In reality VR headsets can’t offer a shared sports experience… but could MR?

Simon Tracey, head of client services at Wasserman’s Experience division, asks whether mixed reality could be the tech to truly transform the way fans experience sports.

In reality VR headsets can’t offer a shared sports experience… but could MR?

VR, MR, AR. These three acronyms have cropped up more than ever lately when discussing tech that has the opportunity to completely alter the way fans consume sport. New innovations in virtual, mixed and augmented reality (AR) offer the ability to deepen the fan experience on so many levels.  

The creative potential virtual reality (VR) offers has led to sports properties such as the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the Winter Olympics adopting the tech to get fans even closer to the action. Just recently, BBC Sport launched its very own VR app for the World Cup, allowing viewers to use their phones, TVs, VR headsets and Google Cardboard to experience the game in a brand-new way.

Although VR undoubtedly has made an impact in the sports arena, the BBC’s app didn’t really offer much more than the red button most viewers are already used to. In my opinion, VR is best used by brands and sports properties to immerse consumers in an emotive narrative, on a one-to-one level.  This format does not translate so well into live sports, as fans want to enjoy a shared experience, not one you enact in solitude. A day at the stadium – or even the local pub – means having a drink with friends, banter and soaking up the atmosphere. Being sat with a headset on shuts you off from the esoteric tribal behaviours fans love.

When it comes to audiences in stadiums, managers and players want fans to focus their energies on the pitch – it’s hard to encourage your team and encourage players when you’re strapped into a headset with noise-cancelling headphones.

But mixed reality (MR) could offer the best of both worlds. Unlike its insulated counterpart, MR blends the real and virtual worlds rather than creating an entirely artificial one. This allows fans to engage with the real world while experiencing the benefits of augmented graphics, video and audio.

The potential for using MR in live sports are endless.

For instance, imagine attending this year’s World Cup donning MR glasses. You could not only experience the excitement of the game, but also have it overlaid with player statistics that appear at will in front of your eyes via real-time data visualisation. You could see and hear referee decisions as they happen, or even see the pitch and stadium change colour whenever a goal is scored based on the team’s kit colours, really dramatising in-match moments.

With these new technological advancements there’s an opportunity to attract new fans. Younger audiences today are more likely to engage with esports over traditional games. With MR, not only can we enhance their experience to make it more engaging and dynamic, we can give spectators the tools to understand the game better, gaining a deeper understanding that will drive passion and fandom – a benefit for both the game and the sponsoring brands.

MR also offers a whole new batch of opportunities for brands, especially during live games. They could sponsor in-game graphics such as celebratory goal explosions or even the visualised player data that fan’s access. Think branded Snapchat filters meets the real world.

It all sounds pretty sci-fi, but how far is the vision from becoming reality? In truth, there is no one definitive answer, thanks to the level of secrecy around major players such as Magic Leap. Developers are still getting to grips with what Microsoft HoloLens can actually deliver, and there is a raft of new products due to launch soon, like Apple AR.

What we can be sure of is that we’re pretty far away from MR being as affordable as VR currently is, meaning mass adoption within homes and stadiums is a while away. But it’s only a matter of time before the tech features far more prominently in fans’ experience of live sporting events.

Undoubtedly, it will be up to brands and sponsors to drive this innovation forward. Rights-holders like Fifa are often very conservative when it comes to introducing new technologies into their properties.  It won’t be cheap, but brands should invest in MR – financially and creatively – in order to engage with new audiences, but also to evolve traditional sports before a generation of young fans are lost to video games forever.