PGA TOUR includes Cloud for All Access; Unreal Engine Driver Next-Gen Virtual Hole Flyovers

The manufacturing operation is ‘100% dependent on data’

The PLAYERS Championship is increasingly a collaboration between PGA TOUR Entertainment and NBC Sports, and is part of a larger effort to give international rights holders and golf fans what they want and need: access to more personalized content, data and graphics-driven storytelling, and a better understanding of the game and its players.

PGA TOUR’s Mike Raimondo and team continue to enhance the fan and rights holder experience.

“When the new TV rights agreement began in 2022, we began sharing on-course and TV Compound equipment with our network partners,” says Mike Raimondo, VP, Broadcast Technology, PGA TOUR. “With the TOUR’s expansion of coverage with PGA TOUR Live, we’ve made cameras, microphones and data like Trackman with them.”

As an example, Vox Media Studios, which produced the Netflix show Full swingis on hand this week, working on season two and operating a Hawk-Eye system out of PGA TOUR Live truck in the PLAYERS complex. The TOUR put a few replay outputs on it and have made it available to others. As a result, rights holders have access to additional camera feeds and playback signals, providing more opportunities to deliver what golf fans want.

Raimondo says, “That’s the kind of thing we’re moving more toward with shared resources.”

The biggest improvement viewers will notice in the coverage will be course flyovers, where the announcers take the viewer from tee to green and discuss the hole and its layout. The PGA TOUR invested in two drones to make the flyovers even more detailed: one drone-capturing topology, the other equipped with LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) to create more accurate 3D course measurements. LIDAR enables more accurate capture of the bumps and dips that make TPC Sawgrass such a challenge. The data from the drones is sent to an Unreal Engine managed by augmented-reality graphics specialist ARL to create the new experience.

According to Alex Turnbull, Senior Director, Broadcast Production, PGA TOURthe use of Unreal Engine 5 has been the primary focus of the TOUR’s work with NBC and the Golf Channel.

“We now have a complete 3D representation of TPC Sawgrass rendered using Unreal Engine,” he explains. “It’s absolutely beautiful as we integrate it through ARL’s engine. We’re taking all the bells and whistles that ARL brings to the table and putting Unreal on top.”

PGA TOUR’s Alex Turnbull on the PLAYERS TV complex

Waves of greens, for example, or the moguls to the right of the 18th hole will be featured, Turnbull notes. The surreal graphics expected to be used this weekend range from flyover plate inserts with TrackMan tracking to custom animations that tell stories via Stadium Stats.

Another important aspect of the technology is camera matching, where the final image of the virtual flyover is matched to the POV camera on each tee box. During recent tournaments, viewers at home have been treated to a virtual fireworks-like display, with all the tee shots to that point exploding off the tee at once. It has been fantastic in terms of showing how many shots landed on the green.

“Going forward,” says Turnbull, “we’re going to try to visualize the data in a meaningful way and analyze the data and the trajectories and tell stories associated with the shots.”

All the new graphic efforts will be driven by a newly formed dedicated art team that will enable new ideas to be realized more quickly.

Free access includes the cloud

One of the biggest initiatives at PGA TOUR Entertainment in recent years has been All Access, a production effort that gives franchisees and fans complete (every shot) coverage of every group that tees off over all four rounds. Launched in 2020, it required mezzanine-compressed camera and audio signals to be sent to the UK, where Hawk-Eye operators would remotely cut the high-definition footage held at PGA TOUR Entertainment’s facility in St. Augustine, FL. At the time, every piece of equipment was located in the TV complex in six racks of equipment, including Hawk-Eye servers, Trackman and AWS Elemental encoders.

This year, Free Access is very different from where it was at launch.

“We are now 100% live in the cloud,” explains Raimondo. “This year, the only thing in the truck is the AWS Elemental encoders. We’re taking 80 camera feeds and uploading them all to AWS, and all the production is in AWS. We’ve spun up Hawk-Eye servers in AWS, and now we’ve spun up TrackMan -graphics servers up in AWS that track every tee shot. And we can take our data from ShotLink powered by CDW and use Singular Live graphics to create elements.”

There are 32 operators at an Atlanta-based Hawk-Eye facility who log in via laptop, connect to AWS and can start cutting their chosen group. Some work morning and afternoon sessions so 32 people can create 48 streams for the 48 groups on the course.

The switch to the cloud offers a number of advantages. One of the biggest is the ability to get ready for the show without having to wait until all systems go.

“It allows us to test a month before,” notes Raimondo, “to spin up a whole bunch of instances in AWS, load raw data, test it and make sure everyone can connect. Then we can spin it back down and spin it up again, as we did here on Monday.”

Also new this year is that virtually all the graphics for Every Shot Live are automated. ShotLink data is connected to the API, automating the entry of information such as who is playing and what their score is. It can also create a dropdown menu with information such as yardage or putting distance. In addition, an automated breaking news feature can deliver a message to all 48 streams with a score update, and the PGA TOUR can automatically create a cut of each player’s round and deliver content from WSC Sports for social media distribution.

The PGA TOUR Entertainment facility in St. Augustine, about 30 minutes down the road from TPC Sawgrass, is also heavily involved in this week’s action (as well as everything else in other PGA TOUR coverage this season). It is home to the production of Featured Groups and Featured Holes seen on ESPN+. NEP Supershooter 24 is parked outside the PGA TOUR Entertainment facility and has been retrofitted to fit four mini control rooms into the A unit. The B unit accommodates playback and audio mixing; The C unit, three voiceover rooms for talent.

“The switcher, the graphics, the EVS playback control surfaces are connected as data (from the track to St. Augustine),” says Raimondo. “If it’s 3,000 miles away in Pebble Beach, California, we still control it from St. Augustine. We don’t send camera feeds, but instead monitor wall feeds from the site. We rely 100% on data, and after some firmware updates all the latency issues went away.”

Looking forward to 2024

One piece of technology the PGA TOUR is testing on six holes this week is optical image tracking cameras that use AI technology through the Bolt6. The Sony images and lenses will be housed in waterproof housings, and multiple cameras will be located on each hole, collecting hundreds of data points.

Optical image tracking cameras using AI technology through Bolt6 are being tested at the PLAYERS Championship.

“It will drive data into our graphics engines and drive the use of data in other areas as we combine the Bolt6 data with TrackMan data,” says Raimondo. “There will be many things we can do on the broadcasting side. But right now we’re gathering data and figuring out what’s good, what’s bad. Next year, you’ll see more improvements in both our app and the broadcast.”

Next year, PGA TOUR Entertainment will roll out a new production truck that can handle five shows (the four Featured Hole/Group feeds and full tournament coverage), ideally in 1080p HDR for CBS and NBC or 1080i HDR for ESPN+.

“Everything in the TV connection will be IP-based and it will be 1080 HDR,” says Raimondo. “Each hole will have a tee camera and a TrackMan unit on each tee box, and we will also have a TrackMan unit on each and every green, as we do here at PLAYERS.”

These efforts will raise the quality of each tournament, put them all on a more equal footing in terms of innovation and ultimately deliver more value to the rights holders, fans and everyone involved in the PGA TOUR. And when a new 165,000 sq.m. manufacturing facility opens in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL, in 2025, it will signal another giant step for everyone.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: