- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 27, 2002

Very few, if any, sports fans watch a game on television because of a specific announcer or piece of technology. But recent broadcast enhancements like the yellow 1st and Ten line in football and the K-Zone in baseball have grown so vital, many viewers now think something is missing when a telecast does not have those elements.
Sportvision Inc., the New York-based company behind the yellow line and K-Zone, thinks it has struck on something big once again with its Virtual Playbook. The playbook aims to render the traditional TV telestrator pen obsolete by showing football formations and strategy using three-dimensional animation. Instead of a random series of scribbles drawn on top of videotape, the viewer instead sees precise, computer-drawn lines and formations drawn underneath players that move in synchronization with replay tape and automatically re-orient themselves when a different camera angle is selected
ESPN will roll out the technology again tonight during the Washington Redskins-Indianapolis Colts game.
"This may take a little more time to roll out relative to [the 1st and Ten line and K-Zone]," said Bill Squadron, Sportvision chief executive. "This season is really the first full year we've had it out there. But in time, this will make the telestrator seem so primitive. This is complex technology, and it's not inexpensive. But it really allows the [game] analysts to fully depict and break down what's going on down on the field."
Another key element of the Virtual Playbook are its passing and rushing charts. In those, offensive tendencies are displayed graphically like many standard charts but also can be mapped out relative to various defenses played by the opposition.
The technology behind Virtual Playbook has existed for several years. But only in recent months have ESPN and Sportvision felt confident enough to run the key trick behind Virtual Playbook: putting together the animation with the game footage and doing it in real time. The runaway success of the 1st and Ten line has emboldened the companies to push onward.
"Conceptually, this is all very simple, but there's a lot of technology, a lot of science behind this," said Charlie Dixon, an ESPN producer serving as a liaison between the network and Sportvision for "Sunday Night Football." "Every mark, every notation advances frame-by-frame with the action. The telestrator pen is static and can't do that."
ESPN executives say another key behind making the Virtual Playbook work is Joe Theismann, lead analyst for the network's Sunday night games. Not unlike ESPN colleague Ron Jaworski, Theismann has steadily carved himself a niche as one of TV's more astute football analysts on Xs and Os.
In the booth, Theismann uses a stylus to make his notations on a computer generated football field. In fractions of second, those notations are coded into the computer system and attached to the video to form one new and seamless presentation to the viewer. Then Theismann immediately has to switch gears and explain his point to a mainstream audience.
"Joe has a real understanding for using the technology and making it work on the fly," said Jay Rothman, ESPN's senior coordinating producer for NFL coverage. "Some of our guys might not have any clue with [Virtual Playbook]. When we want to go X's-and-O's, we want to make a statement, and Joe has allowed us to do that."
Contract details between ESPN and Sportvision regarding Virtual Playbook have not been disclosed, but the 1st and Ten line, a less advanced technology, costs about $30,000 a game. ESPN uses the technology between four and 10 times a game, depending on events in the game itself. As the Virtual Playbook continues to proliferate, cash-strapped networks are expected to help pay for it by attaching its use to commercial sponsors.
Virtual Playbook also has been used in basketball broadcasts, and its base technology also transfers to graphic enhancements for coverage of golf and motorsports. But the technology arguably stands best suited for football, still by far America's favorite spectator sport.
"This is a whole new way to see and understand the strategy of the game," Squadron said. "As we've said from the beginning, we're trying to use these tools to enhance viewer enjoyment and understanding and not just have this stuff for show. We think this keeps in that goal extremely well."

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