Game on: How 5G can transform the fan experience

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Upcoming sports events, such as the Tokyo 2020 and Paris 2024 Olympics, will be important arenas to showcase new digital capabilities that enhance the spectator experience. So how can 5G, AI and extended reality solutions help sports clubs around the world build a deeper relationship with their fans?

The combination of 5G with edge computing, AI and extended or mixed reality (the collective term for augmented and virtual reality) will transform the sports fan experience by creating immersive and interactive experiences in stadia, at home and on the go. According to recent research by Ovum, 94% of European mobile network operators intend to deliver new 5G services to major live sports venues and sports event organizers by the end of 2020. We’re expecting a big push during the Tokyo 2020 and Paris 2024 Olympic events with mobile operators showcasing what the technology will be able to do in the future for every sports club and fan.

With speeds up to ten times faster than 4G, greater capacity and much lower latency, the potential for 5G in stadia is huge. 5G improves the live sports experience for consumers at the pitch and on their sofas with opportunities to capture more camera angles and view real-time match data while improving broadcasting economics.

Broadcasting transformation

According to Dom Tait, Principal Analyst at Ovum, “Perhaps the most exciting aspect of 5G from a sports fan’s perspective will be a more personalized viewing experience, either in the stadium or at home. We will provide [the ability for fans] to watch their own games from their own perspectives as an athlete on the field. Imagine being at home with a VR device as 360-degree video of the 100m Olympic final plays out. You’ll be immersed into the live experience while on your sofa. This is the promise that 5G offers.”

Ovum’s study suggests that 63% of operators plan to offer VR and AR services to fans at stadia, getting them closer to the action than ever, enabling hi-definition video and much more.

5G will allow content to be captured from additional camera angles to create 360-degree videos. Footage will come from drones, behind-the-scenes filming, IoT sensors and mobile phones, all of which can be incorporated in less time and with better economics. This makes it possible to analyze and share match data on an individual player’s performance or a team in real-time, overlaid on images of players on the pitch. It enables sport fans to choose their own vantage point throughout the game or race, supplemented with fully mixed 3D VR audio, announcer commentary, VR-like graphics, and these real-time stats.

Orange Vélodrome

Orange is already delivering a better fan experience at the Orange Velodrome, home of Olympique de Marseille, a French football club. Under a multi-year technical sponsorship deal with a goal of driving innovation in many areas, Orange is delivering public 5G mobile connectivity. This will be used for many use cases, including AR/VR to provide advanced on-site user experiences, for example differentiated audio experiences for each spectator or 360° video in 8K Ultra High Definition (UHD) quality within the stadium.

Orange Velodrome is the first 5G stadium in France. As part of the project, Orange is co-innovating with a start-up called Augmented Acoustics to create interactive and immersive sound experiences for football fans in the ground. Spectators can use their smartphones, an app and headphones to listen to the multi-track sound coming directly from the sound engineer’s console or make their own mixes. For example, they can add in the sound of the kick of the ball, the atmosphere in the away or home team’s stands and chose their commentary.

An IoT management solution has also been deployed throughout the stadium to improve operational performance and efficiency. A dedicated data room, based on 5G and complementary connectivity, helps the stadium operations such as crowd management, bandwidth management and facilities management.

This year, Orange has also worked on 5G initiatives at the French Open Tennis Tournament at the Roland Garros stadium. The 5G deployment there enables 3D images, 8K, 360° video, extended reality interactivity comprising virtual, augmented and mixed reality options, and more on fans’ mobile devices.

“Digital technology is really judged by consumers on the end-user experience it delivers. Introducing 5G into sports stadia presents the opportunity to provide the type of enriched applications and services people expect on their mobile devices today and VR devices in the future. Connecting sports fans using 5G and real-time information will transform the in-stadium experience beyond recognition.”

