Fox Sports takes plenty of flak—some of it fair—for giving a platform to loudmouth hot-take artists. Rarely, however, does the net get any credit for its commitment to innovation. The net for years has been one of the most enthusiastic adopters of live virtual reality, particularly among sports outlets, most of whom have only dabbled in the medium. Fox Sports’ most recent offering around last month’s CONCACAF Gold Cup soccer tournament showed how far the net has come and what the future could look like.
After working primarily with NextVR on its VR streams for several years, Fox Sports recently partnered with Livelike to create a social VR experience. Traditionally, VR has been an individual experience, particularly when users strap on a headset. Fox Sports and Livelike sought to let viewers of the Gold Cup watch together online and interact with one another.
The end result was a first for sports VR. Users have the perception they are watching the game from a virtual stadium suite. Look straight ahead and you see the match unfolding on the pitch below. Look left, right or behind you, and you’re in a plush skybox with your friends that has interactive graphics. Each user has an avatar and can speak with one another while watching the game.
Fox Sports svp, technical and field operations Michael Davies said the watching with friends taps into the tribal nature of sports fandom. He is particularly excited about the potential to reunite college buddies virtually during NCAA football games in VR this season.
In addition to breaking new ground with the social component, Fox took a big step in terms of sponsor integration and monetization of VR. The virtual suite environment was decked out with Buffalo Wild Wings branding and, more notably, users who looked at the plate of virtual chicken wings in front of them were prompted to place a delivery order for real ones.
“Until right now, the promise of VR for sponsors has been sort of theoretical,” Davies said. “They’d say, ‘Wow it would be great if you could do this or you could do that or whatever,’ but now we’re actually starting to do it. We can check the click-throughs or how many people are playing around with the brand offerings.”
E-commerce functionality like ordering wings currently requires headset users to take off their devices to enter payment information. Should a sponsor express an interest in investing more, Davies envisions developing a more seamless experience.
“What will happen in the future, when it makes sense, is that it will just take you to another virtual room that will be a representation of the website,” he said. “So, all of that is theoretically possible if it makes sense to put that kind of work in for the numbers that you’re going to get.”
Davies acknowledges that Fox Sports has barely scratched the surface in terms of exploring VR’s capabilities for delivering live sporting events. Since most users still access the experiences via smartphone or tablet, the net is currently forgoing offerings for high-priced VR headsets in favor of ones that allow for maximum reach.
Still, the biggest step for Fox Sports will be offering a regular slate of events in VR. The net currently only bothers with VR for occasional tentpole events, but Davies hopes to roll out a regular schedule of games as soon as this college football season.
“We need partners to help us out with this and whatnot, but we think that being a little bit more predictable in terms of what we do is going to be a big key to driving the popularity,” he said.
VR isn’t yet conducive for watching a game from start to finish, but Fox Sports has created an enjoyable and monetizable supplement to the action on TV.