Predicting the Speed of Sport
By Wendy McHale
With so much funding now flowing into the new media space, it's rare that a new technology is conceived in say, a garage like Apple Computer. The days of scratching out the next billion $$ tech firm on a paper napkin are over.
So when we met Rob Riopelle of LiveHive Systems at ad:tech we were delighted to learn that his new company was conceived by a group of grammar school and college buddies in, of all places, a bar!
SpeedofSport.com is a peer-to-peer live action sports experience. It turns sports stats upside down. Instead of checking your scores, you predict them, in real time, play after play after play. Then cut to the commercial. Let's cut to the interview which Tim had with Rob after they met.
Rob: Live Hive was conceived at a bar!
Tim: You're kidding!
Rob: It's true. Some friends and I were having some drinks and watching a football game. We were sitting there talking, and someone said "Oh, I bet you he makes this field goal kick" and someone else said "There's no way he's going to make this pass."
Rob: All of a sudden we realized that a lot of people probably make predictions all the time when they're watching a game or any other type of competition on TV. That's how the idea was conceived. We quickly realized that once we created this 2-screen interactive platform, it could apply to other programs like reality TV or award shows. Our vision is - in the long run - that our games will become a part of almost every live TV show and in the future, even reruns with some technologies we're working on.
Tim: But sitting around a bar talking about a great idea and making it happen are two separate things. Clearly the people around the bar talking knew how to do some programming. Tell me about the team that took that idea and brought it to life.
Rob: Well, of course we have quite a few engineers here. We put together a great technical team, including people from Microsoft and IBM, just to name a few of the bigger companies we recruited from. The people we brought in have a lot of background in interactive large-scale projects. It's important to have that background when you have an application like this because you can potentially have hundreds of thousands of people playing at the same time.
Tim: I agree.
Rob: In terms of the tool itself, for the end user it's easy and very intuitive. Let's say you're watching TV and you're on your laptop or your cell phone. All of the sudden you get prompted with events. Is it going to be a run or a pass? Who's going to win best male vocalist? It's all synchronized with the TV show you're watching. But on the back-end, making all of that work and actually synchronizing it in real time is very complex. The tool pushes what's possible, so the way it's designed becomes very crucial so the product works, as opposed to it crashing or users not having a great experience.
Rob: Yes, because to take it from an idea to the first proof of concept takes quite a bit of time. It took many long nights and weekends of our own time to gather the proof that this could be done and to gather the economics and the business model behind it. Once we formalized the proof and saw we could do what we wanted, we brought together the resources to turn it into a real company.
Tim: Did you grow up with any of your partners?
Rob: Well I knew two of them. One since grade three and one since high school but it's actually funny because we all went our own ways when we hit college/university. We all basically all split up and then later on were reunited and we did this.
Rob: We are all engineers of varying disciplines from systems design to computer engineering and software engineering. All of us have a real passion for technology and sports, and as we pulled into the interactive TV space it's been a great fit for all the people involved. We all have a special skill set that allows us to function in our current role and gives us the best overall return for the company. I'm not sure how it happened to work out, but the positions we landed in are not by chance.
Tim: Tell me about the game itself. It's based on the premise of NanoGaming. Explain to me what that is because I'm sure a lot of people are not familiar with the term.
Rob: Well, within each of the games that make up Speed of Sport, there are smaller pieces of the game, so the predictions occur more frequently. Since the tool actually synchronizes your computer with the live event on television, the player is making predictions in real time, as soon as there is a challenge. For example, say the challenge involves walking across a beam. The player has the opportunity to predict who is going to fall off first. Or, say, will Chuck swear as he usually does when he falls off the beam? The game is fun because it allows players to make predictions based on their knowledge of a sports game or reality TV, for example. That's the premise of NanoGaming.
Tim: As you said earlier, it sounds simple but clearly it's not, so how do you program it?
