April 28, 2020
Virtual Tour of Flanders Trailblazes a New Format for Live Sports Using Remote Production
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By pivoting to a virtual race with alternate commentary, the cycling event drew in younger audiences.
Since its founding in 1913, the Tour of Flanders has remained a preeminent cycling race taking place every spring in Belgium. Also known as the De Ronde (The Tour), the annual road sporting event has gone on without missing a beat, holding the longest uninterrupted streak of any cycling classic.
As one of the five “Monuments” of cycling that are billed as the most prestigious and toughest one-day races, the Tour of Flanders is notorious for its cobblestone hills. Every year, cyclists from around the world look forward to tackling the treacherous terrain which demands a high level of both agility and endurance.
This year, organizers Flanders Classics were faced with a particularly difficult decision as the COVID-19 pandemic forced them to cancel the event. However, in an attempt to keep the over 100-year tradition alive, Flanders decided to take an innovative approach to the race by launching a special “Lockdown Edition.” Joining forces with Kiswe for cloud production, Bkool for cycling simulation and VRT/Sporza for broadcasting, the teams quickly went to work on putting together a plan for executing a virtual version of the Tour of Flanders.
The special edition brought together 13 of the world’s top cyclists to tackle the final 32km of the race on bike trainers at home. Using Bkool’s platform, the cyclists could follow a simulated path of the race and see avatars of their fellow competitors biking alongside in real-time. While virtual sports like NBA 2K and Madden have gained popularity within esports, the Tour of Flanders went beyond what people usually expect to see in video game simulations by truly bringing together audiences and athletes into the race.
The cyclists powered through various inclines just like they would experience on the actual course. As they all pedaled vigorously to be crowned the winner, spectators could view the pain and sweat they endured in real-time. With multi-camera angles of the competitors and added audio, viewers witnessed the event as if it were happening in person while acknowledging the effort the cyclists were putting in. Viewers also took part in the live thrill of cheering on CCC team leader Greg Van Avermaet as he traversed through the iconic Paterberg to cross the finish line and win first place.
Cloud-Based Remote Production
Using Kiswe’s Studio platform, the event brought in live feeds from 16 different cameras--three virtual and 13 smartphone cameras of each of the cyclists from different locations around the world. The set-up for cyclists was as simple as a smartphone or webcam connected via WiFi which then sent an RTMP feed to Kiswe Studio. Audiences were able to view a dynamic event with different point-of-views, scenes and real-time stats.
Not only was the race captured remotely, but so was the production and commentary between parties. Over 15 people were involved in the production across the U.S., the U.K. and Belgium, either working from their homes or in off-site studios. The directors, casters, camera operators and athletes could all utilize either text- or audio-based communication tools in Kiswe Studio to collaborate with each other.
The commentators simply needed a laptop with a webcam and could easily begin casting alongside the live broadcast. Appearing either through video PiPs (picture-in-picture) or audio-only, commentators could also be anywhere in the world and communicate in real-time as they’re viewing the event.
Additionally, different graphic treatments, slates and video clips were loaded in pre-production to create a more polished production. The Kiswe team was able to execute and scale the event seamlessly by using a suite of Amazon Web Services (AWS) solutions.
Sporza, along with major broadcasters like ESPN Latin America, RTBF, NOS, TVE, Eurosport, Flosports and Fubo took part in showcasing the event to their audiences. Switching through close-ups of the cyclists at homes on their bikes to scenes of the cobblestone streets, viewers could experience both first-person and third-person perspectives.
Kiswe Studio was able to adjust the quality of the output based on the endpoint (up to 1080p) as well as adjusting for American and European television framerates. Flanders Classics livestreamed the event on their YouTube channel, while Sporza’s VRT added a webcast to their site, which broadened the reach to digital-first and international audiences.
Viewer Engagement and Sponsorship
Millions of viewers around the world tuned in to the first virtual edition of the Tour of Flanders--and perhaps the first-ever global sports event of this capacity. Within Belgium, the event held 60% of the market share. With distribution across various outputs, audiences could choose to watch on mobile, desktop or television, along with the live commentary of their preference.
Giving viewers the flexibility to choose where and how they want to watch the race--as opposed to a single broadcast with one type of commentary--helped expand the reach and deepen the engagement of the audience. In particular, the new format spoke to the elusive millennial and Gen Z audience by reaching them on the mobile and social platforms they spend the most time on. Without having to adhere to the traditional race calendar, the digital version opened the doors for more streamed races to occur in the future and appeal to a whole new generation of cycling fans.
The added viewership and engagement also created valuable opportunities for sponsors, which was especially vital as other events were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Flanders Classic received direct value from sponsorships while participating teams reaped the benefits of increased visibility and awareness.
With positive comments across Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube, users were captivated by the level of production and new way of experiencing a live cycling race.
The “Lockdown Edition” of the Tour of Flanders has opened up new possibilities for virtual cycling and other sporting events. As people have been witnessing the myriad ways that cloud production can be used for live broadcasts, we look forward to seeing even more creative uses across other races, competitions, tours and more!
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