• 09.09.13

Why The NBA Is Using Cameras To Track Its Players’ Every Move

Previously thought of as a game lacking in statistical measure, basketball is becoming data driven. In the wake of a mathematical revolution, how will hoops measure up?

Why The NBA Is Using Cameras To Track Its Players’ Every Move

Since it first walked onto the court, APBRmetrics has divided basketball culture into two camps: those who believe that basketball is best understood visually and those who believe the game is best analyzed statistically. The National Basketball Association, long thought of as an eye-test league where statistics told only so much of the story, has recently transitioned into a new era of analytics. With cameras now analyzing players’ on-court moves, basketball is becoming data driven.


The shortcomings of APBRmetrics, the old guard argues, are that individual matchups, defensive schemes, and other such subjective elements of the game are not taken into account in understanding individual performance. The new generation suggests simply that numbers can tell you more about how a team performs with certain players on the floor than a coach’s, or a sportswriter’s, eyes can. In the wake of the Sabermetrics revolution, however, the league has reached an agreement with STATS to outfit every team’s home arena with SportVU cameras that track each player’s every move on the court.

The data can, in fact, tell us even more than that. For decades, basketball analysts have relied upon correlational data and nonspecific statistics to measure player and team performance inside specific matchups. The number of statistical categories themselves might very well multiply exponentially. Using technology originally designed to track missiles, however, SportVU cameras can break players down statistically in ways never before measurable. Originally an Israeli company, SportsVU (recently acquired by STATS) has been used for tracking similar trends in football (aka, soccer) now for some time.

The cameras, a six-unit system mounted in strategic locations across the arena, are able to differentiate individual players from one another at all times and offer unique opportunities for comparing individual players as they perform against one another on the court, as opposed to simply amassing and comparing their individual statistics. In short, SportVU cameras might very well close the chasm between Sabermetrics and basketball purists, and give everyone around the game a whole new subset of data upon which to draw conclusions that may very well influence this year’s championship. Long considered the least statistically oriented major American professional sport (especially defensively), basketball now enters the fray as a legitimate contender to the most mathematical baseball, and in a period of particular note: The game is more popular than it’s ever been.

And with the start of the regular season now less than two months away, the NBA has stated that every arena will be outfitted with the technology by the time the defending-champion Miami Heat tip off against the Chicago Bulls on October 29. The technology’s advent, then, may very well usher in an entirely new era of basketball, one where old fogies and young bucks alike meet the game at center court.

[Image: Flickr user dan.m86]

About the author

Matt Hartigan writes about sports technology for Co.Labs. He graduated from the University of Southern California in 2006 where he studied English, Psychology, Fine Arts and spectatorship.