Gif of a UFC fight from one fighter’s point of view
Unity's 3D capture of UFC fights allows for otherwise impossible camera angles.
Image: Unity

How Unity aims to give sports fans video game-like superpowers

Unity is looking to change the world of sports with volumetric capture and real-time 3D. First up: UFC fights.

Imagine watching a UFC fight from the point of view of one of the fighters. Now imagine being able to pause that fight, switch camera angles and closely analyze a fighter's stance. Rotate the fighters to find another camera angle with the perfect vantage point, unpause, and watch the opposing fighter tap out while zooming in on his face.

What sounds like a video game is actually part of a demo that Unity executive Peter Moore is set to share with a couple hundred European sports executives at an industry event in London this week. Moore joined the game engine maker as its first SVP and GM of live sports and entertainment in January, and he now aims to bring the kind of real-time technology that's rapidly changing how Hollywood is making movies and TV shows to the world of live sports. This is part of a project the company calls Metacast.

"Sports fans love to analyze every goal score, touchdown, punch thrown," Moore recently told Protocol. "[They] love to micro-analyze every movement." By capturing sporting events in 3D, Unity promises to give fans superpowers, allowing them to become the director of their own sportscast.

"This new technology will revolutionize the way people consume sports, and Peter is the perfect person to lead this new division at Unity," said Unity CEO John Riccitiello.

To kick off its ambitious expansion into the world of sports, Unity has partnered with the UFC on research and development. As part of that partnership, Unity recently had two fighters spar off on a volumetric capture stage equipped with over 100 cameras for the demo that Moore is set to unveil this week.

As a next step, the game engine company is looking to build its own Octagon fight ring, matching UFC specs, to experiment with camera placements. The ultimate goal is to incorporate the cameras into the Octagon in a way that it could be rolled out in the field, ready to capture fights in 3D without obstructing the audience or endangering the fighters. "It's trial and error," Moore said. "It's getting the calibration right."

The UFC represents an interesting launch partner for Unity: Not only are its fans young, tech-savvy and willing to spend real dollars on premium content, but the fights themselves are also happening in a controlled environment, which makes the capture process a lot easier.

However, Unity's sports ambitions go far beyond two-person sparring. Moore's demo also includes 3D footage of a rugby game, complete with the ability to dynamically add data layers and zoom in on individual players.

Those features aren't just great for super fans, but could also benefit professionals, said Moore, who served as the CEO of Liverpool FC for three years before joining Unity. "I got to see the inside workings of the world's biggest football club, and I saw it's a club that's analytically driven, that believes in sports science, believes in data," he said.

Giving coaches access to 3D capture data could allow them to much more closely look at individual players. "It's an incredible tool to do [an] analysis of why certain players simply don't get hurt and can play 50 games in a season, and some players get hurt five or six times," he said. Eventually, that technology could also trickle down to schools and amateur sports, giving basketball coaches a way to capture and mark up training games, thanks to Lidar-equipped mobile devices capable of capturing 3D footage.

How real-time 3D footage is going to be distributed still remains to be seen. In the short term, this kind of footage will most likely power post-game analysis for TV pundits. But in the long run, it's also possible that fans will have direct access to the footage, allowing them to rewatch key scenes and personalize their own sportscasts. "In the future, every sporting game will be broadcast three-dimensionally," Moore predicted.

Ultimately, this could also help make sports more appealing to younger viewers who grew up with esports and 6-second GIFs. Moore even likened it to other tectonic shifts in broadcast history. "I'm old enough to remember black-and-white television, and color television blew my mind. I could see things in a different way," he said. "Some of the technologies since then have been interesting, but nothing this revolutionary."