vr future of sports broadcasts

Virtual reality is a scorching hot topic in sports right now. Clubs, leagues, and broadcasters are scrambling to address falling TV viewership and get to the forefront of the latest and greatest tech. We’re seeing major investments in VR across the industry to create a content source that can provide a more visceral sports viewing experience. But to this point, I have been largely unimpressed with game-related VR content.

In one of the first ‘big swings’ the NBA rolled out a solid weekly VR stream through League Pass last season. Although it was a good product, I couldn’t watch for more than 10 minutes at a time. It was certainly an immersive experience but I didn’t find it to be better than the traditional broadcast. In fact, I find broadcast VR as a whole to be underwhelming, and it’s not quite at the point where it could be considered a broadcast replacement.

Frankly, it has a long way to go…

What’s Holding it Back?

VR Lacks a Social Element

Putting on a VR headset to watch a game is an isolated experience. Even if you’re in the same room with others watching on their own VR headsets it creates an awkward situation that doesn’t feel natural. At times it can feel like you’re watching a completely different event.

brady-high-five-fail

TB12 demonstrating what it’s like to celebrate a win while watching in VR…

Imagine your favorite team just completed the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history and you can’t see any of your buddies to land a victory high five. Pretty lame, right? The shared elation of taking in a moment with your friends is a critical part of watching live sports, and it’s notably absent from current VR broadcasts.

It’s Hard to Follow The Play

There’s no doubt that sports broadcasts have gotten better over the last 10 years. One of the biggest improvements has been the addition of high-power cameras with massive lenses. Arguably more important than the camera tech, though, is that broadcasters have increased the sheer number of cameras covering each game. This offers the broadcast production team a wide array of angles to choose from, ensuring optimal views during live action and replays.

As it stands today, VR cameras can’t provide the same experience. Not only do they lack the ability to zoom, but they can’t deliver the same high-quality picture that broadcast cameras can. Players often appear blurry or pixelated, part of which is due to the resolution of the displays or headsets.

If you’ve seen an NBA VR stream (and if you haven’t, I recommend checking one out), you’ve probably noticed that there are only three camera angles available and it can be hard to follow the play on the other side of the court. You can see what I mean in this NBA/NextVR promo video:

Watching from the baseline is cool, but it’s not easy to see all of the action. This is especially true when the play is moving quickly. Despite the fact that VR allows the viewer to feel closer to the court and shift the viewing angle, this feels like a step backwards.

Now imagine this situation on a football field. How many cameras would you need to be able to capture the action? A few hundred? It would be impossible to follow the play, especially on kickoffs, punts, and 20+ yard plays. Until the tech is improved, broadcasting football games in VR isn’t feasible.

There’s No Second Screen

Any time I’m watching a game my iPhone is in my hand and I’m scanning Twitter to participate in conversations, follow developing storylines, check out the hottest gifs, track fantasy scores, and keep up with what’s going on around the league.

Second (or third) Screen Experience

The second (or third) screen experience is important.

I know, I know. Typical millennial, right? Say what you want, but it’s true. The second screen has become a major component of sports consumption, and when I put on a VR headset to watch a game there’s a gap in the experience.

I’m certainly not alone in this, either. According to Twitter 27.6 million people Tweeted about Super Bowl 51 last February. For myself, and I would bet many of those people who were tweeting about the Super Bowl, the lack of social media in VR is a pretty big deal.

How Can it Be Improved?

Let Us Watch With Friends

Integrating a social element that enables the viewer to watch the game with friends is critical if VR is going to achieve widespread adoption. Fortunately, there are a few exciting advancements in the works.

A couple weeks ago Facebook announced a new concept called Spaces which allows you and a friend (or friends) to share experiences in the virtual world. With Spaces, you are able to virtually sit next to other Oculus users – regardless of your actual physical locations – to watch a game or a movie together. Is this as good as being in the same room with your buddies? Probably not, but it’s better than nothing.

facebook-spaces-vr-watch-friends

Microsoft is also working on some exciting things in this space, most notably a Mixed Reality (MR) solution called Hololens. MR solutions like Hololens combine the virtual and physical worlds, so you could theoretically still see the people you are with while consuming virtual content. Though it’s prohibitively expensive right now – starting at $3000 – MR solutions like Hololens offer an opportunity for an elevated viewing experience combined with a social experience.

Both of these platforms might be a ways off from being realistic consumer-focused solutions, but they do represent a step in the right direction and are worth getting excited about.

Treat it Like a Second Screen

Rather than trying to replace broadcast with an inferior solution, sports-related VR content should be viewed as a supplemental product. How would this work? Here are a couple examples:

Imagine Eli Manning throws a bomb to OBJ who manages to make the catch and get two feet down in the end zone. After you celebrate 6 points with your buddies, you slip on your VR headset to watch an on-demand replay from a special camera posted up on the sideline right next to where OBJ made the catch.

perfect vr use case

This would be pretty cool to experience in VR.

Or, pretend you’re watching a Red Sox game and the announcer mentions the historic Green Monster and its manually-operated scoreboard. Through your VR headset you can see inside the scoreboard to explore it for yourself from a rare and unique angle.

Complementary content like I’ve outlined above offers an enhancement to the traditional broadcast that elevates the viewing experience.

Focus on Interactive

One of the major advantages VR has over television broadcasts is the ability to make an experience interactive. This season we launched a new VR experience at Fenway Park, which you can check out in the video below:

The VR Home Run Challenge allows fans to step up to the plate in a virtual version of Fenway Park where they can try to hit home runs just like the pros. Located on the kids concourse, this is more than just a fan engagement activation; it’s an immersive experience that offers an opportunity for fans to feel like a part of the team.

While a traditional broadcast is better suited for taking in a game, it can’t replicate an interactive experience. Using the technology to create experiences like the VR Home Run Challenge will help to carve out space in the digital ecosystem and reach its full potential.

It’s Not The Future of Broadcast

So is VR the future of sports? Maybe, but it’s probably not the future of sports broadcasts. It’s very cool, and it offers a unique new viewing perspective, but it’s not a broadcast replacement.

Don’t get me wrong; there’s certainly a lot of potential. Three years down the road advancements in VR cameras and presentation technology will likely provide a better experience. That could get us to a point where VR is just as good or better than broadcast.

Until then, I’ll stick with the traditional broadcasts.