Foosball’s Coming Home

Wembley Stadium hosts a table football revolution thanks to AR and 5G

On Sunday, Wembley Stadium — to many, the home of football — welcomed 8,000 fans to the Carabao Cup final between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur. Sports fans up and down the country (and around the world) will be hoping that this is a step toward the eventual return of crowds to arenas, and a revival of the powerful and visceral atmosphere that people create at major events.

When this happens, it will come with some changes to events, such as the need to produce a negative Covid-19 test on the door. However, not all the changes will be pandemic-related. Since fan attendance at major events was put on hold, the world of technology has continued apace, and this week I was lucky enough to witness the progress that EE is making in enhancing the fan experience once people return to stadiums.

Since the launch of its 5G network in the UK, EE has provided full 5G capacity around Wembley Stadium. The global pandemic has prevented stress-testing by an audience of 90,000, as would be expected for a major event, but when sports fans return, the network should provide superb connectivity for 5G users, especially compared with 4G networks, which often struggle to handle thousands of simultaneous connections in one place.

The work doesn’t end there, though. During my visit to Wembley, I learned more about EE’s plans to harness 5G connectivity to deliver engaging content in extended reality, improving the experience for people in the stadium. Its first project is table football, or foosball, played in augmented reality (AR), using 5G-connected smartphones, and overlaid onto the hallowed Wembley turf.

Thanks to an AR experience powered by Samsung Galaxy S21 smartphones I was able to play foosball seamlessly on my phone against my colleague Kester (not to brag, but I won 10-4), from the comfort of the stands. This was enabled by the stadium’s 5G network, which offers low latency as well as high speeds, both of which are hugely important for experiences like gaming. Some famous faces also turned up to have a go — I’m sure I’d have given Gareth Southgate a run for his money too. Jokes aside, the immediate application for this sort of technology at a football game would be before kick-off or during half-time entertainment, as a way of bringing fans in on the action.

Although the game I tried was fairly simple, pitting one player against another, one of the most exciting things about 5G is that its capacity could allow thousands of people to join the same game or experience simultaneously, which could unlock some cool uses. For example, at a cup final you could have one half of the stadium playing the other half, creating a fan-based competition before the real match starts. In a world where e-sports and gaming continue to surge in popularity, this could be a great way to engage more people and heighten their sense of involvement, be that at a football match, gig, concert, play, musical, or any form of event.

BT, which EE is a part of, has also been seeking to bolster the experience of watching live sport at home. In October 2020, it announced a series of new immersive features for the BT Sport app, collectively called Match Day Experience (see Instant Insight: EE Unveils Match Day Experience). For example, Watch Together allows users to video-chat with up to three friends through a split-screen view while watching a match at the same time, and Manager Mode offers real-time statistics and graphics, such as tracking player positions, their speed and the trajectory of shots.

It’s not the first time we’ve seen network providers turn to emerging technologies like AR to promote their 5G networks. Verizon used 5G to offer a more attractive experience for viewers tuning in to the 2021 Super Bowl (see Verizon’s Big Bowl Bet). And EE itself has already used AR experiences like live music from Bastille and Rita Ora to promote its 5G services. It brings to life the real benefits that 5G can offer to customers, turning it from a faster network to a transformative technology that will enable new experiences in a wide range of locations.

As fans start to return to events, these location-based experiences may become an increasingly powerful part of the package, and I can’t wait to see what they deliver next.