September 9, 2015

VR Will Change the Game for Sports Fans

Virtual reality is making headway into every corner of our lives - from entertainment and media, to videoconferencing, manufacturing, real estate, and education. As I’ve written before, VR companies could soon deliver real profits. But there is one sector where VR is poised to really shine: sports. In particular, I believe VR can dramatically transform the sports viewing experience.

According to research firm Piper Jaffray, the major US sports leagues could generate $4B a year by 2025 on VR broadcasts. The revenue would come from embedded advertising, sponsorships, VR broadcast licenses, and selling premium fan experiences. And $4B could be a low estimate if VR headsets become more affordable, which most industry watchers expect.

The ability of sports to engage fans is universal and unparalleled. No other form of content can hold our attention for so long, so consistently, and elicit such strong, visceral reactions.  Watching sports in VR will take this fan engagement to the next level, making fans feel as though they’re on the field with their favorite teams. Across any sport, VR promises whole new levels of immersion and perspective - from soccer, baseball, basketball, and football, to lacrosse, car racing, and even e-sports, where VR could bring a new dimension to watching other people play video games. 

VR is Already Here, But It’s Only the First Inning

Of course, several hardware, software, content, and licensing challenges remain on the path to mainstream adoption of VR - in sports and other sectors. But I’m encouraged by the progress hardware makers like Oculus, Samsung, HTC, and Valve are making to deliver high-quality headsets at affordable price points. Beyond dedicated headsets, the adoption of smartphone-based VR solutions like Google’s Cardboard, a simple piece of cardboard that turns your smartphone into a VR device, shows demand for VR experiences even at significantly lower levels of fidelity. Of course, VR must overcome some pretty tough technical challenges, such as how to handle video capture, ingest, coding, and stitching. But several companies, including VideoStitch, are finding ways to overcome these challenges. Companies are already leveraging advanced GPUs, CDNs, and rendering techniques to efficiently deliver 360-degree, high-definition video of live events in real-time. 

While technology rides Moore’s law, becoming better and cheaper, forward-thinking content creators are also wasting no time launching VR plans, especially in the sports realm. Recently, media company Vice Sports announced it would offer people a first-hand experience of extreme sports using YouTube’s 360 virtual reality functionality. The new series will let viewers experience what it feels like to parkour atop boulders in Utah’s Goblin Valley State Park, enter a mixed martial arts competition, and scale sheer rocks. It’s just one of many recent announcements that show how quickly VR is making inroads into the multibillion-dollar sports media industry. The University of Michigan recently launched a VR app to allow fans to immerse themselves in behind-the-scenes content on game days, for example.

Live Sports in VR - Coming to a Headset Near You

Providing live VR broadcasts of sporting events is likely an area where VR can have a big impact. Companies like NextVR and broadcast live events viewable on VR headsets to provide an experience that’s “almost like being there.” Altspace VR invites people to come together as avatars in a virtual environment to watch live events together; it’s like friends watching the game together in a giant virtual man cave. Jaunt VR has created a 360-degree VR camera that could be used to film live sports for VR viewers.  

All these advances show that fans want a new type of sports viewing experience. But roadblocks remain on the path to “personalized, immersive viewing” of sporting events. For one, VR presents challenges for sports broadcasters. VR fundamentally disrupts the role of producers – the folks behind the scenes who decide when to cut to a tight angle shot, when to pan across the baseball diamond, or when to show an instant reply. We expect to be visually guided through the action on the field by specific camera shots pegged to commentary. But sports production has standardized on a viewing experience within a 16x9 frame. What happens when there is no frame and each fan is in control of his or her own field view? How will announcers sync their commentary to a shared view when no such shared view exists? These questions remain to be ironed out, but I believe broadcasters, team brands, and producers will be forced to adapt to VR, not the other way around.

After all, the challenges VR presents to sports broadcasters aren’t really new. Any fan who goes to a live game is free to look where she wants and to take cues from the sounds on the field, the fans in the seats, the scoreboard, and the information piped in from the loudspeakers. Sports VR promises to combine the best elements of the fan-directed, in-venue experience with the best digital and narrative enhancements of the producer-directed broadcast experience. If done right, VR should allow viewers to watch any part of the field from any angle, and still see the digital trajectory of a pitch, an illuminated strike zone, slow-motion replays, infographic overlays, stats, and other ‘extra’ fan content.

Sports fans don’t just want to watch their favorite teams play on TV - they want to experience every aspect of the game and feel like they’re part of the team. With VR, fans can get front-row seats wherever they are, and even experience what it’s like to be a player on the field. What sports fan wouldn’t want that?

Tags: Virtual Reality , E-Sports , Startups , Investing , David Famolari