One of the promises that virtual reality offered was that we'd all be able to watch "courtside" sports games without having to leave our couches. Sporting event organizers from the Rio Olympics to the British Premier League have touted the new technology as a way to be there without having to deal with the expense, travel and crowds of an actual game.
But is it any good? To find out, I tried watching a basketball game using NextVR, a company that broadcasts one NBA game per week, as part of the NBA’s League Pass package. (Plus the cost of either a Samsung Gear VR or Google Daydream and a compatible smartphone.) This past week, the company offered its weekly game for free, so I watched the San Antonio Spurs crush the Minnesota Timberwolves from a just-about courtside vantage point. You can still download that game for free.
In the interest of full disclosure, the Wolves are my home-town team, so I already had an interest in watching. That aside, there is a lot to like about the experience. You do feel very close to the action, and the cameras replicate the vantage point you’d get from a close seat. Plus, you get a sense of scale when you’re watching -- of the height of the players, the baskets, the jumbotron, etc. -- which adds a sense of presence you don’t get on television.
You're not so close to the action that you can't see everything at once, as that would somewhat defeat the purpose of watching a game. And because you're sitting at the fixed camera's vantage point, you don't necessarily see the game as you yourself would see it; at 5-foot-2, I actually got to be taller watching the broadcast than I would have been in a courtside seat. But I felt far more engaged -- even more, I'd say, than when I bought a ticket to see the Wolves play in person a couple of months ago, because this view was better than the seats I could afford.
David Cole, the company’s co-founder, said he thinks of this sort of programming as “prescription-strength media” -- a broadcast that has the power to be more engaging than a traditional televised game. Anecdotally, Cole said that he has heard from NextVR customers who say they have memories of sitting courtside at games they attended virtually.
“That’s impactful -- and a very tiny bit scary,” Cole said in an interview. “It shows, at the danger of using hyperbole, that we’re connecting the content to the nervous system of our viewer."
On the flip side, you don’t get close-ups on players’ faces -- meaning personalities don’t always come through as clearly as they would on a sportscast. That is, if you don’t remember to look. Once while watching I was wondering what Spurs coach Gregg Popovich’s face looked like after a particular play. Then I remembered I was essentially standing next to him, and I was able to turn my head to see for myself.
To pull off the immersive broadcast, Cole said the company swoops into town with the other film crews and sets up several cameras around the court (in this case) along with microphones that let them pick up ambient noise, such as the squeak of a player’s sneaker. It takes about the same amount of time for their film crews to set up as it does a traditional film crew. For basketball broadcasts, there are cameras behind each basket, at center court and above the crowd -- so you get a sense of the atmosphere of the arena. Cole said they also have two “floater” cameras that can pick up sideline action as needed.
As a viewer, it's nice to have more control over which part of the game you watch. To make sure you don’t miss the action, NextVR hires its own commentators to go along with its broadcast, which is useful because they can remind viewers to look left for an incoming drive, or pan right to follow a surprising pass. Cole said they put their commentators through a training camp of sorts to develop those skills.
That makes up, in part, for the loss of editorial direction you would get from a television broadcast, and ensures that viewers aren’t missing key parts of the game.
Overall, I had a more direct connection to the game than I have watching other broadcasts. I won’t recall the game in the future as if I were courtside, but I was definitely more into it than I have been for other, more important, games. Being so close to the action was a big part of the immersion. But so was the mere fact that, by wearing a headset, I was not able to look at my phone or get otherwise distracted. I didn’t even eat snacks; Cole joked that “beer-finding” technology is on the roadmap.
I’m not prone to motion sickness in VR, but I had my moments watching this game -- perhaps from following all the ball movement. The shots are static, however, so it’s likely that any motion sickness was because of my phone not being placed right in the headset, or because of the focus on my headset. I certainly didn’t notice any latency issues. Even when I had to set it down, however, I was able to listen to the audio, so I didn’t have to interrupt the flow of the game. Cole said that NextVR rarely receives complaints about motion sickness, however.
The biggest drawback, of course, is not being able to watch along with another person at the same time. Part of the fun of watching sports is pointing out a pretty pass or debating a dirty foul to the person next to you on the couch and seeing their reaction. Maybe if you had two headsets, it would be fun -- you could both see the game close-up, and still trade observations.
I would still say, ultimately, that it’s still an experience best suited to watching by yourself. That way, you don't have to share your headset.