I spent an evening with the NBA’s VR crew for the playoffs and they might be onto something here.
I have to admit, I was pretty anti-virtual reality before heading into Bankers Life Fieldhouse ahead of Game 4 between the Pacers and Cavaliers. Sure, I had heard about virtual reality. I had even seen Reggie Miller wear the headset on TNT just a few nights prior.
But I still didn’t quite understand it. Why would I watch a game with a mask on my face, while also being isolated from the things I enjoy about a game, like watching with friends or following along on Twitter?
But I will try anything once. That’s why I was at Game 4 anyway: To try out some virtual reality. Thanks to Intel and the VR team, I had a chance to get a behind-the-scenes look at how it all works.
I first met with Intel exec Nadia Banks, who took me to the VR truck in the broadcast compound, a very typical broadcast truck with lots of screens, dark rooms, and cold temperatures.
The only difference was the guy in front corner with a VR headset on. He’s looking straight at me with that thing, except he doesn’t see me at all because he’s in the VR world. I was going to have to get used to that pretty quickly.
The Samsung VR headset was pretty easy to use, honestly. Since there wasn’t a live game on at the time, I could choose between several replays to watch. I chose to watch back part of Game 3 between the Cavaliers and Pacers. I jump in at a random spot during the game and immediately feel Kevin Love flying down the lane right right at me. I felt like I was about to take a very unwanted charge.
OK, so this is VR. Got it.
I continued to work through the different camera angles available to me. The VR headset does not limit anyone to whatever angle TNT chooses for the average person. I can make my own experience. Courtside seats right at the halfcourt line? Yes please. Suite level? Sure, why not.
Intel has five cameras throughout the arena, including one under each basket. The camera that’s under the basket can show you a lot, like that Love moment I was talking about. It’s also a 180 degree camera, so it’s picking up everything from left to right and not just in front of you. That’s how VR quickly becomes an immersive experience.
My next step was to spend some time with broadcasters Sarah Kustok and Kevin Ray. Each VR game has a broadcast crew, just like any other TNT game. The difference is the 180-degree cameras give fans more access than ever, so the broadcast team cannot call the game traditionally.
“For us to call a game as we would but also giving insight and telling a viewer where to look,” Kustok said. “There are things that we can see in the building, maybe its discussions between a player and a coach. That extra part of the action is where we can let the viewer know they have the opportunity to choose what they see. We watch the court and the monitors and let the fan know they’re seeing a guy like LeBron James coming down the lane. Here’s a replay and LeBron is going to be coming right at you. For me it’s fun. You get to see a player coming on straight at the basket.”
When a viewer watches a game in VR as opposed to anywhere else, they will actually experience what they once couldn’t even see from their couch.
“The technology is amazing because it gives you that 360-degree dimension that watching on a normal broadcast you can’t get,” Ray said. “You see it from any number of angles, and then somebody like Sarah, an analyst, can break it down in three different aspects. ‘Here’s what the ball handler is seeing, here’s what his defender is seeing, and here’s what the weak side defender is seeing.’”
OK, so this sounds like an NBA junkies dream.
At this point, I’m starting to see how VR could be a cool experience for an intense NBA fan. See how the Cavs blew a defensive coverage from three different angles? See how James finds his spots on the court to make his signature passes? See how Victor Oladipo finds the perfect space to get to the rim? I could totally spend a night watching a game like this and listening to Sarah Kustok break down these moments.
But it doesn’t just have to be for junkies
There is another layer of the VR experience: feeling like you’re actually in the arena. There are plenty of reasons fans may want to have the experience of being at a live game. Maybe they live in a city too far away. Maybe they can’t afford tickets. Maybe sitting in a virtual front-row seat (or anywhere else in the virtual building) provides a trip down memory lane.
Virtual reality gives fans the option to select the vantage point they want to see a game from, making it their own experience.
“It does offer us the ability to be more conversational. Someone is watching this by themselves, so we are all together and giving them that experience” said Kustok.
That experience includes not only the player interactions on the court, but also the atmosphere around it.
“With the intensity of the playoffs, its important for us to be in the arena and pick up on the energy of nervousness or anxiety level within the building,” Ray said. “That adds an important element to it.”
Ray said he could feel Cavaliers fans getting nervous in Game 2 as the Pacers mounted a comeback. As a Pacers fan, I can relate.
OK, but what about a live game. Is this actually better than on TV?
By this point, I have to admit that I caught a little of the VR fever. Now it was time to actually see it in action.
I put my headset back on just in time for player introductions. From my test run, I remember there is a camera option to go right under the basket, where the Pacers are about to unveil their starting lineup.
I immediately flip over and see photographers beside me begin to crouch into position. The Pacers announcer is getting louder. The crowd sounds like actual thunder. Then I see the players running right at me. Thaddeus Young. Bojan Bogdanovic. Myles Turner. By the time the announcer was revved up to yell “from INDIANA UNIVERSITY ... VICTOR OLADIPO!” I swear to everything I was ready to chest bump the dude and jump into the huddle.
I was IN THE HUDDLE. I was THERE!
I pulled off the VR headset and felt total shock that I was actually sitting in a dark truck. I wasn’t in the game at all, but, my lord, did I feel like it.
I went back and forth between the headset and watching the crew work in the truck. At one point, I told Banks that it felt like she was in the game with me at times.
“That’s the future of this, she said. “That’s where it’s headed”
To be able to actually share this experience with friends would put VR on an entirely different level. It’s something that was talked about during the NCAA tournament as well:
“Once the technology catches up to the concept, it’ll feel like you’re at the game with your friends,” Lavin says. “That’s when it’ll work. It’s a no-brainer. Someday these headsets will look like my eyeglasses, and we’ll have everything right there.”
What we’re seeing now is only the tip of the iceberg for virtual reality. The technology is changing so fast; one of these days, we will be able to watch VR with our friends. Instead of laughing on the couch while watching James and Lance Stephenson go at it, we could actually experience it together?
“I can’t wait to see how this looks in two years or five years,” Ray said. “I think even using this as a teaching tool for players, it becomes huge.”
For those who may lament missing the interaction on Twitter, incorporating a Twitter feed into the broadcast is on the horizon, too. You can already get scores and stats on the VR broadcast at any time by looking left or right. Twitter could be next.
This will likely never be the only way to watch a game, but it can be a fantastic complementary option. From the player interactions to the breakdown of moments, VR is an entirely new way to watch the game. Don’t forget the moments where you feel as if you could block a shot at the rim like you’re Anthony Davis. It’s quite an experience.
VR is the future, and it might be a pretty neat one after all.