Eric Domage, Anticipation and Innovation Strategist at Orange Business Services

5G network slicing

5G will enable networking slicing, which means Orange can divide up connectivity within the stadium into discrete layers to meet the needs of a wide variety of applications with different data transmission rates, latency and quality-of-service needs in a cost-effective way. This will be supported by native use of SDN (software defined networking) in the 5G New Radio core infrastructure.

Different network slices will be used to provide the real-time connectivity that is needed for data- heavy 8K TV broadcasting and to securely operate the camera drones in crowded stadia where safety is a key concern. Meanwhile, the IoT sensor networks, which periodically send back small amounts of data, will need another network slice with different performance characteristics.

Stadia owners will also be able to better manage large crowds on busy match days. Using real-time CCTV footage from 5G-connected cameras and computer vision (AI that is able to detect signs of over-crowding or other safety risks), they will be able to provide proactive alerts via the fans’ mobiles or digital signage around the ground.

At a more basic level, 5G could also end the traditional sports fan complaint of queueing for food and drinks at half time. They would be able to order drinks and snacks direct from their seat during the game. With Wi-Fi and 4G, there hasn’t been the capacity to do this. And fans holding up their devices to see a player’s name and performance stats floating above them as they run about the field in real time will become a common sight.

Meanwhile, 5G edge computing can also relieve the processing burden for AR/VR headsets, meaning they can become lighter and more ergonomic in design. Sports fans could have fun with augmented reality (AR) during the game, upload video clips to YouTube quickly and easily, or allow stadium owners, concession owners and sponsors to create event-specific apps, content and e-commerce opportunities, such as ordering food and beverages from your seat at peak moments like half time.

A global phenomenon

5G is already playing its part in enhancing sports events for fans around the world. In the U.S., fan attendance at NFL games is declining, due in part to high ticket costs but also the fact that people are unable to use their mobile devices while attending games to upload photos to social media streams and watch video replays. A mix of insufficient network capacity on busy game days and attenuation blocking mobile signals in stadia made of concrete and steel prevent mobile usage at scale.

In addition, extended reality (ER) is not possible using 4G technology, because latency is too high and fans can’t get the connectivity they need for it. 5G will change that situation by ensuring there is ample capacity in the stadium to power new services. To address the diversity of use cases required, “in-stadium connectivity will rely on a symbiosis of existing networking technologies, including cable, Wi-Fi and LTE, complemented by early 5G initiatives, such as mmWave and massive MIMO,” according to the GSM Association.

In Germany, 5G will be used to boost capacity at Bundesliga matches. The average Bundesliga match hosts 43,000 fans who between them consume an average of 500 Gb of data during the match, a figure that has increased by around 50% from 2018 to 2019. During the match, fans want to be able to use their smartphones to check scores, post photos and videos on their social media and even view instant video replays of incidents from the game they are there watching.

A little further down the road is the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris, where 5G will enable the richest experience yet for sports fans. The event’s tagline is “Made for Sharing,” a perfect description of the interactivity that 5G will provide, with fans able to upload and share hi-definition video and images via their mobile devices as well as share immersive VR and AR experiences with their fellow fans. Orange supported the Paris bid to host the games with VR and AR demonstrations to help convince judges that Paris was the best venue for them.

“We see 5G as being the catalyst for all kinds of new immersive experiences for sports fans, but also in the B2B arena in mines, oil rigs and manufacturing plants where workers need to be able to access digital manuals and data on equipment they are servicing and receive help from remote experts using videoconferencing. 5G is already making its way into stadia around the world. This is just the beginning.”

Eric Domage, Anticipation and Innovation Strategist at Orange Business Services

Read more about our Roland Garros and Orange Vélodrome 5G projects.

Steve Harris

I’ve been writing about technology for around 15 years and today focus mainly on all things telecoms - next generation networks, mobile, cloud computing and plenty more. For Futurity Media I am based in the Asia-Pacific region and keep a close eye on all things tech happening in that exciting part of the world.