Will sports fans embrace virtual reality broadcasts?

Last month, during the broadcast of a first-round playoff matchup between the NBA’s Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs, colour commentator and NBA Hall of Famer Reggie Miller donned a virtual reality headset to check out some live VR footage. The move aimed to raise awareness of the league’s partnership with Turner Sports and Intel, which included VR broadcasts of seven games during the regular season and at least 12 during the playoffs.

It also hinted at virtual and augmented reality’s potential to change the way we watch sports. VR, as this blog is fond of saying, allows brands, storytellers, artists, and organizations to form deep, meaningful connections with audiences. By placing us in unique, impactful environments, VR can provoke empathy, foster understanding, and touch our emotions, all of which make the technology a natural fit for sports broadcasting.

Sports Illustrated’s Ben Golliver tried out the NBA’s VR technology during another first-round game, this time between the Cleveland Cavaliers and upstart Indiana Pacers. According to Golliver, the experience incorporates many of the features that make watching NBA on TNT a delight, including slick production value, graphics, intro videos, and commentary. Users can choose between a variety of up-close camera angles or watch a curated game-cast. A scoreboard, timer, and stat sheets are easily accessible during the broadcast.

“As soon as the game started, it became clear that I was watching a full-on production rather than a sideshow,” Golliver writes. He says he could feel the players’ emotions and witness their fatigue as they entered and exited the game.

“Watching transition play from end to end looked like the best video game ever come to life, and the raw speed of the NBA came through even more powerfully in this format than on a traditional broadcast. When Lebron James darted into a passing lane for a steal and then took off for a transition dunk, my head rotated sharply to follow him, just as it would have if I was seated courtside in real life.”

This feeling of intimacy and presence is exactly what broadcasters of other sports should aim to duplicate: the resounding crunch of an NHL body check; the immense energy of an NFL or UEFA Champions League crowd; even the unique, summery atmosphere of a mid-season MLB ball park can be captured and delivered to anyone with access to a virtual reality headset. But first, some technical issues must be resolved.

But first, some technical issues must be resolved; Golliver reported pixilation throughout the experience and intermittent video lags severe enough to render the feed “unwatchable.” The stream also devoured his phone’s battery and caused overheating.

Significantly, Golliver also found the experience isolating, a major issue in an age when fans often congregate and exchange ideas on social media during broadcasts.

“VR’s strength as an immersive experience … unfortunately required sacrificing real-time access to social media and my smartphone’s other functions,” he writes. “Indeed, watching in VR led to a serious case of FOMO. What are the beat reporters tweeting? Which memes are trending? What is bubbling in the group chat?”

These problems are speed bumps, though, not road blocks. Advances like 5G networks and standalone, phone-free virtual reality headsets should cure the technical issues Golliver encountered, and innovative design upgrades will surely incorporate social media feeds in near-future VR experiences. Once broadcasters can deliver smooth, crisp video within intuitive, user-friendly interfaces, a virtual reality headset will be a must-have item for any die-hard sports fan.