IEEE Vis is a huge gathering of data visualization researchers and practitioners. This year, for the first time, it offered a workshop on data visualization in sports. What follow are a few thoughts on the current state of sports visualization. Sports coverage in America is dominated by one name: ESPN. They have a hand in almost every sporting event at the professional level. ESPN is also primarily a television company, and unfortunately for sports visualization, television and data visualization are largely incompatible. Data visualization often requires careful study and interaction, and television affords neither of these. During a sporting event, the opportunities to show stats last a matter of seconds, and there is certainly no opportunity for interactivity.
Many sports will always be well suited for the television format, so data visualization’s incompatibility with the format will probably exclude most sports visualizations from being televised. There is some hope for live broadcast sports visualizations, however. Many people watch sporting events with a laptop, tablet, or smartphone at their fingertips. These formats are the perfect place to supplement the broadcast with extra information in data visualizations. This type of augmentation could add a lot to the experience of watching a sporting event. They could provide insight into strategy, show the likelihood of success of a play, or just provide some background on a player’s performance.
If you are a sports fan, be excited! ESPN is aware of the limitations of visualization in television, and they are working hard on techniques that do work well in a seconds-long non-interactive environment. Most of their work is focused on augmented-reality type visualizations that add information to live action footage. This work is technically challenging and expensive to produce, but it creates flashy visuals and definitely adds value to the broadcasts. There is some interest in developing visualizations for those second screens, as well, but as long as their profits are driven by TV, it may be slow going. Drew Skau is Visualization Architect at Visual.ly and a PhD Computer Science Visualization student at UNCC with an undergraduate degree in Architecture. You can follow him on twitter @SeeingStructure