Two years ago, Dallas Mavericks owner, Mark Cuban, entered the virtual reality space as he joined a $3 million seed-funding raise for Virtuix Omni, an omni-directional treadmill manufacturer.
In mid-July 2014, Facebook acquired Oculus VR, whose claim to fame is its ‘Rift,’ which allows consumers or sports fans to virtually transport themselves.
At the beginning of the 2015 NBA season, the league distributed the Golden State Warriors and New Orleans Pelicans game in VR with the help of NextVR, a leading technology company that captures and delivers virtual experiences. NBA superstar LeBron James just announced this week a partnership between his media company, Uninterrupted, and Facebook to create a 12-minute, 360-degree short film.
Where social and digital media was in 2003, with MySpace in its infancy and Facebook still an idea floating around Mark Zuckerberg’s head, that’s where the sports industry is currently at with virtual reality. Still, social heavyweights and prominent sports figures are hopping on board and betting big.
Over the next three years, VR could be sports’ biggest game changer for how fans consume content, players train off the field or hardwood and properties distribute programming.
The mid five-figure investment, which included a hefty contribution from Stanford University football coach, David Shaw, along with a leap of faith is what it took to get STRIVR Labs off the ground a year ago.
Derek Belch, a former Cardinal kicker in the mid 2000s, and University professor, Jeremy Bailenson, had been discussing VR since Belch’s undergraduate days in Palo Alto, California. More specifically, how could virtual reality change the football landscape and better prepare players, especially quarterbacks?
With Stanford still in his backyard, Belch piloted the VR technology in conjunction with the Cardinal football program in 2014. Belch admits that the product wasn’t ideal until about Week 10, when then-quarterback Kevin Hogan began incorporating VR into his pre-game routine. As they say, the numbers don’t lie — Hogan saw his completion percentage jump from 64 to 76 percent in the final few games in 2014.
Last Spring, Belch spent a week on the road visiting six college programs, signing five on the spot. Yet, everything changed once news broke in June 2015 that the Dallas Cowboys had signed on as well.
“Everyone started calling us then,” Belch said.
The 30-year-old Belch said his team’s ability to “speak the football language” was a key driver of STRIVR’s early success. He added that everyone with STRIVR either played or coached at the collegiate level, furthering their credibility with both college programs and NFL franchises like the Cowboys, Minnesota Vikings, New York Jets and Arizona Cardinals, all of whom are partners.
Having the ability to not only effectively communicate the platform’s offerings but also, do so with well-functioning software, has been one of STRIVR’s differentiators in a growing marketplace.
“We have the right people and can say, ‘Here’s the technology, and here’s how it would apply on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday,” Belch said. “…That goes a long way with these guys.”
The partner count has reached 23 professional and college teams, including the Clemson, Arkansas and Utah football teams in addition to the Washington Capitals and Washington Mystics.
Selling Coach Shaw’s involvement with the VR platform and his support from day one has only confirmed coaches’ beliefs that that need to consider buying-in.
Added Belch: “When Coach Shaw sat me down in December 2014 and said, ‘Hey, this is something you should really pursue. This is legit. Get out of here,’ I knew we had to do this.”
“This is so fricken cool,” John McCauley said to Forbes of virtual reality and its endless possibilities in the sports space.
McCauley is the new Vice President and General Manager of OneUp Sports, a mobile-first sports network. Last summer, OneUp announced its plans to use VR to improve mobile experiences for fans and brands.
According to McCauley, who has spent 15-plus years managing media, content and digital marketing programs, “Virtual reality is going to take storytelling to the next level. …It’s a brand-building exercise to get your casual fans and rabid fans closer to the players.”
Whether it’s watching a pre-game speech delivered by a NHL head coach, being on the field for the Super Bowl halftime performance or re-living one of Kobe Bryant’s memorable games from courtside seats, ‘virtually’ watching sports will undoubtedly alter how fans choose to consume content.
At this stage, though, hardware like Sony’s PlayStation VR headset, Oculus Rift and HTC’s Vive, haven’t even fully launched into the market, with all three set to debut in 2016.
Alex Krawitz, Senior Vice President of Content Development at Firstborn, a New-York based digital agency that has incorporated VR into programs for Mountain Dew and Patrón, said that 2016 could be a telling year for the disruptive medium.
How much are consumers and fans going to adopt the headsets? Will it be a birthday gift every 12-year-old child will want in the next year or two?
