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Revolutionizing Basketball Storytelling: Disney’s Real-Time Tech Crystallizes ESPN’s Shot Chart Visualizations

GRACE – the Graphic Real-time Automation and Control Environment – a platform developed in-house by Disney - transforms data resources into high-end graphic elements that enhance ESPN's hoops coverage

Shot tracking visualizations are proliferating across ESPN’s basketball coverage, thanks to the close partnership between ESPN production teams and Disney Technologists.

With a few clicks of a mouse, producers can toss a three-dimensional virtual rendering of a player’s or team’s makes and misses into game broadcasts or a show. The techniques can visualize a key performance or storyline as a game unfolds or to drive home critical analysis in the studio.

At the heart of this is GRACE – the Graphic Real-time Automation and Control Environment – a platform developed in-house by Disney that transforms data resources into high-end graphic elements that enhance ESPN storytelling.

Before GRACE, shot charts were an hours-long, manual visualization effort. But, beginning in 2021, Technologists dug in to develop a way to automate the creation of high-end, production-quality visuals accessible to anyone from anywhere.

“It’s a living tool that anyone can customize to tell a story,” said Katherine Ham, Software Engineer II for Creative Automation Technologies.

While the technology is advanced, the user experience was built to be easy, flexible, and intuitive. The high-end graphic elements can be democratized across ESPN storytellers and used in equal measure across the NBA, WNBA, and NCAA productions.

This year, clips and visualizations rendered in GRACE by ESPN’s NCAA women’s basketball creative teams more than tripled compared to last season.

The shot charts are built by leveraging the data in ESPN’s source of sports data truth, the Stats and Information Group (SIG). During each game, eagle-eyed SIG teams record the action, plotting every shot, made or missed, and all of the painstaking details in between.

“When you can actually see in real-time what it looked like, what that basket looked like, what that shot looked like, it gives it a higher level … a higher profile treatment,” said Jennifer Gode, Stats & Analysis associate director in SIG. “It just allows our fans to have a better experience.”

Carter Roche, senior researcher for SIG, adds, “Numbers and names on the T.V. can tell a story, but when you can add animations and moving parts, the visual form of shot charts, it adds a different level, holds the viewer, and gives something more enticing to watch.”

The on-air use is just the beginning as teams explore the possibilities for putting the GRACE platform’s capability in the hands of the fans.

“[In] broadcast, we get to tell ESPN’s version of the story, which we’re really great at,” said Adam Eivy, director of software engineering for Creative Automation Technologies, “but in the digital space, where we’re unbounded by time and access, we can tell individual, personalized fan stories.”

WNBA Tip-Off weekend begins Friday, May 19, when six-time WNBA All-Star Brittney Griner – who missed the entire 2022 season due to her wrongful detainment in Russia – returns to the court alongside Diana Taurasi when the Phoenix Mercury travels to Los Angeles to take on the Sparks. The game will air on ESPN at 11 p.m. ET and be simulcast on ESPN+, the leading sports streaming service’s first WNBA game. For more details, visit ESPN Press Room>

ESPN’s exclusive live game coverage of the NBA’s Western Conference Finals continues Saturday when the Denver Nuggets visit the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 3 (ABC, 8:30 p.m. ET). For more on ESPN’s NBA Playoff Coverage, visit ESPN Press Room

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