The Art of Data Visualization for Sport

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Sports have always been a numbers games and the collection of data is nothing new but, in the age of data analytics, the rules have changed. Transforming performance data into manageble information is less straightforward than you might think, but it’s big business.

The data revolution in sports has transformed the way coaching staff and fans alike interact with events on the field. Sports have always been numbers games and the collection of in-game statistics is absolutely nothing new but, in the age of data analytics, the value of these statistics is quickly being realized. For those involved in the game, analytics allows for a more objective, deeper understanding of what can otherwise be chaotic competition. For the fans, it can reveal things they might otherwise have missed and ultimately facilitate a deeper understanding of the sports they love.

Data is nothing, though, without proper visualization. The average fan will take very little from the vast swathes of data collected if presented with the information at face value. Even the most analytically minded sports coach doesn’t have time to sift through endless data sets on player fitness or passing accuracy in search of the valuable metrics. To be actionable this data needs proper visualization, which has the ability to condense performance data into easily digestible and immediately understandable dashboards, something far less straightforward than you might initially think.

Companies like Prozone offer high-end performance analytics software to sports teams, a major facet of which is the data visualisations they include. Presented in truly innovative ways on its Playing Styles feature, Prozone takes otherwise complex and unconnected data and brings it together to be understood by anyone, professional or otherwise. The company claims it ‘allows coaches and analysts to gain a better understand of opponent strategy,’ whilst ‘[enhancing] scouting operations by highlights players that would best fit within your team’s tactical system.’

There is the sense that, though analysts will have been able to interpret this data for some time, the improvements in visualization give them more credibility. When a coach or decision maker can see the data displayed persuasively, they’re likely to be much more willing to follow it. ‘Hackathons’ have been popping up across the US, in particular - competitions where both professional and amateur analysts and statisticians come together to put forward their innovative analytics and data visualization techniques to professional sporting bodies. Teams of all levels are looking for that edge over the competition and thehe ability to easily grapple with data can provide it.

Outside of the sport itself, data visualization is also having a major impact on how broadcasters and video game manufacturers, for example, present data to their audiences. The likes of Opta Sports and Prozone, provide visualizations like heat maps, action areas, individual player movements, passing diagrams, and innumerable others to television broadcasters, helping them communicate otherwise difficult specifics to their viewers. Prozone’s visualisation software has also been added to the hugely popular video game series Football Manager, giving players the ability to examine data about their team much like the professional coaching teams the game emulates.

Data visualization is important across industries, but in sports the effect has been perhaps the most immediately obvious. The level of analysis in broadcasting coupled with fans’ insatiable hungover for statistics and insight makes for fertile ground for new visualizations to be used. If the initial challenge for professional analytics teams was to identify which metrics are useful, the next was to present the information in a persuasive and digestible way. Data visualization has a long way to go, but for the technique at arguably its most developed, look no further than sports.

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