Above picture: A look at the Fox Sports “virtual suite” set up by LiveLike during the Mexico-Venezuela Copa America match in June 2016. (Credit: LiveLike).
As Ohio State and Oklahoma faced off in college football on Saturday night, a few thousand early adopters settled in to watch the live broadcast in a different way than the more than 6 million who tuned into Fox on their TVs. Armed with Gear VR and Google Cardboard headsets or just their smartphones and iPads, these fans were trying out Fox Sports’ new virtual reality app to watch the game. With a few taps, the fans were able to witness the Buckeyes win from multiple viewpoints around the stadium, pull up rosters and in-game matchup details or turn to catch the main broadcast on what looked like the building’s big screen.
David Stern was one of them. The former NBA commissioner had left his headset at the office, so he sat and tilted his iPad around, sending the app from one camera angle to another, from field level to the end zone, then up to see the view from on high. The stream reminded him of 20 years before, when Stern took a chance on another new technology, shooting the NBA All Star Game in expensive cameras that promised picture quality called high definition. “The die is cast,” Stern says. “Sports leagues and owners are falling head over heels in love with all forms of technology.” The proof is in new deals like the NFL’s to stream games on Twitter, apps for in-stadium ordering and team use of smart wearable clothing and advanced sensors. For broadcasters, it means eventually having an app such as Fox Sports’ VR one, Stern believes. “There will only be more competition out there for the viewers’ eyeballs,” he says.
That’s why investors are lining up behind startups like LiveLike, the little company that made streaming a game from within a virtual stadium possible for Fox. Days before, LiveLike announced a partnership with Fox Sports that it signed over the winter to air games. It’s also done tests airing matches from the English Premier League, Roland Garros and the famed El Clasico in Spain. Saturday was by far the biggest, with an early estimate of 37,000 people tuning into the VR experience on less than a week’s notice and behind a paywall. “We were taking a leap of faith in terms of how many platforms we had supported,” says chief business officer Miheer Walavalkar. “We’ve proven we can do live games with VR.”
Investors hope Saturday’s game is just a taste of what’s to come. LiveLike has now raised $5 million from Stern and a group of venture firms led by Evolution Media Partners, a joint effort of entertainment and sports agency CAA and investment firm TPG, as well as Elysian Park Ventures, Courtside Ventures, Dentsu Ventures and Techstars Ventures. The LiveLike team had previouslywon a competition run by TechCrunch called 1st And Future in which they got $50,000 in cash, meetings with NFL brass and Super Bowl tickets as judged at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business by investor Mary Meeker and Condoleezza Rice. It graduated from TechStars’ New York program in 2015. (Disclosure: this reporter volunteered as a mentor to that startup class.)
“People are seeing the potential,” says Walavalkar. “Our conversations over the past 12 months have progressed from, ‘oh this is interesting,’ to, ‘okay, what’s your business model and go to market strategy?’”
Abive picture: The virtual suite for the Ohio State and Oklahoma game in September 2016. (Credit: LiveLike).
For now, LiveLike is relying on partners like Fox for it to grow. When broadcasters purchase the rights to air a particular game or league, they typically include the necessary rights for virtual reality, says Stern. And LiveLike can cover a game with unmanned cameras controlled by an onsite technical team of as few as five people.