Oklahoma City’s Steven Adams is banging on Houston’s Clint Capela — elbows extended, using those arms, his strength, and his backside to seal off like it’s a box-out. It’s the kind of surprisingly physical off-the-ball pick (with a little hold) that only those wealthy enough to have courtside baseline seats usually get to appreciate up close.
Adams’ pick works, it keeps the lane open — and Russell Westbrook explodes into that space for the kind of slam you can feel in those courtside seats.
Except you’re not courtside. Not even close.
You’re sitting on your couch, wearing the virtual reality headset that transports you to the baseline to Oklahoma City, via a camera attached to the stanchion behind the basket.
It’s a new view, a new way to experience an NBA game that the league is embracing, and while it’s still a work in progress it’s also something that shows a lot of promise.
“A lot of people see the (NBA virtual reality) commercials and think it’s cool, which it is, but until you experience it you don’t know,” said Bruce Bowen, the retired NBA champion who is now part of the virtual reality broadcast team on NBA games. “You don’t get the opportunity to experience things like this, when it comes to basketball and the best players in the world utilizing their athleticism, utilizing their grace, and seeing it come to life quite as it does.
“It just so happens that we did a game in Dallas, and Michael Finley — a friend of mine as well as a teammate of mine in San Antonio (Ed. note: he’s now in the front office in Dallas) — he watched the rerun. So after his game, he went and watched it and he was raving about it, about how this is truly special, and that you don’t think it’s going to turn out the way it does but it’s truly remarkable.”
The NBA is embracing virtual reality — and we’re not just talking about training referees, or teaching point guards to make better decisions. The NBA has become the first major professional sports league to broadcast weekly games that can be watched in virtual reality from a headset in your home. They did the same thing at the All-Star Game with the All-Star Saturday night events.
“It’s an unreal experience where you can put the VR headset on and look around and feel like you’re there,” Stephen Curry told NBCSports.com of his experience with the NBA’s virtual reality. “I know that technology is only going to get better and more impactful in the game of basketball, and sports in general.”
“I think our sport has some innate advantages,” says Jeff Marsilio, the Vice President of Global Media Distribution for the NBA. “We sometimes joke around that if we were to start over and build a sport for virtual reality, it would end up looking a lot like what our sport does today. …
“We’ve got huge players who are so incredibly athletic and you can get close to them with virtual reality.”
The league has partnered with NextVR to bring that courtside experience to fans. NextVR is a company that has experience broadcasting live events in virtual reality (including The Masters, among many others). I got the chance to test the technology at All-Star weekend. Like a lot of virtual reality tech, it is a work in progress in terms of smoothy watching the game, but it also new perspective that few fans get to experience. It is immersive; you feel like you’re much closer to the action than with a traditional broadcast.
It works like all VR does — if Westbrook drives and kicks to the corner to Victor Oladipo, you can turn your head to follow the ball and the field of vision pans with you.
To watch requires a virtual-reality headset and a Samsung phone with the NextVR app downloaded, or Google’s Daydream (which has other features from the NBA we will get to soon). If you have League Pass you can jump right in. If not, the cost is $6.99 per game, and there is about one game available per week.
NextVR puts together that broadcast, which has its own announcers and graphics.
“The adaptation in the broadcast is ‘look left, look right,’ really having to direct your audience, whereas in a regular telecast somebody is watching the game, you don’t have to say ‘look left at this,’” Bowen said. “What you’re doing now is directing the viewer to certain things that catch your eye. ‘If you look right you’ll see there’s a dispute going on between two players,’ or ‘this guy is coming right at you.’ Just helping them in certain situations.”
“It’s very similar to a live broadcast. The signal is produced in a truck (on site),” said David Cole, co-founder and CEO of NextVR. “The difference is there’s outbound signal from all of the available cameras, and that gives us the ability to allow you to choose the camera position you want.”
Soon, if fans want to watch from the courtside camera in the middle of the court, you’ll be able to have that view all game (even if a player checking in blocks your view for a while, just like people in actual courtside seats deal with). There are eight cameras usually at each game, and a handful will be set up by the end of the year so that you can stay just with that camera. If you want to know what it’s like to sit in courtside baseline seats — and you don’t have five grand to blow on one game — this is almost like being there.
“When we started experimenting with David and NextVR, we thought the ultimate was just the pure courtside seat experience,” Marsilio said. “And what we discovered in this experimentation phase is that’s a great core to build upon, but you really need to pull in some of the more traditional elements from things like television.”
Things such as having the score easy to see, or having replays of a dunk or block.
However, this presents a challenge. If a graphic pops up on your television at home while watching a game, you don’t think twice about it. However, if you are in an immersive environment where the goal is to make it seem like you’re in a courtside seat, then a graphic starts to take over that field of vision, it can take you out of that experience.
Which leads to the next challenge for the VR experience — social media. For many fans watching an NBA game is a two-screen experience, one with the game on and one — a phone, tablet, or laptop — with Twitter or another social media platform open. That has become part of the NBA community, almost like watching a game at a bar 20 years ago (but smarter and funnier… usually).
“We’ve demonstrated a number of different social integrations into the experience … you can opt to receive messages right now, so you can opt to text and that kind of thing in the environment right now,” Cole said.
“But it’s something we’re being incredibly studied and measured about right now because we can blow your sense of presence, that covenant with the view that says ‘this is just like being there and this is real.’ If you choose to have that different kind of information inserted and knock yourself out of that, that’s one thing. But when it just happens because someone sends you a message or a Tweet pops up or something that blows you out of the experience, it’s very disrupting. And we may not get you back.”
It’s a fine line to walk, and with the NBA on the cutting edge, the league is treating these experiments as a learning experience.
“That sense of presence you’re in danger of disrupting, it also gives it the potential to be the most social platform, because if you can give people the experience of being present together, you can give them the sense of watching together,” Marsilio said.
The NBA also partnered with Google Daydream for another way to integrate VR into the sport. Daydream has set up several experiences where a famous NBA player — the one I watched had Robert Horry — was sitting in a comfortable leather chair with a comedian/host in another chair, both in a loft-like environment, and on the big screen behind them is a classic NBA game. Throughout the experience, Horry and the host joke and talk about the action, telling stories and giving insights on the game.
“The chief opportunity for us is our live game, no question, but a close second is just getting our fans closer to our players,” Marsilio said. “Letting them experience that sense of presence of these players they admire so much. And you can feel like you’re hanging out, kind of watching the game together.”
Of course, the NBA will eventually look to sell advertising through these broadcasts — never forget that this is a business first. The key is to make those ads immersive and part of the experience, not just something to be watched passively.
“There is a huge amount of potential,” Cole said. “Whether they are cutaways (during breaks in the action) or insertions in another way — sponsored instant replay, sponsored graphics — there are options. …
“The one difference between us and a traditional linear broadcast is we have a 360-degree world to sell ads into.”
The NBA seems well positioned to bet on VR as the NBA’s demographic skews younger than the other major American sports leagues and is filled with early adopters. According to NextVR, the addition of mobile capability has already broadened the platform’s audience by a wide margin, proving there is potentially a large group for the NBA to reach.
“NextVR does not disclose viewership numbers however, we have seen an increased amount of time spent in headsets immersed with NBA content since the beginning of our partnership,” Cole said. “We also continue to receive extremely positive feedback.”
That feedback has the league pushing to get more people to put on the headsets and sit courtside. At a much more affordable price than the actual seats.