IPL 2020 is an opportunity to showcase the power of inspired thinking: Sanjog Gupta

The newly appointed Head of Star Sports in an exclusive interview with e4m talks about the challenges of delivering a bigger and better IPL despite COVID led constraints

e4m by Naziya Alvi Rahman
Updated: Oct 15, 2020 8:40 AM
sanjog gupta

The 13th season of Dream11 IPL would have been a distant dream if it was not for the heavy investments of Disney Star India in innovation and technology. To execute this mammoth event seamlessly in these times of COVID, the group has created a bio-bubble managing close to 1200 people in India and UAE. To understand more about the process that has gone into executing the season, exchange4media spoke to Sanjog Gupta, Head – Sports, Star India. Edited excerpts:- 

In the absence of live spectators, fan engagement was a big challenge for this season of Dream11 IPL. How have you used the innovations in production and tech to bring fans closer to the game?

The first shift in mindset that we needed was to move away from the thinking that many things are not going to be there and we must compensate for those things. At the end of the day, the game is played on the field and what we needed to do is to take that game and present it in a way where consumers, fans and viewers feel engaged. We were creating a unique viewing experience, which meant starting from zero. So challenging every convention that we have right from camera angles to sound. We looked at every element of the game in isolation for the viewing experience to be better than what it was in the past. 

We needed to do a lot more close up shots because we didn’t want to show empty stands. The proposition for this year's IPL is that you are going to be closer to your players than ever before. Typically, the game would be covered with a lot of wide shots and a lot of the stadium being seen so you wouldn’t see Dhoni’s expression when he hits a six. One of the propositions we built this year is that viewers will be able to look into their favourite player’s eyes and read his expressions. Thus, we changed the entire camera configuration for the stadium. We added 10 additional cameras this year. We have dressed up the stadiums differently with a lot of electronic perimeter boards with a lot of messaging to amp up the atmosphere and bring colour in the stadium. 

The sound was a big challenge because it is one of those things that you don’t notice that when it is there but you do notice it when it’s not there. We looked at the last two IPL’s and studied the sounds and sound design of 100 matches played across the last two IPLs in 2018 and 2019. We broke those sounds of the matches into categories across players who were playing, teams who were playing and the opposition. The sounds of a Kings XI Punjab vs Delhi Capitals is different from the sound of an RCB vs CSK. The sound of different cricketers winning are also different. We re-recorded that sound. As the matches are happening we playback that sound on the broadcast so the audience doesn’t miss it. 

We made the sound interactive with the ‘Cheer from Home’ service which allows you to use Disney+Hotstar emojis while watching the game to trigger chants in the stadium when a particular cricketer comes out. 

This has been a very tech-heavy edition requiring many innovations. How was the back end managed given the unpredictability of this edition a few months ago?

We wanted fans at home to feel connected to the game because when you see empty stands in the stadium it is very easy to disconnect. So we started something called the Virtual Match Ticket, which is a Fan Wall initiative. Viewers of IPL can effectively register to be a fan in the broadcast. Which means from your phone or your laptop or interactive screen that you can log on to the game. As soon as you log on, you get to watch the game. Secondly, our production set up is given access to our camera where we can record it or go live to it. Fans from cities who would never be able to go to the stadium are getting to be a part of the broadcast, getting to cheer for their players and being seen that they are cheering for their players. We wanted to ensure that a sport which is largely a community-driven experience feels like a community-driven experience on-air by these Fan Walls which have on any given day hundreds of fans on them. That’s the sentiment of togetherness that we want to drive to our broadcast. 

Using a custom-built software that we had we are now able to connect with any commentator anywhere and bring him to commentary as they watch it live from their respective locations. We have used technology to enhance the viewing experience by giving viewers access to many more commentators they would typically have. There are commentators at the venue and in Mumbai at our Biosecure bubble as well. We have remote link-ups with commentators not just India but around the world. We will have Nasir Hussain, former England captain joining us next week on commentary and not needing to travel. This tech piece has enabled us to deliver enhanced viewing experience despite the constraints that COVID presents.  

There has been great visibility of Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) this season and the possibilities of these technologies for programming seem massive. What does Star have in store for the second half?

