The Evolution
of the Highlight

How the Highlight Blew up and Became a Cornerstone of Basketball Culture

Since ESPN rolled out Sportscenter for the first time in 1979, the highlight has been a bedrock of basketball culture. There is no simpler, more efficient way to grab a game’s most gripping moments and share them with an audience. An entire contest can be summed up in a few clips.

As the highlight has evolved, it’s become about far more than just game recaps. A highlight can be a compilation of domination, such as a litany of soul-crushing dunks by Russell Westbrook or three-point barrages by Steph Curry. It can also celebrate season-long accomplishments or get a high school athlete on the map for college scouts. Highlights inspire, celebrate, thrill and inform, all within a matter of moments.

So how did we get here? At what point did the highlight not only move mainstream, but become an essential part of the way we consume sports?

We understand the value of a highlight - it’s an essential part of our very existence. But it’s time we set out to uncover the history of highlights and get a peek at what’s coming next.

“Fade, Fire, Fill”

On Sept. 7, 1979, ESPN set out on a mission that many considered positively ludicrous, debuting a network devoted to covering sports around the clock. Each night was capped with Sportscenter, a program that would recap the day’s top action. Due to television rights and the cost of showing games, ESPN rarely got the privilege of airing the top contests, so it needed another way to share the sports world’s biggest stories.

In came Sportscenter, which informed viewers of games’ outcomes in short, digestible bites, each one rarely lasting longer than a few minutes. The show’s anchors livened up the video with clever catchphrases (the gem titling this section came from Rece Davis), and viewers came to crave this mode of getting their sports fix.

Highlights are the bedrock of the Top 10 Plays, one of Sportscenter’s most popular and longest-running segments. This portion showcases the ten best plays from the day with no other game context. The highlights are the entire structure.

Perhaps no sport caters better to highlights than basketball. Because of the sport’s quick, up-and-down nature, individual plays last only a few seconds, making them easy to cut up and string together to tell a story. Basketball is defined by moments - a dunk, ankle-breaking crossover or rejection may be the single noteworthy occurrence in a contest.

For instance, no one can recall the result of the Clippers-Thunder clash on Jan. 30, 2012. But this gravity-defying moment forever changed the way we view Blake Griffin and Kendrick Perkins.

Sportscenter introduced the world to sports highlights, unlocking the ultimate way to consume basketball’s most captivating instances. In the late 1980s, the show began using longer highlights to break down plays and discuss strategy. Instead of just showing the game-winning shot, knowledgeable anchors or analysts showed the action or defensive breakdown that led to the deciding play. These highlights educated as well as entertained

And1 Changes the Game

Given sneakers’ importance in the basketball landscape, it should come as no surprise that a shoe company helped jumpstart the highlight revolution. To this point, highlights were mainly focused around teams and game action. But And1 was about to show off the individual.

The shoe company released its first mixtape in 1998, with Rafer Alston, better known as Skip To My Lou, as the headliner.

The success of the initial mixtape led And1 to craft a roster of street ballers and go on tour. The team traveled across the world, taking on (and mostly embarrassing) local teams and picking up any noteworthy players along the way.

ESPN picked up the tour in 2002, creating Streetball. While the half-hour segments told backstories and introduced characters, they were essentially 30-minute highlights, long compilations of crossovers, spins and alley-oops that had viewers jumping out of their chairs in excitement.

The tour romanticized isolation basketball and breaking down an opponent one-on-one, and players realized they could build a personal following outside of team success. For some, embarrassing the opponent became as critical as winning and losing. The tour turned players like the Professor, AO and Hot Sauce, complete unknowns previously, into household names, stoking the notion that through individual expression one could make it on the big stage.

The buzz surrounding the tour eventually fizzled out and the show is no longer carried by ESPN, but the tour’s legacy lives on through memories of Spyda, Escalade and countless others.

Social Media Arrives

Before the mid-2000s, the only way to share highlights was through television or individual DVDs and VHS tapes. If you wanted someone other than your family and friends to see your work, you’d better hope a major network was showcasing your game. Outside of creating DVDs and mailing them to colleges - an expensive and time-consuming endeavor - your odds of getting noticed weren’t great.

That all changed when coaches and athletes gained the ability to create and share highlights themselves.

This movement kicked off when YouTube was founded in 2005 and purchased by Google in 2006. A free way to share unlimited amounts of video, YouTube became an endless cosmos of highlights. All a user had to do was create a free account, upload their video and do something noteworthy enough to go viral for 15 minutes of fame.

