide coverage AND capacity to every corner of the stadium. The average attendance (pre-COVID) at Bundesliga games is 43,000 spectators in an incredibly dense area with a huge percentage of spectators using LTE/5G-enabled smart phones throughout the game. By “5G-enabling” the Merkus Spiel-Arena in Dusseldorf, Vodafone has hugely improved the 5G capacity and coverage of the stadium to support new and innovative services.
The Bundesliga application is expected to generate 500Gb/s of data traffic within the stadium. Added to this, the stadium expects to use 5G connectivity for media broadcast and in-stadium retail such as electronic point-of-sale (ePoS) terminals in bars, restaurants and souvenir stalls. Stable, reliable and above all high bandwidth, 5G can have a major impact on stadium operations: doing away with miles of wires and cables and providing flexibility to reformat the stadium for other events such as concerts and conferences.
However, expecting high-volume consumer services with thousands of active smartphones to work alongside mission critical, high-quality services like media broadcast or electronic payments without interference is unrealistic without additional technology. Smartphones are designed to behave aggressively in networks to provide the best possible experience to their users, meaning that they do not “play well with others”. This is where network slicing comes in.
5G network slicing
Ericsson has been working with Vodafone, Sky and the Bundesliga to provide a sliced 5G network. A network slice is a logically defined private network. It’s a protected, prioritized allocation of bandwidth, resilience and latency carved out from the wider public network.
I like to think of a network slice as the equivalent of flying first-class on an airplane. It doesn’t matter how crowded it gets in coach class, no one interferes with you stretch out on a fully reclining seat drinking free champagne.
While to some observers this may seem unfair, it’s critical for delivering high-value, highly demanding real-time services such as video transmissions from a live football match. The ability to stream live coverage of football matches is the key to unlocking the huge TV revenues demanded by Europe’s top flight football leagues such as the English Premier League, Bundesliga, La Liga who stream the games in real-time to bars and homes across the globe. For the clubs streaming games, the stakes couldn’t be higher and the penalties, if you’ll excuse the pun, for transmission interruption mean that 5G couldn’t be considered as a video transmission technology without this type of protection. 5G is the key enabler for the fan experience, but 5G slicing is the key enabler for live sports broadcasting.
5G enabled cameras
A key part of the 16 Dec 2020 trial at the Dusseldorf Fortuna vs. VFL Osnabruck match was the use of 5G enabled cameras.
To understand why 5G SIM enabled cameras are important you need to understand the challenges around filming live sports events. Many stadiums have permanent fixed cabling for broadcast, but even with permanent cable miles of cable has to be laid to connect cameras to the outside broadcast trucks which carry out on-site editing and production. The need for cabling limits the flexibility of the cameras and the shots the camera crew can get.
The outside broadcast trucks, effectively mobile TV production studios, have a staff of 5 to 6 and typically each major football match has two (N+1 redundancy). They are expensive to build, expensive to hire and in the post-COVID world difficult to make bio-secure. This creates challenges for the broadcasters, like Sky, who have a duty of care to their staff.
5G-enabled cameras allow more flexibility for TV cameras, and 5G-enabled smartphones can be used to augment traditional TV cameras. This is because the powerful cameras on many of the newest smartphones can be used to record and stream very high-quality 4K images. In 2015, the film “Tangerine” which was shot entirely on iPhones won accolades at the Sundance Film Festival for its high production quality. Modern smartphones are able to stream broadcast-quality video.
The other key benefit of 5G-enabled cameras is the ability to stream video off-site to alternative production locations in real-time, potentially bypassing the need for expensive outside broadcast trucks.
Opportunities for citizen journalists and fan TV
Another key opportunity with 5G-enabled smartphones is the ability to improve the fan experience by enabling citizen journalists and celebrity influencers. For example, some fans may prefer to watch the match filmed by a citizen journalist from the stands to get a more “genuine” experience.
