360-degree video at Heinz Field, home ground of the NFL's Pittsburgh Steelers
Virtual reality, or VR, has been on the cusp for some time now. The 2014 launch of Google Cardboard, an ultra-cheap headset which can be used alongside any smartphone, and its Daydream View that works in conjunction with a Pixel smartphone, promised users more freedom to use VR and AR on the go or in the venue and promised creators a bigger audience than ever before.
The break into the mainstream has yet to materialise but products like these, as well as the growth of mobile-based VR systems that can be used without headsets, are now providing a wealth of opportunities for sports properties to innovate. According to a 2017 study by Greenlight Insights, the worldwide market for VR will grow tenfold to US$75 billion by the end of 2021.
VR and the related technology of augmented reality, or AR, both have the potential to add a new category to the fan experience, as well as the way sports content is broadcast. Viewers are now able to place themselves right at the heart of the action, taking a full and interactive view in their consumption of sporting events, with reactive in-game statistics and player data changing how they watch and understand their favourite events.
“Sports are the ultimate unifier,” says Dipak Patel, chief executive of VR company Zeality, which has partnerships with the likes of the National Football League’s (NFL) San Francisco 48ers and the Minnesota Vikings, Major League Baseball (MLB) franchise the San Francisco Giants, and National Hockey League (NHL) side the San Jose Sharks. “And at the moment there’s a bunch of problems with it - declining viewings, ratings, the transformation of media, and challenges with fan engagement - and VR and AR are ideal ways to use this new disrupted media format and experiences to effect change.
“For a hundred years, we’ve been staring at a rectangle on a wall,” continues Patel. “But now we can be sitting at a restaurant or in a park, and still be as current as someone that’s on the sideline. And because of that ubiquity, it introduces a whole new category of audience that is remote but also that want things in bite-size chunks. They expect to have the content in media and experience to speak to them such that they stay in it longer. It’s a great way to actually pull fans closer and get them to interact with media content.”
VR and AR production company Mandt VR, for example, uses 360-degree and AR technology that aim to create immersive sporting experiences for smartphones through viewers like Google Cardboard and the Samsung Gear VR.
Mandt VR created content for the US College Football Playoff National Championship in 2017. The bowl game, which determines the national champion in the NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision, was accessible via Facebook and YouTube, and viewers could experience the action of the entire weekend and its related festivities.
“It’s much more than just the game,” explains Crowley Sullivan, executive vice president of planning and general manager of sports and entertainment at Mandt Media. “There are fan fests, charity events, concerts, and on the day of the game there’s all sorts of tailgating and pageantry getting fans excited. Last year we captured all of this in our new content form, in 360 degrees.
“The way we’ve been able to show the College Football Playoff allows you to reach a wide range of audiences,” he adds. “You can reach very desirable demographics through Facebook and YouTube. Over the course of the last six or eight months we have also brought AR into our strategy and used it to grow the college football playoff’s offering.”
The company also created a range of content for fans in augmented reality. Where VR allows for an immersive experience for individual fans wearing headsets, AR - which allows computer-generated graphics to be overlaid on to real-world objects - can give those viewers a more detail-rich experience of the environment around them.
“We activated an on-site experience at the College Football Playoff championship campus. Across that whole footprint of the event; all its associated events, both inside and outside, we placed all kinds of college football playoff marks and logos and we’ve integrated the technology into the College Football Playoff app. People can then point their smartphones at any of these marks and logos and up pops a unique, progressive and compelling augmented reality experience.”
Sullivan explains that the College Football Playoff organisers are then able to use the app to show corporate partners the commercial value of the property and leverage ways for brands to activate. “They see that augmented reality can really enhance the way fans are experiencing the event,” he says. “Whilst we spent most of our first year demonstrating the value of VR, in the future, AR will play a big part in carrying our strategy through.”
