We live in an era of unprecedented global interest in live sports.
The 2015 Cricket World Cup quarter final between India and Pakistan drew an estimated TV audience of 1 billion people, or 14% of the world’s population, almost twice the audience for the moon landing in 1969 and 8 times the audience for last year’s Super Bowl. The Summer Olympics holds the highest estimated total viewership, with almost 5 billion people tuning in at some point—approximately 70% of the world’s population. The entire sports market is worth $700 billion per year, or 1% of global GDP.
These are just a few of many examples demonstrating sports’ massive global appeal.
Sport has a unique, almost unparalleled power to permeate boundaries and bring people together. Yet, the viewing choices for fans are essentially binary: to watch sporting events on TV, or go to a stadium and watch the game live. The former lacks the energy of a live event, while the latter can be expensive and, for most games, is too far away to attend.
There is, however, an exciting new alternative emerging. Virtual reality offers fans the best of both worlds — delivering the electricity of a live game at home (or wherever they are) — and a growing number of new entrants are working to make VR the next big thing in sports.
How Did We Get Here?
TV production levels are constantly improving, with broadcasters refining the viewer experience through new perspectives, better commentary, detailed analysis, 24-hour sports channels and other innovations. Teams are building new, high tech arenas with a focus on fan experience, comfort and monetization. The San Francisco 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium boasts WIFI thirty times faster than any other stadium. The soon-to-be-opened Sacramento Kings Arena promises to be at the cutting-edge of sports experiences.
Despite these improvements and innovations, that major limiting factor has remained — only a tiny percentage of sports fans are able to see their team play live.
A global fanbase cannot reasonably expect to travel to watch every game in person. Teams do not have the ability to finance enormous stadiums to accommodate all the fans who would like to attend. Some teams have even downsized their stadiums or arenas and increased their focus on maximizing revenues through improved corporate hospitality, season tickets and variable, demand-driven ticket pricing for unsold seats.
Obtaining tickets for elite games is tricky and can be expensive.
Often arenas are sold out. The recent Manchester United v Barcelona soccer exhibition game at Levi’s Stadium saw ticket prices average $230 and reach in excess of $700 dollars. Successful teams fill arenas, with the San Francisco Giants recently celebrating their 373rd consecutive sellout game. The Pacquaio v Mayweather boxing fight sold out in minutes, with tickets changing hands for upwards of $13,000.
This all means there is a huge proportion of the global sports fanbase who want to experience live games, but cannot afford to do so, or cannot feasibly travel to those games. To date, these fans have had no choice but to watch on TV — at home, with friends, or in bars and pubs — an experience that, while often social, lacks the pure adrenaline and atmosphere of watching live.
Enter Virtual Reality
VR levels the field, enabling the masses to experience what only a minority might otherwise experience. For live sports broadcasters, virtual reality offers the holy grail of sports fan engagement and monetization — to be able sell the same seat infinite times. No longer are sports and event attendances limited by the physical capacity of venues. Fans around the world can choose to virtually attend games that would be otherwise sold out.
With VR opening up new possibilities for the already enormous live sports market, it is unsurprising that there are a number of new entrants playing in this space.
Broadly, these break down into three categories:
- Stitched 180- and 360-degree film companies using an array of high resolution, often 4K cameras to give an immersive visual experience, coupled by a layered audio experience. Examples of such companies include Jaunt, Next VR, 3D-4U.
- Player training and performance improvement technology, which enables elite players to run plays repeatedly, improving their knowledge, understanding and execution of those plays. Examples include EON Sports, SIDEKIQ and STRIVR.
- Immersive social networking for VR, focused around embedded filmed content. Examples include AltspaceVR and LiveLike.
My company, Virtually Live, is tackling the problem in what we believe is a unique way.
We are not seeking to build a better camera; we are building a new medium. We believe people go to stadiums for more than just the view; they go for the atmosphere, the social interaction, the electricity, the sense of being there. We also believe stitched film for VR, while extremely impressive, is an arm’s length, often lonely experience. Fans are unable to engage with the people around them, which can cause fans to feel isolated, as if they are watching from behind a glass wall.
Our mission is to recreate the magic of live events for people around the world.
We are creating an immersive, virtual experience that is social and enables fans to enjoy complete viewing flexibility and new perspectives. Our technology takes optically tracked 3D data or RFID data (gathered in partnership with STATS.com) and transposes it into a virtual stadium environment, in substantially real time.
Fans can pick any viewing position, move around and talk to other fans.
It’s an exciting prospect. Still, the technological challenges are numerous. Primary limitations include the accuracy and depth of 3D data (as gathered by cameras or sensors) and the quality of the virtual reconstruction of the game being tracked (which in turn depends on both high-quality graphical rendering and clever AI).
However, we are witnessing two significant trends — the rapid improvement of sports tracking (including ever improving cameras and methodologies) as well as technological leaps being made in graphics. Virtual experiences are becoming photo-real. The line between filmed and virtual broadcast is narrowing.
This blurring has already happened in movies — witness the latest Star Wars franchises and the recent Jurassic World movie, which features largely CGI landscapes (and, of course, animals).
We believe Virtually Live’s approach presents a number of significant benefits over traditional filmed sport (even if in 3D using 360-degree stitched methodologies). A fan can pick any seat in the stadium, but can also experience the game from new perspectives — such as on the field, or watching from the viewpoint of a particular player. They can even float above the field and watch from viewing positions that are very difficult to capture using cameras.
Most importantly, Virtually Live captures the entire fan engagement piece in one place. Fans can interact with each other. Imagine walking down the steps of the Giants game, bottom of the fourth inning, sitting next to your friend right behind second base, and watching Buster Posey rip one over the center fielder for a two-run RBI, celebrating together.
Social interaction is the glue that helps increase the stickiness of the virtual experience. It makes people want to return. Using Virtually Live’s platform, fans are able to attend games with friends, sit together and discuss the game with each other as the game happens. This is a critical component of watching live sports which we bring to our platform.
Yes, there are currently technological limitations. Emotions are difficult to capture using facial tracking. There is a small latency when rendering the event (roughly six seconds). There are technical challenges in dealing with multiple concurrent conversations between fans.
But we are building a technology for where the market is going, not where it is now. We believe the future of live sport viewing will be a combination of actual footage and virtual reconstruction, and that our approach provides that real sense of being there at the game.
Next year is a watershed year for VR. Oculus launches its first consumer-ready headset in Q1 2016. Sony launches the Morpheus headset in Q2. Others, not least Vive, are following suit. There are divisions already occurring between tethered and mobile VR headsets.
As with first versions of smartphones, the consumer-ready headsets will be imperfect but transformative. VR headset manufacturers need high-quality content to help sell their headsets (as console manufacturers need games, or the App Store needs quality apps).
It’s an exciting and exhilarating business to be in, building a new media which we believe will help grow the wider VR market. In the next few years, our mission is for Virtually Live to become the primary media by which people experience live sports and events. It will not replace the experience of attending the live event, but it will enable people to virtually attend who would not otherwise have been able to.
We’re bringing the world a little closer together!