Virtual Reality (VR) is taking the world by storm by creating a new artificial one. VR is a technology that simulates the movement of three-dimensional objects to reflect the real world in the viewer’s mind. With the help of VR-equipped headgear, users are able to view and sometimes even interact in that world depending upon the system. The advanced technology is becoming more and more integrated into our society each day, whether it is for altering the way sports practices are conducted or how fans are consuming sporting events. It is infiltrating the sports world and trending toward daily use and mass consumption.
VR: As a Performance Enhancing Technology
As it is emerging as a powerful tool, Virtual Reality has changed the way football practices are conducted and the way quarterbacks are preparing for opposing defenses. The artificial simulation is now relied on by a number of college football teams and professional teams to enhance the productivity of scouting.
VR’s capability to immerse the user into real-world scenarios and place them in specific events as if they were there allows users to learn and develop their understanding of their surroundings. STriVR Labs is a leader in the field of Virtual Reality and on their official website they detail how their technology is beneficial to training:
To become great, repetitions matter. […] With STRIVR, players can practice anytime, anywhere, just as if they were out on the field, court, ice, or course. Using an immersive VR environment, athletes can accelerate their training regimen and never miss a beat. STRIVR’s technology gives athletes unlimited reps in the most realistic environment possible so they can be ready when it truly matters (STRiVRLabs.com).
STriVR Lab’s client list incorporates major professional sports leagues in NBA, NHL, NFL, and MLS, as well as multiple NCAA athletic programs. The clients include the Washington Wizards, Chicago Blackhawks, Dallas Cowboys, New England Revolution, New England Patriots (Winner of Super Bowl LI) and Clemson University (2016 College Football National Champions).
The Dartmouth football program has been a big proponent of the technology and has invested heavily not only to acquire and utilize the VR computer simulation and immersive technology but to also to have exclusive rights among Ivy League competitors. Buddy Teevens, Football Head Coach for Dartmouth, expressed his belief in VR when he said, “This is cutting-edge stuff. Eventually, everyone is going to want to have this. This puts us ahead of the curve” (Platt, Dartmouth News). After the implementation of the new VR equipment into Dartmouth’s team practices and scouting, Buddy Teevens explained why VR is such a helpful tool, “It’s functional, adaptable to what our needs might be because it’s real footage; it’s not robotic or animated.” (Zorowitz, NBC Sports World).
Teaming up with STriVR Labs allows sports clubs to seamlessly incorporate VR technologies in with practice, and even, mentally train players without having them step foot on the practice field. “Teams may only be allowed to have four sessions with live tackling and blocking, but with virtual reality, a player can step on the field and practice running routes with a full-padded defender charging their weak side” (Zorowitz, NBC Sports World). Virtual Reality provides users the ability to envision what specifically different defensive schemes will look like at the line of scrimmage. VR facilitates preparation against opposing teams’ playbooks, but without have a player take unnecessary hits to his body during a time of practice. The progression from 2D to 3D is not just benefiting team’s’ preparation for games by simulating repetition after repetition, but it is also improving player safety especially in collision sports.
VR: As a Viewing Experience for Consumers
The other side of virtual reality is the unique experience it provides fans. Just as in the case of football players preparing for upcoming games view a 3D artificial world, fans experience the same immersion. Next Galaxy is a leading developer of VR technology and one of the companies spearheading the movement of altering the fan experience. Akim Millington, a former New Orleans Saints lineman and Next Galaxy’s Director of Virtual Reality Sports and Entertainment, explained that by, “Using virtual reality, you go from a 2D world to a 3D world – a world in which you are completely immersed” (Dickson, TechCrunch).
In respect to the fan experience, a VR headset and respective software programs are required for the optimal fan experience. With the VR headset, fans are essentially placed courtside where they are able to witness the action in 3D. The fan can be sitting on his or her couch yet have the same viewing experience as a sideline reporter or announcer. The experience facilitates close-ups on players, coaches, officials and the overall arena. Virtual Reality is the most realistic experience we, as fans, can engage in aside from actually attending in person.
NextVR is the application that is downloaded onto your phone, tablet or console and streams the content to your headset. NextVR is a compatible app that can be utilized with Samsung’s Gear VR headset or Sony’s PlayStation VR headset.
David Cole, NextVR co-founder and CEO, explained the evolution of the viewing experience, “3D TV added some depth. But you’re still watching that rectangle on a wall. When we’re [NextVR] doing our job right, you forget you’re in VR. You become less distractible. It’s a new consumptive state” (Gregory, Sports Illustrated). The headset provides both the immersive visualization of the artificial world the viewer is now in, as well as removes any sort of external distraction. A Sports Illustrated writer, Sean Gregory, shared his first-hand account of watching an NBA game via the Virtual reality broadcast. His insight about the broadcast highlights the uniqueness of such a distinct viewing experience, “The NextVR broadcast has its own announcers, who share directional commands you don’t typically hear on ESPN: ‘look to your right to see a player set a screen, to your left to see a fight for a loose ball’ ” (Gregory, Sports Illustrated).
