VR 20/20: Social, Stats Will Drive Sports VR Adoption

Panel says watching with friends, enhanced stats and positioning will compel viewers

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NEW YORK – Getting sports fans to slap on a virtual reality headset to watch their favorite teams battle it out on the pitch, the diamond or the gridiron for hours at a stretch will involve more than just fancy camera angles, according to a panel discussion here Monday. To get viewers to make the VR commitment, content providers will have to provide a compelling social and statistical experience as well.

“There are two really big hurdles that this is going to have to overcome,” said STRIVR head of sports training Andrew Wasserman at the Virtual Reality 20/20 conference here Monday, the kickoff event for NYC Television and Video Week. “One is that that 2-D broadcast is a really good experience. The second obstacle is the social [aspect] of watching sports. It’s not that common that I’m sitting alone watching a game. When you’re on a headset, you’re on your own.”

Fox Sports senior vice president of digital platforms Devin Poolman said initially, VR may be more of a companion technology, giving viewers the opportunity to go back to watch a particular play immersively, through a “magic window” on their phones.  

“There are use cases that will get us there,” Poolman said. “It becomes a really compelling companion experience that is more like what’s been alluded to with in-car cameras, to be able to jump in and see different perspectives throughout the game. I think we’re maybe going to see this as a second screen experience that ultimately replaces the broadcast.”

The social aspect of VR, the ability for viewers to share the experience with other viewers in different locations, is something the companies involved in the space are learning from the gaming industry.  But NASCAR managing director, broadcasting Brian Herbst said that alone isn’t enough.

“If you can help me watch a NASCAR race with a friend in New York or Virginia or somebody that is displaced, I think that is really, really appealing,” Herbst said, adding that incorporating multiple camera angles and in-car cameras with the enhanced social experience may take a change in consumer behaviors that would take longer than a couple of years.

“If you can bring more into it, more functionality and increase the stickiness of that type of product, I think that’s where you start to see those view times go up,” he said

That additional functionality could be in the form of deeper statistics and health information on players, ways to access additional stats and highlights. That, said some of the panelists in the discussion led by Selhurst Media Ventures principal Ben Grossman, could take time away from social media sites that have become more deeply involved  with sports.   

“There are lots of ways to skin the social cat,” National Basketball Association vice president of global media distribution Jeff Marsilio said. “Social video gaming means you can play games with friends in South America, Asia, all over the world. Once you feel like you can connect socially within the VR space watching a game or otherwise, I don’t think you’re going to feel that itch to check your Twitter [account] as much.”

Moving to this new era of sports interaction will require a shift in what we call “traditional” sports, said AVID Technology senior director of strategic market development Joel Lamdani.

“Traditional sports have to change,” Lamdani said. “E-sports is going to be much bigger. When you have user engagement of thousands of people on Facebook and Google platforms or any other platform, they will dictate a new type of sports.”

VOKE chief strategy and product officer David Aufhauser agreed, adding that fantasy sports also could be a catalyst for VR.

Video quality has been an issue for VR over the years and though it is improving, it is still behind the typical HD set. Fox Sports’ Poolman said that has more to do with bandwidth than anything else.

“We’re about five years from a bandwidth perspective I being able to deliver stereoscopic 3-D bit rates to large audiences,” Poolman said. “What that means in the short term is that we have to make smart compromises and optimize experiences around that.”

One way to do that is by offering unique camera positions – courtside and underneath the basket during NBA games, Marsilio said, even in 2-D offer a perspective and viewing experience currently not available.

Wasserman added that could be enough to get people to forget about lower picture quality.

Monetizing VR also has been a tough nut to crack, and the panelists said content providers are experimenting with incorporating ads in content, sponsorships and commercial breaks.

“The most compelling opportunity is for brands is to create experiences that are true to their own DNA and for us to integrate it with our experience,” Marsilio said.  “It’s one thing when you go to a commercial break on a television program and you have the opportunity to get off the couch and go to the kitchen or not; it’s another when you’re presented with an opportunity to try a true experience related to the brand and engage  with it, whether that’s sitting in an Ikea or snowboarding down a mountain with Mountain Dew.”