My Problem With Virtual Reality In Sports

Fans have been promised virtual reality changing the way we watch live sports for decades, but why hasn't it happened yet?

Friends,

In the last decade, almost every major professional sports league in the world has dabbled in virtual reality, promising fans a better sports viewing experience than they get from their traditional TV - So why hasn't it become mainstream? Even with slow user adoption, companies like Facebook, Apple and Google are making significant bets that VR improvements will force consumer behavioral change.

NBA gives basketball viewers chance to see games in virtual ...

Where are we now?

Given the potential fiscal opportunity in the space, we’ve seen companies like NextVR and Oculus being snatched up by major tech players (Apple & Facebook) promising the entry into the future of sports viewership. This technology isn’t new - In October 2015, the NBA and Turner Sports teamed up with NextVR to broadcast the Golden State Warriors' season opener against the New Orleans Pelicans in VR.

Prefer boxing? Here is a ringside view of the Canelo vs. GGG fight, shot by NextVR (Apple Company).

Along with the NBA and Boxing, other professional sports leagues like the MLB, NFL, and the English Premier League have given VR a go. The problem? Unfortunately, watching a game in VR is boring. Let me explain..

What’s The Issue?

You’ve probably heard the pitch before - “Virtual Reality will give you a front row seat to any sporting event in the world”. That’s great, and to some degree it’s true. VR gives you a somewhat realistic front-row view, but no one has figured out two components: the social aspect or an out-of-box approach.

From a social perspective, virtual reality is a complete fail. The headsets are massive (and expensive), and limit the social interaction that one can have when using it. Even in a room full of people, you’re essentially watching the game alone. Fox Sports has tried to fix this with talking avatar chat rooms during VR broadcasts, which might be cool for a movie, but not sports. Simply put, people enjoy watching sporting events with other people - VR has limitations in that instance.

The second issue, an out-of-box approach, is a little more nuanced. Virtual Reality companies have essentially just moved the television inside a headset, except with limitations. The camera angles are stagnant, there is no ability to zoom, you often miss part of the action as it moves around the field/court, and the “fan experience” is non existent. Take the clip below, would you rather watch this content in VR or the typical TV broadcast? For me, it’s the latter and it’s really not even close.

One YouTube user thought it was so terrible that he asked if this was filmed on Paul Pierce’s cell phone. Joke or not, he’s got a point.

Where have we seen success?

With the NFL and College Football regulatory bodies limiting the amount of practices that can occur, virtual reality has become a popular way to increase game-like reps from home. That’s why STRIVR Labs exists. The Silicon Valley-based VR startup is working with NFL and college football teams to train their athletes virtually, using a headset to help athletes experience game scenarios the same way they do on the field without physically jeopardizing their bodies.

It works like this - a QB wears a VR camera on his helmet during practice while running through that weeks game plan. The QB can later reference that exact same view by wearing a VR headset at home, essentially giving him practice-like reps from his living room. The footage can help with mental preparation, strategy, and play memorization.

Teams like the San Francisco 49ers, Dallas Cowboys, Clemson Tigers, and Stanford Cardinals all use STRIVR Labs when looking to gain an advantage. Check out the clip below to see how it works (Source):

Where Do We Go From Here?

In my opinion, the VR experience and overall product category will continue to struggle until there is increased player and league adoption. Instead of watching a game from a camera attached to the goalpost, what if you could look through the helmet of Patrick Mahomes for a play? My bet is consumers are waiting for increased access, not just another cool tech product.

The hardware also needs to improve - this ties down with the social aspect of VR. The headsets are clunky and need to be less restrictive. Consumers don’t want to watch a game in a room full of people, yet feel that they are watching alone. With buy-in from the top and tech players like Facebook, Google, and Apple investing billions of dollars, I think we’ll eventually get there.


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