Rob: The system we've made is a platform that has modules for each event. With baseball there's quite a bit of modeling that's involved in the game so we have high levels of automation. We have people watching the games and inputting basic information. The system then translates into prediction opportunities. We do that for each one of the events, whether it's sports, reality TV, some sort of game show or an election. Our system is modeled to be aware of all kinds of things and then - based on the operator's simple inputs - it resolves and creates prediction opportunities.
Tim: So instead of a play-by-play, you're doing a pre-play-by-play, raising questions about specific live events.
Tim: Are there any completely automated games?
Rob: The games are highly automated with regard to the predictions and resolutions we create. The only part that's not automated is the operator controlling the synchronization of the at-home experience. He's just putting in basic information that's happening in the game, like he hit a home run or he hit a double, and then based on that, the system sets up the next set of predictions and resolves previous ones.
Tim: Let's say in the 2nd quarter you have baseball, basketball, hockey, and all the college games going on. As I understand it, you have someone overseeing each game?
Rob: Yes, that's actually what happens. We have something in our operations center similar to a call center. Because of the high levels of automation on the systems side we don't have to have people who are well trained or familiar with the system. We bring in college students or those who are highly competent and you can quickly teach them the system. There's not a lot of room for error for them to make. They can quickly ramp up on the system and become basically 100% on it. As popularity grows, we'll just bring on more people as we support more and more events. Right now, we have the capacity to support over 20 games simultaneously, so it's far beyond what available or what happens on a typical day.
Rob: Yes, in a way. They are the ones who are keeping it moving. They are not making any choices themselves. They make sure things go smoothly.
Tim: Do you think it's all debugged at this point?
Rob: Yes, we've actually been running this now for a little over a year. We had it up on our Speed of Sport website, www.Speedofsport.com. We actually supported the whole NFL season previous to the last season. We had almost 100% of the games supported. That was the final prove-out of the system for customers who were evaluating it.
Tim: How many people have been playing Speed of Sport?
Rob: Throughout the NFL season it was not something that we publicly promoted. We are not a B2C company; we are B2B. It was there more or less as a sales and marketing tool. Having said that, people were talking about it and writing about it on their blogs. It's gotten a couple of thousand people playing along. It's been quite exciting.
Rob: The Speed of Sport site has very minimal content. The main thing you can do there is play.
Tim: You mentioned blogs, and that's a key element here. Where would I go to talk to people about what's going on in a particular game in real time?
Rob: In the actual game itself there's a Play Now button. That's when you get into the game and the competition. Unfortunately, there's nothing going on right now so you won't be able to compete.
Tim: Are you pushing out emails to give people coming attractions?
Rob: On the main page there's a schedule of events. We're supporting the baseball season right now. About a game a day, approximately.
Tim: You're not picking every baseball game; you're doing one a day?
Rob: Yes, because unfortunately baseball, unlike football, has thousands of games.
Rob: It's been overwhelmingly positive. We're just at this point at the end of our sales cycle and we'll be making some announcements in the next month. We're going to have some live projects up with some networks in July.
Tim: Are they going to be promoting it heavily?
Tim: That's exciting. There must be lots of adrenaline in the hallways.
Rob: People here are excited. We're a new company and everyone here is dedicated and has an interest in seeing us succeed. There's a lot of early mornings and late nights, but it doesn't really seem like a big investment when you like what you're doing.
Rob: Yes, it's a complex project. We're a 25-person company right now of core staff and our operations staff another 15 people at times. So it's a fairly substantial company and it has taken a bit of an investment to get it where it is now.
Tim: As a small business person, I think it's best to keep it as small as possible to maximize quality.
Rob: That's definitely it. We're still at the size now where we're still quite nimble and we can respond to the market, and that's been one of our advantages. We've been able to talk with the market and see what they want and our size is still not stopping us from satisfying them.
Tim: As an advertiser, I feel that the idea of having the commercial breaks already structured into the flow of the game is great! When the game cuts away to the commercial break it's clearly an opportunity to run advertising without any clutter in the game itself. Tell me about that. How's that going to work?
