Even if you don’t follow hockey, most Uni Watch readers are probably aware that the NHL has begun using digital ads on the dasher boards this season. As you might expect with a new technology, there have been some glitches with the ads, which has resulted in several articles and a lot of social media chatter, most of which has been about jumbled ads overlaid on each other (as shown above) or about players “disappearing” into the ads, as seen here:
Those are the most obvious problems. Yesterday, however, a guy named Dan Bagley posted an absolutely epic Twitter thread that went much deeper in analyzing the problems with the digital ad program. Many of these problems are things that just make the game feel subtly wrong while you’re watching it, even if you can’t fully put your finger on why. As Bagley wrote at the top of the thread, “The digital board ads have made hockey physically more difficult to watch on TV this season. Putting aside any philosophical concerns about commercialization, there are a number of technical reasons why it hurts your eyes to watch this.”
I was so impressed by Bagley’s thread that I got in touch with him and asked if we could reshape it into a guest-written Uni Watch post. He readily agreed.
As you’ll see in a minute, Bagley knows more about digital ad technology than the average fan. That’s because he’s worked as a technical exec for cloud software companies and a video-encoding and livestreaming start-up. He’s also a big NHL fan, so the combination of hockey and live video quality is of particular importance to him.
With that, I’ll let him fill you in. Take it away, Dan.
Hard to Watch: The Problems With the NHL’s Digital Ads
By Dan Bagley
When the NHL’s new digital ad technology works well, it’s easy to see why league executives viewing short clips or still images approved this scheme. Indeed, during low-motion stoppages in play when the players are not near the boards, the ads can look realistic and impressive.
In my view, glitches like the one shown at the top of this page are the least serious problem on the list. They’re comical but fairly easy to ignore (although they do illustrate the immaturity of this technology and why it should have never seen the light of day to begin with).
But while those glitches are annoying, the digital ads present several other problems that are more subtle and, therefore, more insidious. The first and most obvious one is that the digital boards eat pucks in play. Depending on the rink, the lighting, and the speed of the puck, by my estimation about 50% of the pucks sent up the boards either completely or partially disappear. In this clip, you can see it happen twice in rapid succession:
#1 – The digital boards eat pucks in play. Depending on the rink, the lighting, and the speed of the puck, by my estimation about 50% of the pucks sent up the boards either completely or partially disappear. In this clip we see it twice in rapid succession … (2/n) pic.twitter.com/uwJQca7wKg
— Dan Bagley (@mrdanbagley) December 6, 2022
If we slow that clip down, you can see the puck disappear and reappear as it passes into and out of the yellow portion of the dasher boards:
Slowing this clip down, you can see the puck exit and enter TV view as it passes from into and out of the yellow portion of the dasher boards. Even for an experienced hockey viewer, this is incredibly disruptive to the viewing experience … (3/n) pic.twitter.com/7w0VNjUxpq
— Dan Bagley (@mrdanbagley) December 6, 2022
Slowing it down even more, you can see the puck reappearing under the Capitol One ad in the corner:
Even for an experienced hockey viewer, this is incredibly disruptive to the viewing experience. But for a novice viewer, it’s downright catastrophic. It’s hard enough to follow the puck under normal conditions, but having it disappear completely several dozen times per game substantially raises the barrier to entry for a novice fan.
The next problem is motion blur. Any time the camera pans rapidly from side to side, as it does many times throughout an NHL game, most of the shot is going to be naturally blurred. But the digital ads are added after the shot, so they are the only thing left in focus, as seen here:
Interestingly, this problem was even worse early in the season, as the ads were rendered with far more sharpness. Apparently, the NHL was aware of this issue and applied a uniform blur to the ads to reduce the sharpness. Unfortunately, the added blur is applied at the same level at all times, which is arguably even worse, as your eyes still realize something is wrong but have a harder time processing what it is.
Another issue: The ads are color-matched to the white of the dasher boards, yet the digital shade of white is rarely correct, and is often too bright or too sharp. Here’s a good example:
In addition, in this next shot you can see noticeably different shadows on the yellow boards that are not reflected in the ads, and a spotlight that is cut off by the ads:
These are all classic examples of what’s known as the uncanny valley effect — your brain realizes something is wrong about this picture, but you struggle to process it in real time.
The league has also made several questionable design choices, most notably the decision to allow animation in the digital boards while the puck is in play. Aside from being distracting, the animations often have some questionable overlaps with each other, as seen here:
Exacerbating all of these issues is the fact that the digital boards are only displayed on the main cameras. This creates a cognitive disconnect when the broadcast shifts to a secondary camera, particularly one with similar angles, because the digital ads are suddenly not there anymore:
The digital ads have also led to audio delays during broadcasts. The ads are inserted via a separate (presumably cloud) system, which means the main camera feeds must make a round trip to this system before being combined with play-by-play audio. So if you’ve heard your favorite broadcaster describe something a moment before you see it happen on your TV screen, that’s because the delay on the play-by-play audio is not correct when inserted over the main feed.
So where do we go from here? I fear the NHL has locked in these ad contracts, so getting them shut down mid-season seems unlikely. But I hope that the NHL turns this off for the playoffs and does not pollute the postseason with this level of eye strain. As much as a jersey patch or helmet ad may be annoying, I would take 100 new physical ads over this virtual setup.
Paul here. Faaaascinating stuff, no? Between this and my recent story about the NBA banning cream uniforms because they conflict with digital on-court ads, it’s clear that ad creep is having a serious effect on the on-ice and on-court product.
Please join me in thanking Dan Bagley for sharing his observations and expertise with us. Again, you can see Dan Bagley’s original Twitter thread, from which this article was adapted, here. It generated lots of good discussion, so feel free to comment over on Twitter (and also here on Uni Watch, obviously).