The NHL’s 2021-2022 season kicked off last week, and for the first time in 16 years, a network other than NBC was behind the broadcast. Disney’s ESPN is now the NHL’s lead TV partner in the US, paying a hefty price of $400 million a year to serve that role. Not far behind is Turner Sports’ TNT, as the network known for its NBA coverage is now paying $225 million to fill the NHL’s “B” slot.
A change in network scenery means that a new set of executives are tasked with trying to engage hockey fans in new and innovative ways. ESPN and TNT have both made steps to do so, including hiring panelists like former greats Mark Messier and Wayne Gretzky, creating new daytime shows like ESPN’s “The Point”, and adopting new in-game camera angles.
Mark Gross, SVP production and remote events at ESPN, stated before the season that: “Hockey lends itself to experimenting with some truly creative production elements given the pace and detail of the game”.
As was previously mentioned, one of these new experiments was the “SkyCam” camera angle, which debuted during the Penguins and Lightining game on opening night. The angle is a bit more elevated and dynamic than the traditional camera angle.
This camera angle was given the usual social media reaction, with half the fans enjoying the change of pace:
While the other half were admittedly more traditionalist in their viewing habits:
Similarly, Twitter user @AHBSeaborn exemplified how ESPN’s stab at innovation was received just like virtually every other instance of change is on Twitter:
While I agree with the above Reddit user “@WhenSharksAttack” that it’s nice for ESPN to try new things, I also believe there was a missed opportunity here.
In LAW 423C last week, we learned that for media to truly connect with us as viewers, it must try and reach into our memories, and make itself familiar with what we already know. The goal for media is to try and establish a personal connection. For example, we talked in class about how TV camera angles in other sports are starting to emulate the camera angles used in their corresponding video games. The NFL broadcasts using Madden camera angles is a prime example of this, and one I will return to later. For now, the point is that there was a chance for ESPN to engage a new generation of fans by replicating the camera angles familiar to the ones they played with in the EA Sports’ “NHL” series, and this chance was overlooked.
To counter the argument that ESPN’s SkyCam is innovative, it is worth noting that the “new” SkyCam angle has essentially already been in existence and referred to as the “Broadcast” camera angle on EA’s NHL games for years, if not decades. This is a comparison of the two angles, with EA’s version on the right:
Unfortunately, the reason ESPN missed the mark, to put it quite simply, is that the “Broadcast” angle on EA’s NHL is about as popular as a bet that the Vancouver Canucks will win the Stanley Cup. Unless you’re inherently hoping for disappointment, it’s just not what you choose. (Note: Author Hometown – Calgary)
What ESPN should have done, if they truly wanted to connect to the generation of gamers, would have been to include a camera angle that includes the most common EA NHL angles, the “Classic”, or the “Overhead”, as seen here:
As a case in point as to why this strategy would be effective, although the “Classic” angle is more popular, because I personally used the “Overhead” angle growing up, that is the one I am instinctively ready to argue for as the primary candidate for real-life adaptation. Not only would it be incredibly helpful for watching puck movement on a power-play, it would also show the passing options that a defenceman has coming up the ice in a way that current camera angles just cannot do.
However, the real truth is that it would be the best camera angle for me because it is the one I am familiar with, as it is the angle that I learned to love the strategy of hockey with, and the one that brings up the most visual memories for me. That is ultimately the power of replicating the EA NHL angles – they take a viewer like me to a place of familiarity and comfort. For a network looking to make themselves welcome in the homes of hockey viewers across North America, there would be no better way to do so than to emulate the camera angles that have already been used for years inside those very homes.
Case Study: The Madden Experience
I found it interesting that, much like this post criticizes the current NHL coverage, Redditor @ImNewToThisThing was doing the same thing for NFL broadcasts 8 years ago:
One can only hope that this forum post kick-starts the same sequence of events as happened in the NFL world after @ImNewToThisThing’s post (assuming, of course, that this Reddit post sparked the change). In October of 2017, the fog in New England rendered the main camera useless during NBC’s broadcast of a Patriots-Falcons game. The Sunday Night Football team was forced to change their coverage to what is also called a SkyCam, and so began the trip down memory lane for NFL viewers. The feedback was so positive that NBC made it a regular part of their Thursday Night Football coverage. This tweet by @PatsMilitia summarized the appeal of the camera angle perfectly:
The critical difference for why the NFL’s SkyCam was successful is because it was not an angle chosen at random, as appears to be the case with ESPN’s NHL SkyCam coverage. Instead, Fred Gaudelli, then executive producer of Thursday Night Football, explained before the first full NFL game broadcast with the “Madden Cam” that:
“Younger generations of NFL fans have grown accustomed to watching football from this angle through their love of video games. This telecast will have a look and feel akin to that experience.”
Gaudelli knew it would be an instant hit. After the conclusion of the inaugural “Madden Cam” game between the Steelers and the Titans, Gaudelli triumphed, “halfway through that second half I thought, there are going to be people calling for this to be the main angle from now on … There are generations of football fans who really kind of learned about football, or experienced a lot about football, through Madden”.
Gaudelli was not the only one who viewed the original SkyCam game this way:
Indeed, there have been notable limits with the “Madden Cam”, as the angle has been note to make gauging yardage downfield impossible, and it also cuts out receivers that are split out wide. Unfortunately, the difference between Madden and Thursday Night Football coverage is that Madden has the benefit of “moving” a hypothetical SkyCam at speeds and angles that a real camera moving on wires just cannot replicate. However, the SkyCam still plays a part in today’s NFL coverage, recently transferring with Gaudelli to the most-watched regular program in all of TV’s primetime, Sunday Night Football. In fact, the SkyCam now has a C360 camera attached underneath it, ensuring that, as Gaudelli said, the audience will get even more intimate views of “what players do and how they do it”.
To conclude, ESPN is on the right track by trying new things with their NHL coverage. However, for their experiments to be successful, they need to create more meaningful connections with their viewers, connections that can be both revolutionary and nostalgic at the same time. The path to success for media networks is undoubtedly both a difficult one to find, but can also be a straightaway to a devoted audience once found. That path to success, as this article shows, is none other than a viewers’ memory lane.