Niche groups of viewers are able to purchase and consume live games in 3D. Owners and commissioners have become bullish investors of the technology in order to enhance fan engagement. However, VR is not yet a product or experience consumed by the masses but it is available to select groups of people. There has been positive fan reaction to the experience regardless of the fact that the technology is still in its early stages of development and growth
Only recently have fans even had been provided access to such technology to watch live sporting events. Many leagues are test-running their virtual reality broadcast operations. The NBA is implementing the proper broadcast cameras and equipment into arenas for select games. At the start of the 2015-16 season, the NBA produce a live VR stream of the Pelicans-Warriors game. The current 2016-17 season, NBA League Pass subscribers now have the option to watch a selected package of games that are being broadcast thru VR. The NBA is just one example of how a league or team is slowly introducing virtual reality to fans as a supplemental experience.
To further explain how the technology is being well received but also in the early stages, the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics were the first Olympic games to provide virtual reality broadcasts to their consumers via NBC and BBC. The only caveat was that only certain events were capable of being streamed in virtual reality and the streaming was only available a day after the event occurred (Dickson, TechCrunch). The VR broadcasts were only viewable with proper headset equipment and corresponding phone or computer applications. In any VR scenario, viewers must be completely equipped with the proper VR headsets. Aside from the equipment recently being accessible to the public within the last year or two, the products can be extremely costly and include a bit of a learning curve to operate.
The progression of VR technology is made possible with extremely creative vision, forward thinking and large investments to propel the idea forward. There have been tremendous investments made in only a short period of time. And, those major investments signal that the capabilities of VR have enormous potential to take an audience by storm and alter the landscape of fan viewership.
Analyzing the industry from a quantities sold perspective, Samsung Gear VR is leading the pack with over five million units sold in the last year to date. Other companies such as Facebook (Oculus VR) and Sony (PlayStation VR) have sold significantly less at 243,000 units and 943,000 units, respectively. However, Facebook and Sony are more recent newcomers into the mass market retail space and charge a significant amount more than Samsung, their competitor. Facebook charges $600 for their Oculus VR headset equipment, while Sony charges $400 for their PlayStation VR.
“Goldman Sachs recently projected the global virtual reality market will grow to $80 billion by 2025 from essentially nothing a few short years ago, and perhaps approaching $200 billion in a more aggressive scenario. Such numbers stand much higher than the current hardware markets for desktop computers or gaming consoles” (Fisher, SportsBusiness Journal).
The future projection of the market is one that seemingly justifies such bullish investments by professional sports leagues and franchise owners. Since it is smart business to have the most stake in the most popular and transformative products, it makes sense that investors have turned their attention toward Virtual Reality.
As for the events that have attributed to such a positive future valuation, there has been a continuous integration of VR into the broadcasts of games, an introduction of VR’s equipment to consumers on a public scale and the integration of systems into professional practice. Below is an abbreviated list of major milestones contributing to the VR movement.
July 2015: NextVR partners with the International Champions Cup to show the Manchester United-FC Barcelona match live, representing the first live VR broadcast of a major soccer match (Fisher, SBJ).
October 2015: The NBA, Turner Sports, and NextVR produce a live VR game stream of the New Orleans Pelicans-Warriors season opener. The production does not include any graphics or announcer commentary but relies on the in-arena noise for audio (Fisher, SBJ).
February 2016: NextVR and Fox Sports announce a five-year partnership for live coverage of events, including feeds from the Daytona 500 (Fisher, SBJ).
March 2016: NextVR and Fox Sports partner to provide a VR live-stream of the entire Big East basketball tournament (Fisher, SBJ).
March 2016: Monumental Sports & Entertainment founder Ted Leonsis launches a $10 million venture capital fund to invest in tech startups. Monumental is already a partner with STriVR (Fisher, SBJ).
October 2016 The NBA is showing one VR game per week, usually on Tuesday nights, in partnership with NextVR, a company that broadcasts live events in virtual reality. To access the games, consumers need a Samsung VR headset, which costs $99.99, a compatible Samsung phone, and the NextVR app. Fans also must subscribe to NBA League Pass, which costs $199 (Gregory, Sports Illustrated).
The early stage obstacles that VR brands have encountered include the expense to acquire the technology and the clarity of content. There is a costly expense for consumers to pay just to have the VR headset. The technology is costly and remains a major reason why a majority of consumers have still not been fully integrated with the technology. We, as consumers, have been introduced to the technology but not all of us have experienced virtual reality first hand.
