Throughout its history, football (not soccer) has seen much evolution and innovation on the field. From strictly a ground-based attack (a legacy of the game’s rugby roots) to the latest spread offenses with the QB slinging that ball all over the field, football has rarely stood still. It’s true on the defensive side of the ball too. Formations and personnel groupings have changed with the times, and strategies have as well: Zone blitzes and exotic disguised coverages have kept in step with the evolutions in the offensive side of the ball.
Now, thanks to a partnership between the National Football League and Microsoft, the game evolves yet again with an infusion of high technology, changing the way players see and learn about what happens between the lines on the field. The officials also get a much-needed tech boost. Clearly, the NFL is hoping to leverage modern tech to make the game better than it already is.
Last night’s Sunday Night Football broadcast showed just a few of the new high-tech upgrades debuting this season in the NFL. On the sidelines, up to thirteen Microsoft Surface tablets can be used to show digital photos of plays, showing pre- and post-snap looks, and in the coaches’ box there will be twelve of these devices available for the teams’ coaching staffs.
For decades NFL teams have been using photos organized in binders for these important views of how the opposing team responds to its tactics. The current system of printed photos will still be used, but they will be augmented by the Microsoft tablets. The NFL has strongly emphasized, though, that the tablets will be specialized for still photos; there will be no videos streaming onto these Surfaces, nor will they be internet-capable. On the other hand, these specialized Surfaces will still be able to zoom in and out of the photos, and coaches and players can highlight parts of the photos and make marks on them (perhaps to illustrate specific adjustments or to point out a specific weakness in an opponent’s technique).
The Surface tablets will be NFL-owned and -distributed equipment. They will be connected on what’s said to be a secure wireless network to mitigate against possible manipulation of the signals for any team’s competitive advantage.
This use of tablets in football is not especially revolutionary, actually. For a few years now, some teams in both the NFL and in the NCAA have been using iPads instead of the gigantic paper playbooks that have been the staple method of distributing intelligence for decades. With the size of some of these playbooks (I own some of them, mostly written by the great 49ers legend Bill Walsh, in .pdf) reaching a few hundred pages long, digitized copies are far more environmentally responsible. Some teams have even taken the next step, with animated playbooks augmenting the static diagrams of old. However, the use of the new Microsoft Surface tablets on the sideline is the first time digital technology of this ilk is used on game day and during the game itself.
Besides the Surface tablets, the NFL has also upgraded communications for the officials. For the first time ever, the zebras will be equipped with wireless communications. The equipment will enable the officials to talk to each other, thereby eliminating the need for them to huddle up and confer with each other. This should theoretically improve their performance and mitigate the lag that used to characterize periods when they had to discuss calls on the field. Moreover, the referee will also be connected to the NFL’s head office and can confer with the league’s chief of officiating on challenged calls on the field.
Microsoft stands to gain from this partnership with the NFL not just from the obvious exposure of its brand, but also through a five-year, $400 million financial boost. Microsoft also receives exclusive access to certain interactive content that it can use to boost Xbox home video game systems sales.