As Amazon’s Prime Video gears up for its second year as the exclusive rights holder to NFL’s Thursday Night Football (TNF), the streaming service hopes to give fans a more enhanced viewing experience with a slew of new AI-driven features.
During a demo with Prime Video executives, TechCrunch learned about the AI elements coming to TNF this season, as well as the first Black Friday NFL game and when viewers can expect HDR video quality.
AI is changing how sports content is consumed
If we asked someone about sports broadcasting a few years ago, we would have bet artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) would be the last thing on their mind. However, the use of AI and ML models in sports has drastically altered how hardcore fans watch games, allowing them to dive deeper into the analytics.
“We don’t want to just put math on the screen,” Betsy Riley, senior coordinating producer at Prime Video, told us. “It’s about using data to tell a deeper story and to bring our fans insights so that they understand the game better. We think doing that lets people understand the chess match that’s unfolding on the field. For us as a tech company, it’s been really fun to dig into the numbers and to think about ways we can innovate and use tech to tell the story of the game in deeper and more meaningful ways.”
Amazon introduced AI to TNF last year, including X-Ray, which gives fans real-time access to live statistics and data; Rapid Recap, which generates up to 13 two-minute-long highlights for viewers to catch up on plays during a game and more. And after winning its first Sports Emmy award in May, it’s safe to say the tech behemoth isn’t easing up on the gas.
All the new AI features will live within Prime Vision with Next Gen Stats — TNF’s weekly alternate stream that features various graphic overlays on the screen during plays so fans can see stats and analysis in real time.
Note that Amazon will internally test the features during tonight’s preseason game at 8 p.m. ET. However, fans won’t be able to experience them just yet. The features roll out on September 14, when the 2023 season begins. (Fans can find the complete TNF schedule on Amazon’s website).
What if we said that AI can predict blitzes? Defensive Alerts is Amazon’s in-house ML neural network that recognizes when defensive players are about to rush the opposing quarterback. A red orb will appear around the players of interest so fans know exactly who to focus on.
“It’s able to look at all players’ XY coordinate data, their relationship to each other, as well as their acceleration; where are they moving and how fast are they moving directionally to predict who’s going to blitz,” explained Sam Schwartzstein, TNF Analytics Expert at Prime Video.
The ML model was trained on 35,000 plays and will continue to get smarter, Schwartzstein told TechCrunch, adding that it’s identifying blitzes and situations better than offensive linemen. He also said the team has a panel of NFL experts who are former quarterbacks, coaches and offensive linemen that help annotate the plays.
“Having this as an in-house neural network can only expand the kind of features that we can do in the future,” he said.
Prime Targets (featured in the first image at the very top of the page) works similarly in that a green orb will light up a player that is open for a pass. The feature automatically tracks when a quarterback drops back to get ready to throw a pass, and the receiver (lit up by the green orb) runs out and creates separation from himself and the defenders.
This feature was previously called Open Receiver, which tracked which players would most likely convert the first down. Amazon tested it during last season’s games.
“This is the first statistic that is measuring the process of the play,” Schwartzstein noted. “Everything that we do on Prime Vision is predictive… This is all in real-time.”
Fourth Down Territory
Amazon is also launching a feature that may help fans understand how fourth-down decisions are made while potentially helping teams prepare for fourth downs.
The fourth down territory is an area on the field that offensive players use in an attempt to tie or win the game. Historically, coaches usually opt to punt the ball away since it feels less risky. However, as years go by, more and more teams are going for the fourth down conversion.
Instead of putting analytics on the screen after the play happened, Fourth Down Territory operates like a real NFL analytics coordinator does; it shows viewers exactly when a team should try a fourth down and what the probability is.
Field Goal Target Zones
NFL fans are accustomed to seeing field goal target lines on broadcasts — the digital line that appears at the end of half or end of the game, where if a team gets to it, they can kick a field goal. Amazon’s Field Goal Target Zones feature will have multiple lines on the screen that tell viewers the likelihood that a kicker will make a field goal at each point.
Key Plays gives fans the ability to view in-game highlights and critical moments, whether they’re already watching the game live or streaming on demand afterward. Much like Rapid Recap ensures fans never miss the action, Key Plays leverages AI and machine learning to offer viewers a full rundown of what’s happening on the field.
What can viewers expect for the NFL’s first Black Friday game?
Amazon and the NFL announced last fall that Prime Video would exclusively stream the NFL’s first Black Friday game on November 24, with the Miami Dolphins playing against the New York Jets and an expected kick-off at 3 p.m. ET.
Notably, the game will be free to watch for non-subscribers. The e-commerce giant will also use this as an opportunity to promote exclusive shopping deals to viewers.
During a press call earlier this week, Prime Video’s global head of sports, Jay Marine, hinted that Amazon has some “interesting things” planned for Black Friday that will be “additive” for fans.
While the company declined to share more details, Riley told TechCrunch that we can expect to hear more in the coming weeks. It’s our guess that Amazon will roll out interactive shopping elements in order to take advantage of the busiest shopping day of the year. The company launched last year a dedicated fan store page, TNF Central, offering TNF-related items, NFL-branded merch and Amazon devices.
We also spoke with Eric Orme, who serves as director of live events at Prime Video. Orme oversees global product, engineering and operations for live sports events, including Thursday Night Football, the Premier League, UEFA Champions League, MLB, NBA and U.S. Open tennis, among others.
Prime Video will likely see a surge in viewership during the Black Friday game since everyone will be home for the holiday weekend. However, Orme is confident it will be a smooth streaming experience for all viewers.
“We work really closely with the retail teams and everybody’s leveraging AWS, so we spend a lot of time around traffic projections,” Orme said. “We ran a bunch of scenarios and are really confident where we think that number is going to be.”
Prime Video brings HDR video quality to TNF
While the streamer already tested HDR streaming last season, it will officially be available to all TNF viewers this year. Many fans will likely appreciate the visual upgrade because it provides a more compelling experience, with greater contrast and vivid colors.
The company said it would be available on any HDR-enabled device, and subscribers don’t need to change anything in settings as the livestream will automatically be upgraded.