It’s one thing to hope that your video chat for a virtual work happy hour connects seamlessly. It’s quite another for a professional football team to rely on the technology to select what it hopes will be its next franchise-defining player.
But that’s what 32 teams did last week when they used Microsoft Teams, the tech giant’s collaboration platform, as part of the first-ever virtual NFL Draft.
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It was a high-stakes moment for Microsoft. The company is going up against Cisco Webex, Zoom, Google Meet, Slack and others in the fiercely competitive market for communication and collaboration technology — one of the fastest-growing technology product categories due to the sudden rise of remote work. A headline-making glitch could have given many IT decision-makers second thoughts.
An early run-through of the draft, a mock exercise designed to test the technology, was reportedly plagued by bandwidth problems, but those tests must have served their purpose. CNBC reported after the first night that there were “no discernible glitches or delays in the draft process.” Reuters concurred that the draft “went off without any major hitches,” but also pointed out a shortcoming of technology — observing that “social distancing gave the entire evening a detached sterile feel” in contrast with the NFL Draft’s customary glitz and glamour.
Microsoft has supplied Surface tablets as sideline technology since 2013 under a deal with the NFL. The company and league said they would do more to integrate Teams as part of an extension of the alliance earlier this year.
Over the course of the three-day draft — a highly anticipated event for sports-starved fans during the COVID-19 pandemic — Microsoft Teams was used to enable communication between the NFL and its clubs looking to make player selections.
Microsoft was just one company whose technology was used to pull off the event. Amazon Web Services provided hosting and video feed management; Verizon provided phones and connectivity for remote locations; and Bose provided headphones to all participants.
Yusuf Mehdi is a big NFL fan who happens to be a corporate vice president for Modern Life, Search and Devices at Microsoft. In a Teams call this week, he sported a Seattle Seahawks shirt as he switched his background to an image of the team’s home, CenturyLink Field.
Mehdi watched the draft with his two sons and said he enjoyed the escape from the heaviness of the ongoing health crisis. He wasn’t alone. The NFL established new viewership records for the event, with an average audience of over 8.4 million viewers watching all three days.
Without naming Zoom, he alluded to the rival’s recent security challenges as he described one of Microsoft’s big selling points.
“With a lot of these video conferencing solutions, you’ve heard critiques and cases where people drop in accidentally to other people’s calls,” he said, noting that Microsoft has an edge on the security front “because of the fact that we run it for so many enterprise accounts.”
Other keys for the NFL Draft were ease of use and a broad feature set that includes video calls and text chat in channels. Mehdi said each NFL team was able to have a private channel to communicate among themselves and with the NFL. A special form was used to make selections, and it was timestamped to make sure everything adhered to the “on the clock” nature of the draft.
In its own blog post about the behind-the-scenes activity, Microsoft said a tool called Power Automate would automatically post the selection on the private “Head Table” channel and simultaneously relay it to Commissioner Roger Goodell’s Surface tablet so the pick could be transferred to a paper card and announced for the TV audience.
It’s all a new wrinkle for a sports world in which Surface tablets have become as familiar on the sidelines as some of the coaches and players who use the devices — whether they’re tossing them on the ground or swiping through plays in unique ways.
“We want to be a part of the game” Mehdi said. “We don’t want to be like a banner that’s up on a stadium wall. We want our tech to be so emotional that people grab it and use it.”
Mehdi is optimistic and hopeful that the NFL will be back in action, not just virtually, later this year, with Microsoft’s technology back on the sidelines. But building on the momentum of the virtual draft, he says the company is ready to help however it can.
“They made all these draft picks, now they have to help get all these players on board and say, ‘OK, what are our plays? How do we come together?’” Mehdi said. “The ability for our technology to help with that, whether it’s the Surface device or Teams or anything else, we’re going to play a big role.”