Best-in-class hardware coupled with mass adoption could equal widespread appeal of VR in sports.
Then follows the content element: which sports content, live or past (video on demand/VOD), will be accessible to fans and consumers?
As Krawitz and McCauley both iterated, there are certain drawbacks to VR, too, that will need to be addressed. The truly immersive experience takes away from the camaraderie shared by a group of friends watching a game on a big screen. Additionally, the VR experience occupies most of a fan’s senses, which only makes it more difficult to engage in conversation, post a comment on Facebook or Tweet a reaction to a missed call.
The hardware rolling out this calendar year will naturally be fine-tuned as consumers start purchasing the respective pieces of headwear.
What will the technical hurdles be in distributing the content as well? How do leagues and teams ensure they have the necessary “bandwidth to power the VR experience,” asked McCauley, without the experience crashing because millions of users are choosing to watch in VR?
The thought of watching a golf major such as The Masters in VR, flipping from the 16th fairway, to the 17th tee box, to the 18th green with the click of a button and hearing fans’ cheers, all while scrolling through Twitter or Facebook, is not a far-fetched reality.
Or how about sitting at field level during the NHL’s annual Winter Classic or watching from the front row during the Dunk Competition at NBA All Star Weekend?
How does re-living the Chicago Bulls’ glory days of the 1990s sound?
It may take five years, but all signs point to a sports world where fans will ultimately drive how sports content is distributed and consumed.
Brad Allen calls it “the next medium.”
As the Executive Chairman of NextVR, Allen is spearheading efforts to build the first ever live broadcast company.
“(This) is as significant of a move as it was going from radio to television to now, virtual reality,” Allen said. “…This is the last frontier of an experience of an event that you’re not physically at but as close as you could get. The technology is only going to get better.”
Founded in 2009 based around compression technology and 3D television, NextVR pivoted three years later, creating immersive displays and diving into VR. Allen explained that the same software it had developed for 3D translated to VR just as well.
NextVR is betting on its technology changing how sports fans watch live content, to the tune of a $30.5 million Series A funding last November.
“Probably the thing in the world which has the most value live, as you know, is sports,” Allen said. “That’s a key thing for us.”
The round of funding included Comcast Ventures, Time Warner, The Madison Square Garden Company and Golden State Warriors Co-Owner, Peter Guber, to name a few.
It wasn’t a shock then when the NBA, Turner Sports and NextVR partnered on Oct. 27, 2015, to broadcast the Warriors and Pelicans in virtual reality, the first live-streamed 360-degree sports event. Consumers who owned a Samsung Gear VR headset had exclusive access to the unique viewing experience.
Still, the conversation between the NBA and NextVR began almost two years ago, with Jeff Marsilio, the league’s Vice President of Global Media Distribution, playing an integral role in navigating the complexities of VR.
Marsilio lauded Commissioner Adam Silver and his forward thinking for social, digital and now, virtual reality. The mentality — especially with bringing fans closer to the game — has made the NBA the most progressive U.S. professional league from a technology standpoint.
“We want to continue to push the envelope forward and continue to learn more and take the learnings from what we do and apply them to consistently improving the experience,” Marsilio said. “We will do more in the VR space and also with live streaming, too.”
For an international league like the NBA, whose fans span 200-plus countries, virtual reality is the answer for giving a majority of fans the best ‘live’ experience.
Allen also illustrated that for VR to be successful, two things need to take shape, comments that were previously outlined above; first, the hardware adoption will need to continuously evolve.
The clunky, oversized headsets will eventually shrink to “Oakley wrap-around glasses,” with the lightweight product being utilized as sunglasses in one instance and a VR headset in the other. In addition, a fan’s Bluetooth on his or her smartphone could ‘turn on’ the VR capabilities.
Second, the content distribution will need to be compelling enough for fans to want to purchase the headset to watch their favorite team or sport.
“I haven’t run into anyone who doesn’t think that the technology will continue to develop to the point where you do not have a pair of small glasses,” Allen said. “Whether that comes in 18 months or three years, it’s going to happen. That’ll increase the adoption.”
Adding in statistics, hearing announcers’ voices, seeing the halftime speech and incorporating a Twitter feed into the mix will all play into VR, too.
“VR won’t replace watching basketball in your living room, and it certainly won’t replace going to the games, but you’ll be given a new social layer for engaging with our game,” Marsilio said. “…“It is truly a new medium and that means it’s a new language in creating content.”
This article was written by Mark J. Burns from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.