Rob: Well, if you wanted to run say, a 30-second spot you would ideally time it to coincide with the commercial break on TV. However, because this is a game on the internet an advertiser can be more creative. For example, alerting the user that an ad for BMW is coming on and you, the player, have the opportunity to win extra points, "you can do so by entering into a contest etc..." Then when the commercial break is over, BMW can ask questions about the ad or "sponsor" the next prediction. With this application anything is possible.
Tim: Give me the day in the life of someone who's watching NFL on Sunday. I'm assuming they need a TV to watch the programming along with the tool.
Rob: Well, they need a television to get the content. So imagine this, you sit down before the game, you go on to the broadcaster's website or web portal where you're going to play and you're presented with predictions that are more long-term,. For example, "What team is going to be ahead at the half, who is going to get the most yards this game, how many interceptions are going to be thrown during the first quarter"?
Rob: Then the game starts and they flip a coin. You could make a prediction of whether it's going to be heads or tails. Sides are picked, and then you go into the actual play-by-play predictions. For example, the quarterback steps up and before the snap a question comes up: Is it going to be a run or a pass? You're involved in these predictions throughout the game so you're constantly proving your knowledge. One other thing we have associated with all these predictions is based on historical information. We're calculating the probability of various things happening in the game so there's actually a chance to prove your knowledge. Let's take the scenario of whether a player will run or pass. Obviously, it's not equally probable. You may have a 75% chance of a run or 25% chance of a pass. We'll show that to you and you make the call of what you think the outcome will be.
Tim: Does the user have to predict every question that is posed?
Rob: No, you're free to predict as many as you like. You can let some go by. It's really up to you.
Tim: Now, how many conceivable opportunities can someone experience in a typical NFL game?
Rob: Within an NFL game there can be upwards of 75 if you made every single prediction.
Tim: Does the player have to hit send/receive to have the screen refresh?
Rob: No, if you're connected as things appear, you can click or make a prediction or it will eventually disappear.
Tim: Does it tell you how much time you have to make a prediction?
Rob: It doesn't have a countdown. You can make the prediction but there's a lock-out period that helps account for broadcast delay that happens at live events. The lock-out is designed so the game is fair and no one will know the potential outcome. If I happen to have a friend at the game and he's on the cell phone and tells me what the play was, I'd have an unfair advantage. We make sure that that's not possible by having a lock-out on all the dictions.
Tim: Wow, you've really thought it out. Tell me about the points system.
Rob: During the game, prizes are awarded based on the probabilities of things happening. You can potentially get more points if you go for something that's less likely to happen. You can potentially win more points if it plays out. Points can be used in conjunction with a prizing program, or can just be used to differentiate or distinguish a player's knowledge.
Rob: We have a full reporting system that tracks everything that is happening within the application. How many people are playing, how long they've been playing, how many predictions they make etc... Of course, this translates into players having exposure to and possibly interacting with the advertising they experience.
Tim: So can I as a user see who else is playing and who the top players are? Can I compete against a buddy of mine?
Rob: Yes, there are ways to enter tournaments or rooms where you'll compete with your friends and there are leader boards as well where you can see how well your friends are doing or how well you're doing against everyone else online.
Tim: Okay, let's change gears. Tell me about your background.
Rob: Queen's University. It's a Canadian university in Kingston Ontario, about 2 hours east of Toronto.
Tim: Where did you go from there?
Rob: After school I was recruited by Microsoft. I worked there for 3 years in the Windows division and also the Tablet PC division which started with a heavy technology focus then I sort of moved toward the business side of things. That was my transition from a pure technology discipline to sales and marketing and I realized that that side was what really got me excited -- combining the technology with the business side of the business.
Rob: From there I came back to Canada to the Waterloo region where I am now and was working for a consumer electronics company in sales and marketing for another two years. That was where a lot of us reconnected and came up with the idea for this and here we are today.
Tim: Rob, I'm very excited and look forward to seeing how Speed of Sport evolves. Thanks for taking time out to chat with us!
Rob: My pleasure, Tim!