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How The NBA Fixed Its Instant Replay Problem

This season, the league launches a $15 million experiment in real-time video splicing.

How The NBA Fixed Its Instant Replay Problem
[Photo: via NBA Replay Center]

Last season, NBA games were interrupted 1,800 times by this familiar scene:

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Photo: Flickr user Keith Allison

Those are refs huddled courtside over a small monitor, watching instant replay. They’re trying to get the call right: who fouled who, say, or which team knocked the ball out of bounds. It often takes minutes, time that fans assumed the refs spent deliberating. Not so. As it turns out, since the NBA began instant replay 12 years ago, the league had an overly convoluted system of getting them the right footage–and to fix it this season, the league invested $15 million into completely rethinking the way it processes video.

The old system went like this: When an instant replay was needed, the NBA relied on its TV broadcast partners–ESPN or TNT, say–to patch in the necessary footage. The video came from an on-site station truck in the arena’s parking lot. But the producers there didn’t work for the NBA, and were preoccupied with their actual jobs of producing a live basketball broadcast. They would ultimately provide the replay, but some refs have said that there were times when they couldn’t tell if a producer was talking them about the replay or to someone else in the booth. And broadcast trucks were never really set up for this task, so they could only provide one angle at a time. Each subsequent angle piled more minutes on the review. Meanwhile, the broadcasters were also trying to show the best of this footage to their TV audiences–and frequently, viewers at home would see it all faster than the refs would.

The solution to all this is now set up in the one-time storage room of the NBA’s Secaucus, New Jersey, offices. A $15 million makeover turned it into a glowing Replay Center, which is connected to all 29 arenas and outfitted with 20 replay stations and 94 television monitors. During live games this season, replay operators will sit around the perimeter of the room, each watching on three different video screens, and poised to clip and beam the best angles directly to refs when they’re needed. Three room supervisors will oversee them. “This technology was specifically designed for the referees use and is not widely used in broadcast,” says Steve Hellmuth, the NBA’s vice president of operations and technology. “It provides the ability to zoom on any picture and quickly set up split lines.”

The replay operator uses this machine to scrub video clips from the footage.Photo: Matt McCue

The replay operators can see up to nine different court angles at a time, everything from an overhead court shot to a side view. Whenever a replay operator spots a moment that might require instant replay–and there are 15 of them, from possible goaltending to shot clock questions–the person will pull that video clip and save it to the computer system. If the refs request a replay of it, the operator quickly finds the best angle of the situation and sends it electronically to the game’s courtside monitor. The program uses touch screens that are automated, allowing the operators to select different viewing angles, zoom in to a specific location and send clips all with the tap of a button.

The Replay Center is the result of two years’ worth of experimenting, headed up by Hellmuth. He oversees everything from the court lighting to digitizing the league’s entire library of more than 400,000 hours of game footage. (An art history major at Princeton, Hellmuth gives hope to liberal arts undergrads wondering what to do with their degree.) His department tested the Replay Center during the 2014 NBA Finals and this past preseason.

The NBA doesn’t yet know how much the technology might speed up the game’s total run time, but the operators have been able to help facilitate preseason calls in as little as 10 seconds by anticipating the refs’ needs. “We want as much advance notice as we can get, so our cameras follow the refs during timeouts,” says Joe Borgia, NBA vice president of replay operations. “When we see the three of them coming together, we tell each other in the Replay Center to prepare for a possible replay.”

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The Replay Center operators are a mix of basketball junkies and young professionals with digital backgrounds. Usually, they’re a combination of both, but not always–and training, as well as the technology, may require a little finessing. “In the second game of the 2014 NBA Finals, I asked one replay manager to give me an overhead shot,” recalls Borgia. “He gave us the blimp. I told him I wanted the overhead in the arena.”


And if natural disaster strikes in Seacaucus? New Jersey may be plunged into chaos, but the NBA will still be able to deliver the right instant replay to its refs. The facility runs 100% on batteries and has a generator that can keep the operation humming for seven consecutive days in case of an emergency. “We have had two hurricanes and an earthquake here, and the generator hasn’t even had to kick on,” says Hellmuth. “We’re prepared.” (Though if the connection between the courtside monitor and the Replay Center does somehow get interrupted, the TV broadcast trucks will be prepared to take over their old jobs—and the staff from the Replay Center will get patched in to the courtside refs through the broadcast trucks’ audio feed.)

All this isn’t just to speed up replay reviews, though. Additional technicians will collect game highlights to push out across the NBA’s social media platforms. The NBA has even hooked its courtside staff photographers up to the system. Any shot the photographers take is automatically sent back to the Replay Center where the NBA entertainment department can instantly upload the image into its mobile apps. According to the NBA, the network has enough capacity to download the entire digitized content of the Library of Congress–more than 158 million items–in 30 minutes.

And fans who aren’t content watching instant replays can now add a level of meta to their NBA watching: They’ll be able to watch the replay reviewers conduct the replay reviews. The Replay Center has a TV camera filming it, so whenever a replay is reviewed, the viewers at home can see what is happening in real-time via the broadcast.

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