5G enables smartphones and star-players, celebrities and influencers to stream, comment, answer questions in real-time. How would you like to hear a commentary on the match from the team captain seconds after reaching the dressing room, perhaps shot by a teammate? How would you like to watch the game from the viewpoint of the team mascot? Anything is possible and offers the opportunity to provide “long-tail” content that personalizes the experience and increases engagement.
Virtual transmission centers – COVID-secure media production
I’ll talk about the virtual transmission center in detail in another blog in this series, but it’s interesting to understand the impact of 5G-enabled stadia and 5G-enabled cameras on media production. The ability to stream live footage to either a major TV production center, which would be much easier to make COVID-secure, or allow TV production to be carried out by home-based workers is a game changer for the industry. It has the potential to make huge operational cost savings, but also enables TV production staff to carry out the media production task in real-time from their homes. This is the concept of the “virtual transmission center”.
Why 5G-enabled stadia and sliced networks are essential
The game on the 16 Dec 2020 undoubtedly proved the potential of 5G to change the way live sports is filmed and produced and highlights how sports coverage will evolve over the next few years.
Vodafone, Sky and the Bundesliga have successfully tested these new concepts with the help of Ericsson as a technology partner. However, none of these innovations could take place without two key capabilities in place:
- 5G-enabled stadia
- 5G network slicing
To use 5G for real-time video production the stadium must be fully 5G-enabled. This means that coverage and capacity at the site must be planned in detail. Every location in the stadium must have 5G coverage including the pitch, the stands, the access tunnels and dressing rooms. However, simple coverage isn’t enough the stadium must also have sufficient capacity to support the needs of broadcast, commercial services and of course thousands of individual spectators. The Bundesliga believe that their application will generate around 500Gb/s of data which is the equivalent of downloading 100 DVD-quality movies per second which is a phenomenal data rate.
Compared to that the commercial media production service only needs a few 10s of Gb/s but with a much higher resilience and ultra-low latency to protect the broadcast coverage, but that is still the same as 10-20 households’ peak usage. It’s important to recognize that without additional protections in the 5G network it would not be possible to provide this type of reliable cable-free TV production service. Simply 5G-enabling the stadium isn’t enough, you must have network slicing.
Charly Classen, Executive Vice President Sports at Sky Deutschland:
"Based on the first live test with 5G at a Bundesliga soccer match, we want to demonstrate together with our partner Vodafone the potential that lies in the use of the new mobile communications technology in our sports productions. In the future, wireless cameras will offer us completely new opportunities to get even closer to the fans in the stadium.”
5G network slicing
The TV production service needs a sliced network to be viable. The 5G broadcast slice is a logical sub-network which shares the same physical infrastructure of the stadium but is protected from interference from 1000’s of smartphones simultaneously using the network. Network slicing is the enabler for this commercial service, and this is Ericsson’s role in the project.
The Ericsson Orchestrator creates and maintains an end-to-end network slice across the core network, the transport network and the radio-access network (RAN) which provides a service with guaranteed bandwidth, resilience and latency regardless of anything else happening in the wider network. This network slice enables a high-value enterprise service for the broadcaster.
In a recent report by Dell’Oro, 69 percent of service provider CEO’s believe the largest incremental revenue opportunity for enterprise is 5G, and when you see the impact of 5G slicing on live sports broadcast you can understand why.
Football, as they say, is a “game of two halves”. What we’ve seen in the first half is a dazzling display of new technology with the promise to change the way we view and experience sport forever. In the second half we expect to see more sports leagues, communications service providers and broadcasters leveraging this technology to make what we saw at the Dusseldorf Fortuna vs. VfL Osnabruck a much more mainstream approach. 5G has the ability to make the “beautiful Game” even more beautiful in the future, or if not beautiful certainly more engaging for the football fan.
Read our network slicing white paper:
Want to know more?
Find out more about the Sky, Vodafone and Bundesliga trial.
Find out more about the Bundesliga’s 5G-enabled application.
Read more about Ericsson’s network slicing solution.
Read more about Ericsson’s connected stadium solution
Read more about Core network
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