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Can the SkyCam Change the Way We Watch Football?

On ‘Thursday Night Football,’ NBC will put viewers directly behind the offense, giving fans a north-south view of a game that is normally seen east-west. But whether the change will prove to be a permanent shift in NFL broadcasts or just a fun (or nausea-inducing) gimmick remains to be seen.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

For the first time since the NFL started gracing television sets in 1939, the league is giving us a new perspective on the game.

NBC will use the SkyCam as the primary camera angle for Thursday night’s clash between the Steelers and the Titans, meaning the camera angle from Madden is finally going to be the one used during the game. The idea was born of necessity. During the Patriots-Falcons Sunday Night Football matchup in late October, a ghoulish fog descended on Foxborough that rendered the main cameras useless. The broadcast shifted to the SkyCam on the fly, and the feedback was so positive that NBC has spent the past three weeks tinkering to make it the primary angle for Thursday’s game.

Changing the way we watch football could change the way we understand it. Football is conceptualized and strategized from the perspective of the offense, yet we have never consumed it that way. Instead, we take the coach’s chalkboard, rotate it 90 degrees, and wonder why the sport is so complicated.

“Football has essentially been covered the same way from the first day it was covered,” Fred Gaudelli, executive producer of NBC’s NFL broadcasts, said of the move to use the SkyCam. “I think this is a chance to slightly break away from that and give people a different production to evaluate and see if they like it or not.”

Nowhere is SkyCam’s benefits more apparent than during running plays. On standard broadcasts, running backs make breaking through piles of linemen look like a magic trick. The SkyCam provides a literal bird’s-eye view as to how holes develop in real time. Take this play from the third quarter of the Falcons-Patriots fog game after the broadcast shifted to SkyCam.

Falcons running back Devonta Freeman gets the ball and darts left before cutting upfield into the open hole. Left tackle Jake Matthews (no. 70) and left guard Andy Levitre (no. 67) double-team Patriots defensive lineman Alan Branch before Levitre peels off and takes linebacker Dont’a Hightower out of the play. Center Alex Mack (no. 51) and right guard Wes Schweitzer (no. 71) double-team defensive tackle Lawrence Guy and draw the linebackers down to the right side of the line. If tight end Levine Toilolo (no. 80) didn’t fall, Freeman might have scored.

Though there is no good footage of it, you can imagine what this play would have looked like from a traditional angle: Freeman disappears into a muddle of 320-ish-pound dudes and emerges close to a first down. It’s fun watching Freeman evade blocks; it’ll be even more fun watching Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell, the most patient running back in the league, scour for holes in real time in what could be a Running Back 101 course on Thursday night.

We’ll also get better insights into what makes Marcus Mariota special, especially when he runs the read-option with DeMarco Murray, an ideal play for the SkyCam. Take this play from last week’s game between Alabama and Mississippi State, courtesy of ESPN 3, which, in addition to the regular broadcast, aired an uninterrupted SkyCam feed with no announcers and no replays.

Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald reads the edge rusher to decide whether to hand the ball off or keep it and run to the outside. In this case, edge rusher Anfernee Jennings (no. 33), crashes into the backfield and gives Fitzgerald an easy decision to keep the ball himself.

SkyCam is perfect for these plays. It’s one thing to watch a read-option from the sideline perspective and see Mariota run. It’s an entirely different experience to get the ohmygodohmygodJamesHarrisoniscoming shiver down your spine at the same time Mariota does, and then see what decision he makes in that scenario.

But these plays also illustrate the main problem with SkyCam—it can be a mystery for the viewer to determine how many yards are gained on a given play. That Fitzgerald play went for 4 yards, and the Freeman play went for 9 yards, but it’s basically impossible to figure out the down and distance without graphics. What the SkyCam gains in lateral perspective, it loses in depth perception.

In the passing game, the highs are higher and the lows are lower. This pass from Tom Brady to Chris Hogan shows you what Brady sees, but after Hogan gets the ball and runs downfield—away from the camera—the view becomes a mess.

While Hogan would be wide open on any camera angle, SkyCam shows us where the safeties are—in this case, really, really far away. As opposed to seeing only that Hogan is wide open, we see why Hogan is wide open. The linebackers bite on the play-action and the safeties are back deep. We can see Brady’s brain in action.

But this play also shows why SkyCam may never succeed as a primary broadcast angle. The moment Hogan catches the ball, the camera has to follow him downfield, guided by the puppeteer wires that shepherd SkyCam across the stadium. The camera angle makes it utterly impossible to gauge yardage. That’s an issue on every play that stretches downfield, which is problematic because those are the best plays.

The SkyCam is also limited in that receivers split out wide are cut out of the side of the frame the same way safeties are cropped out of the traditional view. Often you’ll see players come out of nowhere to catch the ball.

Those issues are exacerbated on any play involving lateral movement, especially wide receiver screens or when a player reverses direction. As cool as it is to see Brady use the play-action on the GIF above, it’s not nearly as smooth when the quarterback rolls out of the pocket. Just look at how the SkyCam operators struggle to keep Matt Ryan, not exactly a speed demon, in the frame of this play:

Worst of all, some of my Ringer colleagues claim the angle can induce motion sickness.

NBC will be monitoring fan feedback to gauge the reception and see how many fans get sick of it (literally). People don’t tend to like change, so NBC is adopting the SkyCam only gradually. The plan on Thursday night is to use the SkyCam as the primary angle only on first and second down when a team isn’t in the red zone, meaning the broadcast will revert to the traditional angle when yardage matters most and the game’s stakes are highest.

It’s hard to remember the last time an NFL broadcasting move could be called “creative,” “risky,” or “fun,” but this Steelers-Titans game is just the first experiment in what could be a profound change in the way we watch football. The league’s deals with NBC, Fox, and CBS expire after the 2022 season, and the NFL’s TV ratings are dipping. Amazon paid a reported $50 million to host Thursday Night Football streams for Amazon Prime members this season and has already experimented with an alternate announcing feed. The future of watching football could be selecting between different feeds of the same game that best appeals to your viewing interests through a combination of camera angles, announcers, and on-screen visuals.

That could be welcome news for the generation of football fans raised on Madden, but integrating SkyCam into broadcasts in every game throughout the season could help fans understand the game the way it was designed. For the first time in nearly 80 years, the coach’s chalkboard will be turned right-side up.