There are alternative options offered such as the Google cardboard, but those cheaper options do not include complete compatibility with other devices and capabilities to stream broadcasts. Google’s Cardboard option is retailed at $15, but the scenery the viewer is immersed in are generic settings. The headsets offered by companies that provide VR technology that stream broadcasts range anywhere from $100 to $600 in retail cost. And, those prices do not include the cost to buy the proper complimentary equipment that is needed in addition to the headset, such as the video game consoles, phones or laptops. To compare, Samsung sells their Gear VR headset for $100, while Facebook charges $600 for their Oculus VR and Sony charges $400 for their PlayStation VR.
Jane Zorowitz, a writer for NBC Sports, further explains the impact cost has had, “Because of the price of the technology, as well as its hyper-specificity – the fact that it is completely tailored to the players on each team – virtual reality is a high-end product that comes at significant expense” (Zorowitz, NBC Sports World).
The other challenge that VR faces is a technological advancement in order to ensure crystal clear picture quality. Certain headsets and application that provide visuals can sometimes be presented as lower quality, especially in comparison to what we are now accustomed to with HD quality. The challenge is more obviously with streaming live sporting events. Sean Gregory, a writer for Sports Illustrated and early tester of the Samsung Gear VR headset, wrote about his experience with VR and the NBA streaming service through NBA League Pass. Gregory overall experience was a positive one as he explained that the ability to be sitting courtside while on the couch is unlike anything he’s experienced. However, he also spoke to some of the issues he noticed, “The big problem with the VR presentation, at this point, is the resolution. Players can appear blurry, which puts a strain on your eyes, and your patience, over the course of an NBA game. NextVR promises the pixelation will improve, and to be fair, Samsung’s headsets are on the lower end of today’s consumer VR tech” (Gregory, Sports Illustrated).
The questions that remain with Virtual Reality are in respect to cost, clarity, fan involvement and the unintended consequences of integrating such a technology.
The first question I have is related to cost. Can VR developers and retail companies find a way or operate their business at the point where they can lower the cost for a VR headset (those with streaming capabilities) How will you pay for each live event? Right now the cost of equipment is expensive and restricting the product from crossing the chasm of early entrants to mainstream consumers. Also, professional leagues must define a sort of payment for how VR broadcast will be paid for. Are leagues going to charge consumers an additional fee to have the rights to a full season of VR games? Or, are leagues going to charge their users on a per game basis, like a pay per view model?
Second, VR broadcasts lack color commentary. Traditional viewers have become accustomed to color commentary from TV announcers and in-game discussion. However, as of now, there is only directional commentary provided during the NBA’s stream through the Samsung VR’s broadcast. So, will there be an overlap of color commentary, rather than only in-arena noise or directional commentary? And, can that commentary be paired with more enhanced pixelation of the streamed content.
NBC Sports’ Jane Zorowitz addressed the question and diffused such concern when she wrote, “judging by the fact that both Next Galaxy and STriVR Labs are in talks with various other sports teams across the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB, it is safe to assume that those organizations don’t fear what this technology may do to attendance or ticket sales, but instead welcome its ability to supplement the real life experience” (Zorowitz, NBC Sports World). Although sports franchises are investing, I still have hesitation when it comes to fans making the decision to pay for a ticket to watch their struggling team play a regular season game in comparison to sitting at home on their couch and tuning in and out with a courtside view.
Ultimately, there are a number of questions and obstacles that remain regarding where VR will fall in the landscape of fan engagement. The VR technology is certainly transcending the sports world on multiple fronts, but can its impact sustain itself and maintain a long-term position. Virtual Reality is an immersive experience and one that can be valued by the mass consumer base as long as it continues to improve the technology and streaming capabilities, costs recede and leagues implement a defined structure of payment for either a per season or per game basis.
- Raymond, Adam K. “Soon Virtual Reality Will Let Everyone Attend the Super Bowl.”NBCNews.com. NBCUniversal News Group, 04 Feb. 2017. Web. 27 Mar. 2017.
- Gregory, Sean. “Watching The NBA In Virtual Reality Is Surprisingly Good.” Sports Illustrated. N.p., 8 Dec. 2016. Web. 27 Mar. 2017.
- Zorowitz, Jane. “It Just Got Real.” NBC SportsWorld. WordPress, 14 Aug. 2015. Web. 27 Mar. 2017.
- Dickson, Ben. “How Virtual Reality Is Transforming the Sports industry.” TechCrunch. TechCrunch, 15 Sept. 2016. Web. 27 Mar. 2017.
- Fisher, Eric. “What’s Holding up Virtual Reality as a Game Changer?” SportsBusiness Daily | SportsBusiness Journal | SportsBusiness Daily Global. American City Business Journals, 9 May 2016. Web. 27 Mar. 2017.
- Platt, Bill. “Dartmouth Football Kicks Off High-Tech Season.” Dartmouth Football Kicks Off High-Tech Season | Dartmouth News. Trustees of Dartmouth College, 25 Aug. 2015. Web. 27 Mar. 2017.
- “Sports Training.” STRIVR. STRIVR LABS, n.d. Web. 27 Mar. 2017.