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A Deep Aesthetic Analysis of the NHL’s Digital Board Ad Glitches

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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:

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 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).


 

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Comments (34)

    All I could think of while reading this was:

    “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

    Great analysis, Dan. The moving ads are terrible. Even in soccer, where the pace of play is obviously slower, your eye is immediately drawn up to the zooming car or bouncing ball or whatever ridiculous nonsense there is on the touchline boards.

    My wife watched the SC Finals last year and she noticed the rotating ads next to the blue lines halfway through Game 2. She said “Wait, didn’t that say “Stanley Cup” before the commercial?” So people do notice, but contrary to popular opinion, not all publicity is good.

    Do you watch soccer a lot? As a lifelong fan I can’t say I’ve ever been distracted by touchline ads.

    I guess it is a matter of preference, but it does catch my eye (and not in a good way) when there is either animation, or the color shifts dramatically from light to dark or vice versa. It only happens on broadcasts though-in person, I can very easily ignore the boards because I am scanning the whole field, not just what the camera chooses to show me.

    All these ads are directly ruining my enjoyment of watching games.

    I worked in television for a long time and this technology can be refined but these issues can’t be corrected completely without scrapping the thing. It’s based on grid positioning for the cameras and then color assignments for anything on top of it.

    Any motion in the graphic causes an almost instant loss of the puck. This program has done nothing to make the game better for fans. I wish leagues would actually look at things that make the game better for fans but that’s not why they’re in the sports business. It’s sad really as I think it will actually hurt their long term business prospects.

    I still don’t understand why the league thought this was a good idea and I’d be interested to know if in the arena advertisers wanted their money back for their ads being covered up. They factor in TV eyeballs for that pricing as well.

    I’d be interested to know if the arena advertisers wanted their money back for their ads being covered up.

    They already knew the digital ads were coming, and that was factored into the price they paid.

    Thanks, good to know.

    Now I’m curious as to how the money is being divided up then. The arena ads would have gone primarily to the team so they would’ve had to also rewrite their broadcast agreements unless they owned their network.

    Sorry, work brain kicking in.

    Any ads that take a way from the game are waste of money.

    Great content today, appreciate the insight from Dan.
    I suppose the simple answer is they make more revenue by having interchangeable ads for short periods of time on the boards than the standard static real world ads they have used for years. But given how much an obtrusive work in progress this is, and the fact that putting out an easy to watch product is what grows viewership, how did their cost benefit analysis determine the additional ad revenue would offset potential lost eyes on the product? Or did they simply not test it out enough to realize the problems it would create?
    Even if I dislike it, I can understand their philosophy of “people will get used to uni ads and it doesn’t damage the product we put on tv” but these digital board ads most certainly do damage their product.

    For some reason, most of the GIFs won’t display for me (I tried both Firefox and Chrome). Wouldn’t mention it, but I think this is a really important post

    This felt inevitable with the change in networks from NBC(SN) to ESPN and TNT. The latter two work very hard to monetize the in-game action, whereas NBC(SN) wasn’t as concerned. To be fair, the new broadcast partners paid vastly more money than the prior partner did to air the games, so you can see how it “incentivized” them to figure out how best to monetize the action.

    I’ll point out this article used a lot of Capitals footage, as they’ve been a big offender with the RSN coverage. They were also early out the gate with inserted ads on the ice and glass. It worries me if/when their owners buy the Nationals and how that will inform coverage of baseball.

    I saw the retweet last night, and was very impressed by Dan’s analysis. Thank you, Paul, for giving him even more space. And I only watch the outdoor hockey games on tv.

    The first thing I noticed about those board ads, and that I couldn’t get around, was that if you were watching your team’s broadcast and they were playing away, you see local ads. For example, there are Las Vegas based ads- sometimes with the Knights’ logo- on the boards, but a big Lightning logo at center ice.

    Yes exactly this. We are stuck with board ads but when I see my team play on the road it’s interesting to see ads for that region. Don’t want to see ads from my local market on the boards when it is a road game.

    Canadian living in the US currently. Always weirdly liked seeing the ads for Tims, Canadian tire, Molson, etc on the board when watching the Canucks, Leafs play. Just a reminder that those things are still there I guess

    That was something I enjoyed with MLB Audio too. Listening to Mariners games, I used to get Seattle area ads. Toward the end of last season, it was changed, and now I get Cincinnati area ads for games in which two West Coast teams are playing. I understand why it makes sense for them to do it, but it mentally takes me out of it a little bit.

    This is my biggest issue with the digital ads. It’s just wrong watching the Flames play on the road with Calgary/Canadian based ads on the boards. But if these ads get rid of the advertising on the glass at each end of the ice, it’s worth it. (I’ve noticed the Flames don’t have it anymore, but based on the clip above, some teams do?)

    As a long time hockey fan I haven’t watched a game since they added the digital on ice ad. It made me dizzy. Then with the ads on the boards I tried, plus the one on the ice, and I just had to stop watching hockey!!

