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Big Dunks and Big Data: Analyzing the NBA Finals

Tiny Cameras and Powerful Processing Provide Unique View Into Big Sports Data

SportVU visualization

As network television cameras capture basketball superstar LeBron James slamming a monster dunk or Tony Parker swishing his third 3-pointer during the NBA finals for a global audience of 20 million, there are tiny cameras working unseen in the rafters of San Antonio Spurs’ arena. Their job? To record massive amounts of sports data.

This new data is revolutionizing the way coaches and their staffs use real-time statistics to adjust games on-the-fly or during the season. Data such as how many times a player drives to his right versus his left, who is shooting from what spot, the time of possession for each player and team. How many passes, how many dribbles, how many rebounds and from which quadrant of the court.

The beauty of sports lies in the unpredictable—the upset, a Cinderella team making the Final Four, the bicycle kick in soccer. But the surge in “big data” even in sports is another example of technology continuing to change the world in all corners and all industries.

Half of the National Basketball Association’s 30 teams now use a sports data collection service called SportVU, which collects upwards of 1 million data records per 48-minute basketball game.

Teams use the data to track player stats and game flow in far more depth than an intern with a clipboard keeping a stat sheet on the sidelines. Crunching all that big data requires compute power, specifically Intel Xeon processors.

“The cameras we’ve installed are using algorithms to capture 1 million data records and we need these processors to be powerful and quick,” said Brian Kopp of STATS (SportVU owner). “The HP workstations we use needed to be not huge but powerful so that’s why we chose Intel.”

SportVU cameras are synched with complex algorithms extracting positioning data for all objects on the court, capturing 25 pictures per second. Each picture is time-stamped and automatically processed by a computer, which connects the data to the play-by-play feed and delivers a report within 90 seconds of a play.

Almost instantly, coaches and statisticians have this information at their disposal on their laptops or tablets.

SportVU Soccer Tech
The SportVU system uses fully integrated software and powerful hardware with network and database solutions to deliver sporting data. (source:

SportVU cameras are also installed in most arenas where UEFA (Union of European Football Associations) Champions League matches are held all over the world. It was unclear whether they were being deployed at the World Cup games which begin this week. Xeon-based servers are taking collected data and creating heat maps to show where most of the game’s action takes place, how many miles players are running, their speed with and without the ball, and the nearest defender to their shots on goal.

Coaches use this data to adjust game plans and meet with individual players to talk about ways to improve their performances. For instance, maybe a player will have 3 more seconds per touch to get a pass off if he stands 5 feet away from a defender versus 3 feet. Or perhaps, coaches can change offensive attacks based on the heat map of where the defense stands most of the game.

Kopp says the SportVU technology was originally developed by the Israel military to track missiles using advanced optical recognition.

After his military career, developer Miky Tamir took his SportVU technology public and started a company in Israel tracking soccer games. STATS—based in Chicago with offices all over the world—bought SportVU in 2008.

This content was originally published on the Intel Free Press website.


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