In September 2017, Mandt VR partnered with US motorsport body IndyCar, which sanctions the premier IndyCar Series, as well as three other racing series. The deal will see Mandt VR bring virtual and augmented reality to the IndyCar Series during the 2018 season, providing behind-the-scenes footage from the pit lane and garage. The Los Angeles-based firm will also capture in-car footage and record audio between drivers and their crews.
“IndyCar are really interested not only in what immersive media can do to tell stories, but how it can connect new audiences,” explains Sullivan. “And the very nature of the IndyCar series lends itself to 360-degree content. When you have a 360-degree camera placed on an IndyCar in that environment, you give fans another way they can experience the sport. And to fans who aren’t familiar with the skill of the athlete driving the car, or the power of the cars themselves, it introduces the sport in a whole new way.”
IndyCar’s commitment to allowing a company to bring cameras on board and into the action is a bold step for a technology at times held back by sports properties’ reservations about its intrusive potential.
“A lot of sports are understandably protective of their athletes,” says Sullivan. “And athletes are saying, ‘I don’t want a camera on my shoulder, I don’t want a camera in my locker room.’ Think about the nature of a camera being inside a racer’s car - that is an intimate and special environment. But IndyCar are thinking progressively about how to make the sport more engaging for all fans.”
IndyCar is making the content available through their digital platforms and on Facebook and YouTube. While fans who have VR goggles will get the full experience, the content is available from the 360-degree camera perspective on any smartphone, laptop or tablet screen.
“What’s interesting is that all of our partners are seeing that there is a real need for their own digital ecosystem to be integrated with 360-degree capability,” says Sullivan. “So IndyCar, for example, have built this capability into their own digital platform.”
Mandt VR will capture in-car footage and record audio between drivers and their crews to create an immersive fan experience
New angles on a story
360-degree technology is being used by several other VR companies across sports properties, and Sullivan says his firm is looking for new ways to stand out. “The thing that has really allowed us, not just to establish partnerships, but to grow them, is the fact that our company is first and foremost a company that creates content to tell a story,” he suggests. “ “There are a lot of other players in the immersive media space that are starting from a technical or engineering perspective, but if you have the best technology in the world and you can’t tell a story that allows fans to engage with the team or sport that they love, then that technology really isn’t living up to its potential. All of our content strategies are predicated on the ability to present a compelling story.”
With the spawning of myriad new ways in which the fan experience can be upgraded meaning that VR and AR are becoming increasingly impactful, sports organisations are considering how they might create new experiences in-house, and looking at where exactly they can derive value.
Zeality, for example, recently partnered with the Minnesota Vikings to create a dedicated Oculus VR app that connects to Zeality’s back-end infrastructure and allows them to stream media to it. The Minnesota Vikings’ network is hosted on Zeality’s infrastructure and can then be deployed to any application, but at the moment the Vikings are using Oculus Gear VR.
“Every sports media property is looking to get ahead of new media platforms” says Patel. “So for the Vikings, they’re actually producing all of their content in-house. They have the internal resources to produce their own content and they do it on a regular basis.
“The VR/AR space is so broad and really what we’re doing is honing in on looking to effect fan engagement models. I think the biggest challenge in sports as a broad category is how to actually engage younger audiences and drive new models of monetisation with this technology.
“We do this through helping develop content and experiences, and we also deliver and distribute the experiences. This could be anything from working with a sports team to create 360-degree views or content, or AR campaigns. Then we deliver both from a hosting and streaming capability into somebody’s existing mobile application or, in the Minnesota Vikings case, delivering it into a head-mounted display with Oculus application.”
High-end VR products such as Oculus Rift and HTC Vive headsets are still pricing out the majority of fans, and have some physical limits on their use, which has so far kept their ownership base small. That adds to the perceived economic risk for sports properties reluctant to take the leap and invest in VR. On top of this, the speed of technological development means that the technology sits on the nose of innovation’s upward thrust, without the cushion of experience for companies to fall back on.