    It would be helpful to have an ad free ice surface w just the lines like soccer to see the players/puck etc w blank white boards but on the bottom of the screen there could be a soccer style ad board that runs like a score ticker.

    At least the ads would be there to be seen but you could ya know actually watch the game which is why it’s on the tv in the first place.

    “The digital ads have also led to audio delays during broadcasts.”

    That’s my breaking point. Watching some NHL games recently, the announcer, crowd, and goal horn all go off before the puck is in the net (sometimes while it’s still being shot). It’s like, what’s the point in watching, if the tension and payoff of a hockey goal is completely ruined?

    They first did this for the 2016 World Cup where all the games were in one arena (Toronto). At the time, it was so annoying that I couldn’t follow the play on the ice as I couldn’t help looking at the boards. I stopped watching the tournament after one game with hopes that it would never be brought to NHL games…I was wrong. As a Habs fan, what I have noticed is that for home games, most of the ads that are projected are the same ones already on the boards, but just shown more often, or maybe all in one end, so if anything, the in-rink ads may cost more no since they are getting additional exposure. Flipping the ads every 30 seconds during play is really annoying, such as the Enterprise car rental animated ones. In addition, there are ads for the NHL Shop, so where is the additional revenue there??? Finally, at least in Canada, we rarely get the inside the blueline ads. I find the US based telecasts are the worst because on top of the rink board ads, they get the behind the net glass ads as well as the blue line ads. Unfortunately, as much as I hate it, I’m afraid that given the amount of money spent on developing these ads, that they are here to stay. I really hope that I am wrong though…

    I watch a lot of hockey and have noticed the audio sometimes not syncing with the action — i.e., you hear the undeniable “tink” of the puck hitting the goalpost before you see the player shoot. Now that I know that it has to do with the digital ads, it makes it even more annoying and inexcusable.

    Next step: referees wearing old fashioned sandwich boards with ads. They come in handy as protection as well, even if they limit the amount of movement for the refs. Excellent article about this horrific decision to put in digital ads, by the way.

    Anybody else enjoy the out-of-market “flavor” that comes with watching your team play road games?

    Of course, that’s pretty much gone now during local broadcasts, thanks to this new invasive and homogenizing tech. No more ads on the dasher boards for Timmy Horton’s or Esso, or any other unique signage that isn’t part of your team’s market. Nope, can’t have that.

    I can’t help but think some genius thought it’d be a swell idea to take the neutral Covid bubble setting and say, “Hey hockey fans! Now every televised game can look like a Pens home game!” (Or whatever team you cheer for.)

    It’s tailored, artificial crap.

    -C.

    Another great post! Thanks for putting into words what a lot of us had been feeling.

    My wife (not a huge hockey fan and definitely not up on this sort of thing) watched a bit of a game with me last week and had to ask “Why is this so hard to watch? There’s something weird going on with the boards”. Sums it up perfectly.

    Let me join the line of folks saying this was a great piece. Soberly written with a lot of cause-effect analysis.

    As Bagley eluded to, the tech probably will improve. I can picture some sort of sensor being invented and placed on the main camera that would detect camera motion speed and direction and be able to use that in some sort of formula to add blur as needed to help the digital ads match the other blur. I could also see some sort of multi-point “white matching” process as well that makes the ads look more native. It likely will improve, and might even help a lot of other digital overlays throughout sports, advertising and informative, to improve as well.

    That said, it doesn’t solve the fact the NHL seems completely willing to accept ad creative content that has motion distracting from the game, as well as the … hubris? greed? combination thereof? … to implement this system so widely without testing it on a smaller scale first to anticipate some of these issues.

    I’d like to say it’s just a Gary Bettman problem, but problematic levels of greed have been an NHL issue dating back at least to the earliest days of the Wirtz ownership group. I’d like to say it’s just an NHL issue, but goodness knows the NFL will rip teams from St. Louis and San Diego if it can build a superstadium in L.A. and baseball will slap questionable cryptocurrency logos on its umpires if it can make a few bucks, too.

    Greed is bad, and yet, it’s all over the place.

    There are two other issues I’ve noticed in both hockey and football. First, as the camera pans across the rink or court, the straight edges of the digital image constantly change angle, but because I guess they aren’t high resolution enough, it creates jagged edges, which are very apparent in movement. It makes the digital ads appear to flicker, which really ruins the picture.

    Also, this is kind of a feeling (I don’t have any proof of this), but I think that sending the video through whatever processing is required to place these ads is degrading the quality of the video. Overall, even away from the ads, it feels less sharp than usual (except when an alternative camera is used, like on a replay).

    There are many issues with these ads, both technological and philosophical, but at the VERY least, they need to stop the animation during game play. You never see an MLB ad change or animate behind the catcher when the pitcher is delivering the ball (green screen or not), and the same should be done here. If you want to change the ads, change them on the half of the rink you don’t see at that moment, so when the camera pans back and forth you get the change more naturally.

    Clearly there is only one way to solve the problem of the puck becoming invisible. It’s time for the return of FoxTrax…

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