How Fortnite’s Game Engine Is Augmenting NASCAR on Fox Sports

*This article originally published on SportTechie.

In Fox Sports’ new studio in Charlotte, N.C., engines roar as race cars zoom across the floor. Technology is allowing the network’s hosts to bring 3D replicas of racetracks to TV screens, and to put viewers inside the action.

Back in February, Fox debuted a new set dedicated to its NASCAR coverage for the 2019 season. To power the graphics for its new augmented reality broadcast experience, the network reached out to video game developer Epic Games. The company’s Unreal Engine is the same software behind Fortnite, the video game turned cultural phenomenon that helped Epic bank $3 billion in profit in 2018.

“The things that attracted us to [the Unreal Engine] was this hyperrealism we could get that we could never get from broadcast renders,” said Zac Fields, SVP of Graphic Technology and Integration at Fox Sports. “One of the challenges for us has been putting the two worlds together. It’s one thing to create a 3D environment and have that act as a virtual set, but to make it completely interactive and control the different elements, those are the really hard parts because the tool wasn’t intended for broadcasts.”

Fox Sports began testing the Unreal Engine two years ago before deciding to go ahead and implement the software this year. Though Fields and his production team were aware of the platform before Fortnite was released in July 2017, he admits “people are seeing just how powerful the software is” now because of the video game’s popularity.

“If you watch [our] show, you kinda lose yourself in the fact that it’s a virtual set. It’s not something that looks anything like a virtual set of the past.” Fields explained. “To have the real-time lighting and shadows, just some of the features that the Unreal Engine offers, that’s the secret sauce in how it looks so amazing.”

A 50′ by 47′ green screen set space fills most of the Charlotte studio. Inside that, programs such as the pre-race show NASCAR RaceDay and news and information show NASCAR Race Hub are filmed. Their graphics often include real-time data visualizations that derive directly from cars on the racetracks.

To blend the Unreal Engine’s 3D graphical world with Fox’s physical studio space, the network reached out to Zero Density, a virtual studio production company based in Turkey. All five in-studio cameras use Zero Density’s augmented reality software Reality. The network also purchased Zero Density’s editing system, which is used to design the virtual studio together with other Unreal Engine-powered virtual content and effects that feature during live broadcasts.

The Unreal Engine wasn’t designed for television broadcasts, which created a need for virtual production technology that can be integrated with the video game engine. In 2014, Zero Density began a research and development partnership with Epic Games to integrate Unreal Engine within its platform.

“Our unorthodox use of Unreal Engine has opened new doors for its usage in other industries,” explained Ulaş Kaçmaz, co-founder and VP of sales and marketing at Zero Density, in an email to SportTechie. “We would not go that far to state that physical sets will become obsolete in the immediate future, but they should in the long run.”

Zero Density now provides its virtual production platform to a variety of broadcast companies around the world such as France Télévisions, Sky Sports, Eurosport, and Shanghai Media Group.

“A client of ours is producing seven different shows in the same virtual set by switching the studios in a heartbeat,” Kaçmaz added. “There is enough evidence in the industry that game engines started replacing all the graphics engines and Zero Density is the initiator and the leader of this progression.”

Fields says Fox Sports will continue implementing new storytelling techniques involving the Unreal Engine throughout the NASCAR season, including a new iteration of the cutaway car and augmented demonstrations of racetracks. Fields hinted that the Unreal Engine could feature in Fox Sports’ other coverage, too.

“It’s probably a matter of time before we start adapting this technology for other studios and sports,” Fields said. “Right now we’re talking about a use case for the women’s World Cup this upcoming summer. While it would not be a virtual set, we’re looking at using Unreal Engine to render out certain graphics that you would see within our broadcasts.”