We have an interesting initiative coming in the next few weeks where by using AR we are going to take thousands of pictures of fans who have sent us their pictures and use them to create a collage of their favourite player inside the stadium. Think of it like a massive mosaic where your picture is a part of the thousands of pictures of fans that creates a picture of Dhoni. 

In VR we have models of all three stadiums of Abu Dhabi, Sharjah and Dubai and enabling our commentators to wear a headset and enter the stadium in a virtual world. This innovation means that our commentators can go into a moment and explain to our viewers why it was special. So we had Brian Lara playing deliveries from Rashid Khan and the commentaries from this VR. In AR we have been using the locales because one of the things that we want to establish is the spectacle which is IPL. We have been using the locales of UAE, Dubai and the cities of Dubai to project a lot of massive AR images. So the Burj Kalifa had a huge virtual picture of the KKR team to build that hype around the fact that IPL is in UAE this year. 

We have also used AR for the analysis commenters do when they are at the venue. We have used this opportunity to bring onboard technology which is not even in use anywhere else in the world and much of it hasn’t been deployed on sport or broadcast. 

You have created perhaps one of the biggest biosecure bubbles to execute this process. Can you please take us through the process of creating these bubbles in India and UAE?

We studied the concept of biosecure bubbles because it's a concept not unique to the sport. It comes from the field of science which is creating a biosecure bubble which prevents contamination and prevents contagion. One you can not let any foreign undesirable element in and two if a foreign undesirable element is in then it doesn’t infect others. Those are two principles of a biosecure bubble. There was a lot of research that we did on biosecure bubbles. Then we had a panel of doctors who worked with us to advise on COVID related matters. We also looked at models of biosecure bubbles used by other broadcasters around the world but what we found was that most of these models were not relevant for us as we thought they would be. Our biosecure bubble is a lot more stringent and secure than the benchmark set by these biosecure bubbles. The biosecure bubble in Mumbai between Trident and our production facility in Lower Parel every member servicing the IPL is inside the biosecure bubble including the drivers, pantry boys, the service staff, chefs hotel staff, etc. 

This investment we decided to make for this years’ IPL was truly towards the cause of changing the national sentiment in this country. It was towards the cause of togetherness, building community and making people feel better about their lives. 

This was something we needed to do for millions of fans who have given the sport and given us so much in the last few years. It is a way for us to give them back their smiles and give them back that togetherness you feel when you watch a game together. 

Star produces six language feeds, given the fact that this year a lot of it has been done from WFH set-up how have you managed it? 

It was a challenge. The temptation when we started on this journey was to potentially curtail the expanse of the production and broadcast. But when we thought about it we just felt that if IPL means as much as it does to millions of viewers in this country it is not fair for us to take the easy way out of accepting the situation as it stands and working within the constraints than to reimagine how the production can happen to deliver an output that still matches the expectations of people. Once we had the purpose of delivering a bigger and better IPL in mind even if there were constraints, everything else was about how you challenge yourself to think differently and reimagine every little thing that you do to overcome the challenges that the constraints present. That’s what we went about doing. Credit to the entire team and every individual of the team who came forward to make this sacrifice because everyone is away from their families for 60-75 days living in a biosecure bubble which is not easy. Everyone was so driven to deliver this not just because it’s in the service of the fans of this great game but also because it is truly an opportunity to showcase in the world what inspired thinking can deliver even in the toughest of times and which is what we have gone about doing. This will be a benchmark from others to learn from and we have also got queries from other broadcasters across the globe to understand how we have gone about doing this.

The Select Dugout Studio was revamped for this edition. Take us through some of the innovations there?  

Select Dugout is the most premium feed that we produce. It has a state of the art modern tech studio. The kind of tech that we put into that studio doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world. Ranging from VR to AR to motion sensors to virtual sets. That feed is meant for true blue cricket fans who want an experience that is more game than the normal feed provides. The proposition for this year’s Select Dugout was ‘More Game, Per Game’ which is basically when you come to watch Select Dugout you get to understand the game better, your players better and get the opportunity to get deeper into the game. It is a premium feed that the top per cent of cricket consumers watch and they love it because you have Brian Lara talking about what makes Rishabh Pant special or not and more. 

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