With the first kickoff last Thursday, the NFL is back, beginning the countdown to a major milestone with Super Bowl 50 in February.
Every team has different methods to get them the next championship trophy, but all of them have one thing in common on the journey there: They’ll all use resources powered by Microsoft, which is going into its third year of a unique technology partnership with the NFL.
“This is a really important year for Microsoft and the NFL,” says Jeff Tran, director of Sports & Alliances in the Windows and Devices marketing group for the company. “We launched Windows 10 and have new products on the horizon and for the NFL, this is the golden anniversary of the Super Bowl. While we will all celebrate the last 50 years of NFL football, Microsoft is really in a great position to take the NFL into the future with technology.”
Updated Surface Pro 3 devices – “The Official Tablet of the NFL” – designed specifically for the NFL – replace the Surface Pro 2 tablets they used last season. Right out of the box, the Surface Pro 3 is lighter, thinner and bigger. The screen is more akin to an 8.5 x 11-inch piece of paper, and it has better daytime readability. Players and staff can also whiteboard plays with four colors. Like the Surface Pro 2, these devices are waterproof and fully functional in extreme weather, from 10 degrees below Fahrenheit to 110 Fahrenheit.
The NFL provides the specially equipped devices, which include the Sideline Viewing System (SVS) introduced last season, to all 32 teams on game day. The Microsoft application enables coaches to analyze full-color images from a previous offensive or defensive series and plan their next plays more efficiently and quickly.
“NFL football is a game of inches, but also it’s also a game of seconds, which leads to minutes and if we can save NFL teams time during a game, that will ultimately lead to wins,” Tran says.
SVS has supporters who have seen the devices meet their high expectations.
“Our ability to use the Sideline Viewing System is much more efficient than the original photographs,” says Sean Payton, head coach for the New Orleans Saints. “I was skeptical, waiting for the first thing I don’t like. Then I swipe, and it looks pretty good, and then I can make it bigger. And it took all of about 10 seconds to say these are better than expected.”
Notes from head coaches, special teams, offensive lines and others are all saved to profiles.
“It’s a night and day difference. We’re so used to those black and white pictures and having to flip through that binder,” adds Saints quarterback Drew Brees. “All of a sudden, you get the Surface and now we can get these great color, high-definition pictures.”
Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson credits the device as an MVP to his success.
“The Surface Pro has been a game changer for me,” he says. “The Surface has been exceptional to have on the sideline. When I get back to the sideline, I’m able to get the plays right away. Being able to zoom has a huge advantage, too. I can see everybody’s eyes, what they’re looking at.”
And on game day, every detail counts toward a win.
“What we’ve seen are players and coaches using Surface more and more in each game, in key critical moments, such as 2-minute warnings, in overtime and making adjustments before and after big plays,” Tran says. “That’s what we’re seeing unfold from last year, not just a game to game uptick in use, but quarter by quarter.”
The Surface devices and the SVS application are the result of a company-wide collaboration that includes Microsoft Consulting, customer service, Premiere Field engineering, Surface engineering and marketing working together with the NFL, team video directors, coaches and players.
As in the Pro Bowl last year, the NFL continued capturing data on how teams could use video at select games this pre-season, in addition to stills. NFL referees are also testing an alternative to the video replay booth by reviewing instant replays on a Surface Pro 3 with Bose headphones.
Tran says football players and teams are using technology such as drones, Xbox Kinect and even virtual reality for tactical advantages.
“If teams aren’t using technology, they’re going to be left behind,” Tran says.
Last year, fans experienced fantasy football on the biggest screens in their house – their TVs – alongside live games for an immersive experience through the magic of split-screen snapping the Microsoft NFL app for Xbox One – “The Official Game Console of the NFL.”
Now, that app is now available on Windows 10 PCs and tablets as the ultimate second screen experience. On both the Xbox One and Windows 10, the app is packed with additions fans will love: more personalized notifications, Next Gen stats and instant in-game highlights.
Both will have a command center that will act as a hub for all their personalized NFL information, but the Windows 10 version focuses on its role as a second screen for fans who prefer the unencumbered view of watching the big game on the biggest HD screen in their house or at the sports bar.
In addition to the constant stream of scores and stats fantasy football fans already had, Next Gen Stats now add a player’s speed, top speed and distance traveled, thanks to every pro having an RFID chip embedded in their shoulder pads transmitting that data. When fans are watching Next Gen Replays, they’ll be able to toggle from the clips to other perspectives, such as Sky, Sideline and Field views. In the Windows 10 version, touchscreens are optimized for that toggling and play and pause of those clips.
