To help honor the Super Bowl’s golden anniversary — Super Bowl 50 is this February — you can expect some trips down memory lane throughout the upcoming season, celebrating pivotal moments from the NFL’s last 50 years.
Microsoft, though, is looking to the next 50.
As part of the $400 million, five-year contract that Microsoft signed with the NFL in 2013, the Redmond company is upping the ante this year for its technology on and off the football field.
“This year is unlike any other year as far as the NFL partnership,” Jeff Tran, Microsoft’s Director of Sports Marketing and Alliances, told GeekWire this week.
Last season, Microsoft endured a few hiccups with some of its technology implementation from a PR standpoint. As it introduced Surface tablets for players and coaches on the sidelines to replace traditional black-and-white paper printouts of past plays, some NFL announcers kept referring to the device as an “iPad-like tool.”
Microsoft pays a fortune to have Surface tablets on NFL sidelines. Monday Night Football guys call them iPads. Love that so much.
— Jeff Hokit (@jeffhokit) September 9, 2014
Whether announcers figure out the difference between an iPad and a Surface this year is still up in the air. But you can expect to see more players and coaches using Microsoft’s device on the sidelines, particularly as the technology helps them win games.
“What we’ve really learned is that professional athletes and coaches, just like any profession, they want to get better — whether it’s diagramming a play in the coaches’ booth or seeing how a play unfolded immediately after the snap,” Tran said.
The idea is to replace the traditional printed paper black-and-white images of plays to analyze previous possessions, and instead use the waterproof tablets that allow for annotations on each photo with the Surface Pen.
Tran noted that players and coaches are using the tablet “in really crucial moments of the game.”
“If we can provide a product or service that professionals can use to gain an advantage, more and more will adopt the product,” Tran said. “It’s all about sharpening that blade and just bringing better technology to these professionals.”
Players and coaches are getting a Surface upgrade on the sidelines this season, moving from a custom-built Surface Pro 2 used last year to new Surface Pro 3 tablets that offer a bigger and thinner screen, lighter weight, clearer images, and a pen that can be used in four different colors.
There’s also a new whiteboard screen that lets coaches and players diagram plays.
In addition to the new tablets, which will be used throughout the 2015-16 season, the NFL is testing video streaming to the devices during preseason games for both players and coaches, along with referees.
That means players and coaches will be able to watch replays of what just happened on the field. Referees, meanwhile, will be able to do the same and in some cases may not have to go “under the hood” to watch a replay.
The NFL tested video streaming to the tablets during last year’s Pro Bowl, and it was met with generally positive feedback. They’ll do the same for about 20 preseason games in August and September, but don’t expect the new features to be implemented until after this season at the very least.
“The NFL certainly has a process to make changes to the game, but what you are seeing is the NFL recognizing the importance of the technology revolution and they are proving it in their actions by testing video on the sidelines and for instant replay,” Tran said.
Off the field, Microsoft is debuting a revamped NFL app for Xbox One, Surface, and Windows which includes a neat new feature called “Next Gen Stats” that takes data from RFID chips worn by NFL players who embed small devices made by Zebra in their shoulder pads during games.
Fans will be able to track player speed (MPH) and total distance run from video highlights of certain plays via “Next Gen Stats,” which will be formatted as you see in the screenshot below.
The NFL has used these stats for internal use and in a few TV broadcasts, including last year’s Pro Bowl, but this is the first time fans have been able to access the data elsewhere.
Microsoft also added new fantasy football integration with its Xbox One app — now those with teams on CBS and Yahoo! can see their stats on Microsoft’s NFL Xbox One app, not just NFL.com like past years.
The app will be released later this month, and will be available on Windows 10. It also includes a new game-day notification feature and a new replay function where fans can watch replays from multiple angles from key plays.
Microsoft is also reportedly working on ways to implement its HoloLens augmented reality headset with football, but Tran wouldn’t offer any further details.
Tran did note that the partnership with the NFL thus far has been “really tremendous” from a strategic standpoint for both parties.
“Microsoft is just getting started with the NFL in regard to how technology can really impact the game of football,” he said.
Microsoft today released a trailer for a new 10-part video series called “Beneath The Surface,” which will showcase how the Surface is being used by NFL teams on and off the field. The trailer, which you can watch below, features Seahawks quarterback and Surface spokesman Russell Wilson, who calls the tablet a “game-changer.” Drew Brees, Blake Bortles and Nick Foles also appear in the video.