How Technology Brings the NFL Super Bowl to Life
The NFL has come a long way since its first national broadcast on NBC in 1939. What began as a simple presentation of a football game has evolved into a spectacular combination of sport, entertainment, and storytelling. Each Super Bowl pushes the boundaries of technology as we find new ways to inform, celebrate, advertise, and connect. Some innovations have followed a predictable trajectory—such as improved image quality—while others are so unexpected they are still the topic of debate years later.
In this article, we’ll dive into a few of the technological marvels that have shifted how we Super Bowl, starting with cameras.
The Various Cameras Used
The Super Bowl broadcast relies on a broad array of cameras to capture all of its action and spectacle. Because these cameras are variously owned by the NFL, the stadium, and dozens of broadcast stations, there’s no standard other than versatility. That said, Sony cameras are an evergreen presence in Super Bowl telecasts, and the Sony VENICE 6K was used to capture the 2022 halftime show.
While sources vary in their estimates of how many total cameras will be present in Allegiant Stadium on Sunday, it’s safe to assume that that number will be in the triple digits.
Electronic Field Production Cameras
The bulk of the game is captured with electronic field production (EFP) cameras, such as the Sony PXW-Z750 4K, which are designed to deliver a studio-grade production in the field. EFP cameras have been employed in broadcast for decades, and remain essential to televised sports. Along with the Skycam system and crane-mounted cameras, EFP cameras capture most of the action on the field.
Hand-held and Shoulder-Mounted Cameras
While EFP cameras perform plenty of figurative heavy lifting during Super Bowl shoots, the literal heavy lifting is the province of roaming operators who use hand-held and shoulder-mounted cameras equipped with high-quality prime lenses and stabilizers to capture detailed, candid shots of coaches, players, and other activity at field level.
Skycam and Crane-Mounted Cameras
Given that the NFL and FAA prohibit the use of drone photography during NFL events, the Skycam camera system—which was conceived by Garrett Brown, creator of the Steadicam—remains the standard for capturing aerial shots during games. The Skycam, which is outfitted with a camera like the Sony HDC-P50 or ARRI ALEXA, a zoom lens, and a microphone, glides up and down the length of the field, capturing otherwise impossible footage and audio. It’s capable of moving in every direction thanks to the motorized optical fiber cables that stretch from the camera’s mount to the pulley systems stationed at each of the four corners of the stadium. The footage from the Skycam makes its way to a production center where a pilot, aided by obstacle-avoidance and 3D-mapping software, directs the camera’s motion along the pulley system while an operator controls the camera’s pan, tilt, zoom, and focus. The Skycam system is typically augmented by at least one crane-mounted camera.
PTZ and POV Cameras
It goes without saying that the above-mentioned cameras are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to broadcasting the Super Bowl. A wide variety of other specialty camera types will undoubtedly be deployed.
Pan-tilt-zoom (PTZ) cameras’ expansive ranges of motion make them a crucial piece of the Super Bowl production arsenal. A single operator can remotely control multiple PTZ cameras from a centralized location, using them to rapidly track and zoom into the action on and off the field and to instantly switch among different camera angles to always get the most exciting vantage point. PTZ cameras typically include an automatic motion-tracking feature and the option to pre-program certain movements and angles, giving the operator even greater command over what they capture.
Unique even among these specialty cameras is the pylon-cam setup, a system of miniature high-res cameras embedded in the goal-line and sideline pylons that give viewers an immersive close-up view of the action on the ground. While the cameras in the pylons that move down the sidelines are wireless, the goal-line cameras are hardwired with breakaway cables to prevent injury. Finally, small, GoPro-esque Marshall POV cameras are positioned behind each of the goalposts to capture field goal and extra-point attempts.
The first truly instant replay debuted in 1963, at which point it was simply a short playback meant to highlight a notable play or critical error. Today’s instant replay obviously still operates on the same principle—recording a video feed and playing it back—but technological advances have made it an invaluable tool not only for broadcasters but NFL officials and teams as well. Operators still mark in and out points for the clips as they record and typically play them back at reduced speed, but now a single operator with a single source has been replaced by a few dozen operators with a growing number of potential camera sources—and angles—to choose from. The use of high frame-rate cameras capable of smoother slow-motion playback has made replays more visually appealing, and some broadcasts have augmented standard frame-rate cameras with AI to simulate a higher frame rate. All of these advances give replay operators more control over the speed of their clips to prevent them from looking “jittery” like the replays of yesteryear. Technology upgrades have also made telestrations, the hand-drawn graphics over replays, faster and more visually appealing.
Insertion graphics look as if they’re actually a part of the image being captured, such as the first-down line that seems to be magically painted on the field every time an official moves the chains, or the line-of-scrimmage highlight graphic that’s repositioned at the start of every play. These differ from graphics that are keyed downstream, or on top of the camera feed, like telestration drawings, the score bug, and lower-third information.
Several key pieces of tech are needed to pull off this effect, including some very powerful computers. Because each stadium and field is unique, these computers must model a virtual stadium and field from measurements taken by an array of cameras before the game. Then, each camera used to generate insertion graphics has to be “instrumented”—or have a way to communicate pan, tilt, zoom, and focus movements—back to the software. All of this information is necessary for the graphics system to know where it should draw the line. In order to make the line “appear” on the field, the system has to establish two color palettes: one that determines the colors the line can “write over”—the colors of the field, in other words—and another that contains the colors it should never “write over,” like the teams’ uniform colors. As a result, the graphics look like part of the field itself but don’t appear on top of the players the way telestration lines do. This process works similarly to the green screens used by meteorologists when presenting weather reports. The operator must constantly tweak the color palettes to account for changes in lighting, weather conditions, and other factors that can cause shifts in the color values. Operators also work with a spotter in the press box who helps them ensure that they are placing the line in the correct position for the down.
These are just a few pieces of technology that the NFL uses to capture the Super Bowl from dozens of angles and make the viewing experience better with each year. Production at this scale takes millions of dollars in equipment, months of planning, and hundreds of hands on deck to make sure the viewer’s experience is at the utmost quality. When done correctly, the average person gets the best seat in the house, in the comfort of their own living room. Did anything about this level of production surprise you? Feel free to chime in in the comments below – and let us know who you’re cheering for the big game this Sunday.
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