“One of the things that is challenging yet also exciting is just how new all of this is,” admits Sullivan. “The whole idea of VR initially makes people think, do I have to put on a headset? Isn’t that cumbersome? Isn’t that a barrier to entry?
“But the truth is that VR itself, when experienced through those devices, is only one small way in which people can experience immersive media content strategy. There are really only about 20,000 of those headsets in the marketplace. 360-degree VR, for example, is consumable through any smartphone. This means pretty much anybody in the world can consume it.
“Another challenge is that many teams, brands and organisations are playing a little bit of a waiting game to see just how much these technologies connect the fans. Budgets don’t necessarily allocate money towards immersive tech as it’s so new. We’ve already seen that begin to change in just a year so I believe that over the next year or two, sports organisations will begin to recognise they need to bring immersive media strategy into their budget. And by creating partnerships and creating immersive media for organisations, we are illustrating to the entire marketplace the value of what it is we are doing.”
Getting it right
Broadcasters and filmmakers are still coming to terms with how best to create VR video. VR cameras don’t move in to show users action in close-up because they can’t predict which parts of the drama a spectator will want to see more of, or in which direction a vital part of the action will come from.
Tech giant Intel’s True VR cameras, for example, are set up pointing to the home plate when they film Major League Baseball (MLB) games, and so can’t always capture well a home run soaring into the bleachers or a diving late-second catch when the action is too far from the camera. This problem can be compounded by the fact that mobile phones using Google Daydream or Samsung Gear VR often don’t have screen resolutions high enough to display the 4K quality the games are filmed in.
An Occulus VR headset in use
With that in mind, Patel emphasises the need to think carefully about how compelling VR content can be created within the unique demands of a given sport.
“A lot of these guys just want to stick a camera out there and say, ‘We do VR,’ he notes. “But you’re not going to get a lot of traction with that, because it that would just be poor content.
“Our system is really a delivery system from a technology perspective,” he expands. “We would walk through a strategy or a sports team and look at what they want to accomplish, whether that’s a new category of inventory for their partners and sponsors perhaps. From there we would craft a content strategy and work out what type of approach we need to take before we even consider building a network.”
For Patel, VR has a long way to go until it is ready to vie with the established experience of watching live sport. “The art of producing is still much more accomplished in traditional media than in 360-degrees, for instance,” he says. “But we will get there - we’re probably four years out. It’s going to require a whole new category or creators and producers.
“Right now we’re enamoured with this tech but, quite frankly, it’s not always compelling yet. But where the content is valuable is where I want to see things that I don’t ordinarily have access to. So it’s about showing what’s going on in these places in a compelling way.”
“We are thinking about both VR and AR with a more holistic view of tying these things together. We are honing in the business drivers for the sports team, and we have a toolkit that we can deploy that allows them to hit these business objectives.
“For instance, the San Jose Sharks are going to deploy AR through Zeality in the coming weeks. So one of the things we wanted to do with them is to open up a whole new category of inventory for their existing and new partners.
“The sponsors want more than just a logo on the side of the ice, so we have developed a system that will create campaigns in their own app. There will be a tab called the AR Media tab, you click on that and over time there will be new AR campaigns that are deployed within that structure.”
Patel believes that the development of VR and AR technologies is not simply a shiny new toy for the sports industry. “Immersive tech is a once-in-a-lifetime form of disruption in thinking,” he argues, “with this completely new content format that is done in physical space and not in a box.”
“The way in which we all consume sports content has evolved so much over the years,” Sullivan concludes. “Every single game is consumable in some way, which is fantastic. This immersive media is yet another new frontier through which people will consume content.
“One thing that is irrefutable is the fact fans have an insatiable appetite for more and more content that celebrates his or her favourite sport, favourite team. It is going to become easier to consume content, headsets will become smaller, less clunky and easier to use, and the immersive media space will play a big part in allowing fans to find more ways to experience sport.”