Wednesday, February 13, 2019

NHL Puck and Player Tracking Review


The NHL gave its new puck and player tacking technology its first test drive with fans during the 2019 All Star Game, and as with most everything new, opinions were very much mixed.

I was able to watch the game on two different platforms: television, where the technology was minimally included, and the NBC Sports app, where the technology was heavily implemented. I was also able to watch the game with three other people: one who is an avid hockey fan, another who is a more casual viewer, and a third who is relatively new to the sport.

One aspect of the technology which stood out to me was the trail which followed the puck whenever it was passed from player to player or shot towards the net. What I liked about this feature was that it was not overly distracting; the trail itself was a light gray color (unlike the garish neon of the 90s era “glow puck” that Fox Sports utilized) which I felt could be easily ignored if I wasn’t interested in it. My friend who is newer to hockey found the trail was helpful for her when the puck was bouncing or being shot astray, as it helped her to be able to find the puck more easily.

The names and statistics of players being shown above their heads proved to be the most polarizing aspect of the new tech. On TV, these labels only appeared sporadically, while on the app they remained there the entire time the players were on the ice. Even without being a permanent fixture on the TV, all of my friends who were watching complained that they were distracting and had a habit of (unintentionally) covering up the puck while it was in play.

One thing I didn’t like about the app’s feed, where the technology was being actively used throughout the game, was how much information they put on the screen at once. I was expecting to see the players’ names and some other stats above their heads, but I was not expecting for the game itself to be surrounded by information on the bottom and right hand side of the screen. The lower section told us which players where on the ice and how fast they were going, while the side section displayed the speed of the previous shot, player leaders for the game (in terms of goals, assists, ice time, and shots) and different statistics for each team on the ice (such as shots, faceoff wins, takeaways, and time spent in the offensive zone). Sometimes, this side rail would change to highlight a specific player on the ice. I was viewing this stream on my phone, and watching the game felt very difficult because of how small it had to be shrunk down to accommodate the live stats around it. If this were being broadcast on TV, it would definitely be better, but I could still see it being an issue for people who don’t have large screen TVs.

The NHL has admitted they “wanted to overdo it” on the trial run in order to garner the most accurate feedback from fans. This meant they sometimes turned features within the system on or off, making the ice seem more or less cluttered with statistics. In another example of utilizing technology, NBC followed social media comments during the game and made adjustments to the tracking system accordingly.

Two days before this test run, commissioner of the NHL Gary Bettman announced that puck and player tracking will be deployed in every arena for the 2019-2020 season. While many fans are unhappy with this decision, I think that this is a good move for the sport. The system could definitely use a bit more tweaking, but the NHL has plenty of time to do that before next season, and they have plenty of feedback from their (very passionate, very vocal) fans to take into consideration.

After watching the game with my friends, I realized that this new technology could go a long way in helping new or casual fans to better understand the sport of hockey, and continue to help it grow. And while the more experienced and die-hard fans might be annoyed by the new graphics, it is definitely interesting to have so many up-to-the-minute statistics available at our fingertips to further analyze the game and its players. I do hope the NHL continues to make some adjustments based on fan feedback, and gives us options on how much of the technology we want to see at one time. But ultimately, I believe this is a move that not only advances the NHL technologically, but also benefits the league as a whole.

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