Then came Facebook and Twitter, both developed in the mid-2000s. These social platforms became perfect outlets to share highlights. With just a few clicks, organizations, coaches and athletes could present their best moments to the world. Apps such as Vimeo and Vine proved to be perfect mediums to capture moments for immediate dispersal.

No professional league embraced the growth of these sharing platforms like the NBA. While the NFL and, to a lesser extent, Major League Baseball, guard their highlights with a moated fortress, the NBA freely lets anyone post clips of their best players. It’s free advertising, and league commissioner Adam Silver’s approval has allowed basketball highlights to explode on social media.

The way we look at it is our fans, in some ways, are our best marketers,” NBA Vice President of Global Media Distribution Jeff Marsilio told Mashable. “We’ve got over a billion followers now on social media across the platforms. But what really drives that engagement is not so much what we are putting on social media but what fans are doing with that content: Sharing, interacting with and creating their own versions of it.”

Social media has allowed highlights to be shared instantly. Now when a game-changing play occurs, fans can pull up a replay almost instantly. Many teams and leagues use push notifications to target users and send out highlights of the most impactful moments.

Recruiting Takes Off

If coaches had their way, they would have more than enough time to sift through hours of game video and analyze every portion of every recruit’s performance. Is he hustling at all times? What’s his body language? Does he stay in his defensive stance or let up when he’s fatigued?

Unfortunately, this simply isn’t possible. Cramped schedules leave coaches with precious little time to evaluate each individual prospect, making mixtape videos an essential part of the recruiting process.

A recruit has a matter of moments to catch a recruiter’s eye with his mixtape before the viewer moves on. If the coach watches a couple of clips and is intrigued, he’s likely to turn to game video and make a more thorough evaluation of the player. While that video is ultimately what puts a scholarship letter in the mailbox, it’s the highlight that gets the recruit’s foot in the door.

The social media boom has made these mixtapes easier to share than ever, and the growth of recruiting websites such as Rivals and Scout has positioned them prominently for national audiences. Never has it been easier for a recruit to share his mixtape with schools he’s interested in, giving himself a heightened chance at landing a coveted offer.

Though athletes are capable of crafting videos by themselves, Hudl offers the ability to streamline this process. By simply clicking on a stat or a spot on the shot chart, an athlete can pull up a playlist of noteworthy sequences and select the ones he believes have the best chance of grabbing a recruiter’s attention. The mixtape is the critical bridge connecting athletes to recruiters.

The Future: What’s Next?

As far as the highlight has come, it’s only scratching the surface of its potential. The future is even more exciting. The highlight is essentially a ball of clay, a fascinating substance that can be molded into a whatever the creator desires.

It won’t be long before mixtapes won’t even have to be created - they’ll be automatically generated themselves. Through stats, machine learning and multiple-camera setups, computers will be able to recognize the key moments in a game and instantly create killer videos. Users will no longer have to craft their own mixtapes. The work will be done for them, and Hudl is leading the charge. We’ve already begun this process for football, and the technology only figures to become more efficient and eye-catching. These mixtapes will be created in real time, arriving as push notifications on mobile devices around the world.

Personal mixtapes will allow players to better express themselves as individuals.Through added effects, spot shadow options and stats, athletes will be able to showcase their abilities more effectively than ever before. Players will be able to show more of their personality and provide greater context around their mixtape.

And that’s just in the near future. In asking some of our top developers to put on their prediction caps, we got an interesting look at what the highlight might look like in 15-20 years. It’s expected that every arena/gym will have dozens of cameras tracking the action, allowing for any play to be captured from the best possible angle.

There is already wearable technology, like ShotTracker, that records players’ stats and how successful they were from various areas of the court. This technology could translate to highlights, allowing the top moments to be automatically tagged. Stats such as vertical jump on a dunk or top-end speed on a fast break could also be included in mixtapes.

As groundbreaking as Sportscenter’s highlights were, these upcoming innovations have the chance to blow those out of the water. Athletes will have access to mind-blowing highlights the moment they step off the court, and sharing them on social media will be easier and more effective than ever before.

Virtual reality could also play a major role, allowing the viewer to essentially reconstruct a live event and watch it again from different angles. But possibly more exciting is the role that augmented reality could play. Highlights would be overlayed into reality so the user could move through the experience and appreciate every moment.

The highlight is in a great place at the moment, but the exciting possibilities in the near future are enough to make one salivate.

We know where the highlight came from and where it’s headed in the near future. But what about the present? Get out there and make your own mixtape, whether you’re showcasing team success or individual skills. People deserve to see what you can do, and there’s no better way to show them than with a highlight.

Dan Hoppen

Content Producer  |  @danhoppen

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