“For video gamers, this will feel really familiar, from playing games like ‘Madden,’” says Brian Peters, director of the NFL Interactive Program, Windows 10 and Xbox team at Microsoft. “These different views will give everyone information they didn’t have before, like being able to recognize offensive lines and routes, and when certain players hit top speed.”
In fantasy football, more info can lead to quicker trades and making better decisions on subs to get move up in the league.
For more casual sports fans, “It’s an entertaining dimension to look at and provides a different point of view of play,” Peters says.
The new highlight reel section will be available faster – about five minutes after the plays happen. Those instant highlights are exclusive to Microsoft for consoles, PCs and tablets. Microsoft’s partnership with the NFL also delivers content through subscriptions, such as access to NFL Now, game replays and historic Super Bowls.
Once fans are set up in the app, notifications can be personalized to multiple favorite teams, fantasy football leagues and key events and games (including start times). And all that info is available on game day now. When fans see the alerts come up, they can choose to act on them, or they can keep playing “Halo” and get back to them during breaks in the game.
Fans will also be able to tap into weekly Next Gen Pick ‘Em games – such as guessing who’s going to be the fastest player using those Next Gen Stats – to accumulate points for a chance to win Super Bowl tickets.
“Technology is important, and it has a deep impact,” Tran says. “We’re pretty excited about what we’re bringing to the living room, and also on the field.”
Teams are also using off-the-shelf Surface devices to increase their productivity off the field. They are all-in-one solutions for a wide range of needs, from administrative and business operations, to checking out film and notes between games and for balancing their busy careers with their personal lives.
“One of the great aspects of our partnership with the NFL is that while we’re changing the game on the sidelines, we’re also changing the game for the business of football,” says James Bernstrom, Microsoft product marketing director for Windows and Devices Marketing. “Football operations is trusting us with critical playbook and video information to work with their partners to deliver that content safely and securely. For the business of football – running the back office – they trust Microsoft products. And then, within multiple teams, you’ll see how Surface and Xbox are being utilized within stadiums to provide custom content in some cases, and other places where they have the ability to try out an Xbox One before, after or during games.”
But as much as Surface has become essential for these business applications, it’s also become the go-to for players like Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who uses it to balance his busy work and family lives. Or for Seahawks quarterback Wilson, who syncs the Surface to his sound system to pipe music all over his house.
“As you see the progression from sideline to the business of football to the personal life of our athletes, it’s really exciting, as not only football fans, but as Microsoft fans, to see how we’ve been able to touch all those different pieces, and really provide these individuals with some fantastic technology,” Bernstrom says.
Teams enjoy the versatility the devices provide, especially since they’re on the road so often.
“I used to get really stressed out when I’m stuck in the airport all day,” says Terry Fontenot, pro scout for the New Orleans Saints. “Now it doesn’t matter. Being able to easily access all your information, to be able to easily write reports, to easily watch film – that’s everything for a scout.”
It also helps that the device syncs to the software they’re already using.
“One thing that’s nice about the Surface is having the full suite of Office applications on there,” says Tony Lazzaro, director of football information systems for the Denver Broncos. “It matches exactly what I’m doing in the office with what I’m doing on the road.”
Scouts also appreciate the information they can pull up through Surface apps.
“At the NFL Scouting Combine, we use the Surface a lot,” says Adam Peters, pro scout for the Denver Broncos. “Microsoft put out an app that gave you updates in real time of all the players, their height, their weight, their 40 [yard] times. I can see all the things update in real time, right away.”
Throughout the NFL, staff is seeing a transformation take place.
“Surface’s role in the NFL, I think, will just grow, as we develop more apps to make our jobs a lot easier,” the scout adds. “I’ve already seen it the last couple of years. Everybody’s been carrying these around instead of piece of paper now, writing stuff down. Now you can type it right in there and send it off, and you’re done.”
Continuing the momentum of the first two years of the partnership, Microsoft sees a bright future in how technology can impact the game in years to come.
“Our unique technology partnership lights up because the NFL is the expert on football and Microsoft is the expert on technology, and together we are changing the game,” says Bernstrom.
Lead image: New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees using a Surface equipped with the Sideline Viewing System.