Danny Keens, vice president of content partnerships at NextVR, outlines the process of integrating virtual reality into an NBA broadcast, and explains why basketball fans are buying into a more immersive viewing experience.
The National Basketball Association (NBA) is no stranger to innovation, whether that be through integrating new technology into its broadcasts or becoming the first major US sports league to launch its own esports competition.
True to form, ahead of this year’s NBA Finals, NBA Digital partnered with NextVRfor the second consecutive year to bring fans virtual reality (VR) highlights of the best-of-seven game series between the Cleveland Cavaliers and eventual champions the Golden State Warriors. The NBA and NextVR are also familiar with each other having previously partnered to show 27 live games in virtual reality on the League Pass streaming service.
The deal for this year’s season-ending series also coincided with a significant upgrade in VR technology, allowing NextVR to deliver a high-resolution format which was capable of providing a more realistic and immersive VR experience to wearable displays.
With all that in mind, SportsPro caught up with Danny Keens (right), vice president of content partnerships at NextVR, to learn about the intricacies of producing an NBA broadcast in VR, to find out why basketball lends itself to the technology, and to discuss how much room there is for the overall viewing experience to evolve.
How did your partnership with the NBA come about, and was there anything new about the collaboration for the finals this year?
We started our NBA partnership two seasons ago. We did a live game each week for season one and season two, and we did the finals last year.
The big difference for us this year was that we did the finals in high resolution. The reason for that is because it’s the first time ever that there are displays in the market and hardware that can really complement the high-resolution capture that we can do. We’ve always captured at a high resolution but we haven’t transmitted at a high resolution because the headsets haven’t been capable of really displaying at the resolution that we’ve been capturing it, but now we have a number of devices that have hit the market that really can start to give NBA fans a sense of presence and immersion at the game, which has always been the promise of VR.
We’re moving into an era where you can forget you’re staring at a screen, and actually start to think you’re at the event. Until this season, this really hasn’t been possible because screen resolution has still felt like you’re looking at a screen, but now we’re moving into an incredible era of VR.
Is there anything about the NBA in particular that lends itself to virtual reality?
The NBA is probably the most global sport from a US sports perspective – it certainly has more reach globally than something like the NFL or MLB – but the reality is that most people are never going to be able to set foot in an NBA arena, let alone an NBA Finals game.
So for the first time, we’re allowing NBA fans all over the world to feel like they’re sitting courtside at an NBA Finals game, which they otherwise never would have done. And that really is the promise of VR; the concept of presence and immersion is really what we strive for, and now we can give that feeling to NBA fans everywhere.
NextVR's technology allows viewers to watch players like LeBron James charging directly towards them as they make a big play at the net
You’ve previously produced live games in VR for the NBA’s League Pass service. How different is the operation for producing highlights packages as opposed to coverage of a full game?
It’s a little different. When we do a live game, what’s important to know is that we never touch the host broadcast feed, so we do a fully-produced VR broadcast. That means we have our own play-by-play analyst and a courtside reporter. We’ll wrap the arena with eight to 12 cameras and we’ll do a produced feed, so we cut between the cameras just like you would on a traditional TV broadcast, and during the game we bring in real-time stats such as the score, shot clock and game clock.
We’re moving into an era where you can forget you’re staring at a screen, and actually start to think you’re at the event.
We also do slow-motion replays, so we have this replay technology we built which means if LeBron James is dunking right in front of you, our commentators can call for that dunk again, and we’ll bring it back to you in slow motion. So you can imagine a world where you have LeBron coming back at you and dunking right in front of your face.
For the NBA finals, it’s slightly different because it’s not live, so we don’t need to have the courtside reporter, we don’t need to have the analyst, and we don’t need to have the 12 cameras we traditionally do for a live broadcast. So it’s slightly peeled back, but that’s only because we don’t require the sophisticated infrastructure that we would for those live games.
You mentioned that you have several cameras dotted around the arena. Are there any angles you find fans engaging with more than others?
The courtside seat is pretty incredible. It’s a camera that sits on the scorer’s table, so this is a seat that money can’t buy, because it’s a courtside seat that doesn’t actually exist to a regular NBA ticketholder. So that is a camera that a ton of time is spent on because you can see all of the action happening at both ends of the court.
The stanchion cameras (right) are pretty amazing as well. These are mounted directly under the basket, so you can actually watch the players coming towards you and doing layups or dunks right in front of your face.
So the courtside camera and the stanchion cameras are probably the most popular cameras, and when you’re watching one of our NBA broadcasts, you can either sit on the produced feed which is produced by a director, or you can simply choose to sit on any camera at any given time.
Are there any challenges you encounter? How do you ensure a smooth transition for the consumer into the world of VR?
The biggest challenge is from a production perspective and ensuring that our content or broadcast partners understand the nuances of producing for VR.
The most important factor we think about the production process is that a VR camera can’t zoom. So what that means is that in a traditional broadcast you can put a camera at the back of an arena, and that camera can zoom in and get a really great tight shot of the emotion on a player’s face. From a VR perspective, if you put a camera at the back of an arena, the user feels like they are sitting at the back of the arena, and it’s not a great experience.
So you have to get as close to the action as you possibly can, and the trickiest part is getting the league and the traditional broadcast partners comfortable with the camera positions that we require to produce the feed that we need to produce. Thankfully the NBA totally understands that and is very lenient when it comes to how we produce the content.
Keens says that NextVR never touches the host broadcast feed and makes its own fully-produced VR broadcast
Can you tell us a little about NextVR’s Screening Room platform?
So you could actually watch the NBA Finals live, the entire game on NextVR, anywhere in the world outside of the US, even though we weren’t producing the NBA Finals live in VR.
We’re allowing NBA fans all over the world to feel like they’re sitting courtside at an NBA Finals game, which they otherwise never would have done.
The way we do that is through the Screening Room, which is where we pump the traditional 2D broadcast feed into a virtual environment, and it’s the equivalent of turning your mobile phone into the largest screen in the house. So when you plug your phone into a headset and launch the Screening Room, it launches a fully virtual 3D environment with a JumboTron in it which plays the 2D feed.
How do you have to adapt the technology to each sport you work with?
It depends on the league and what we’re trying to capture. Something like the NFL is a really complicated production versus NBA, because it’s a large field and resolution’s a real struggle when it comes to trying to capture content at a distance. It’s the same with the European football content that we capture, so it’s very nuanced for each sport.
The best sports to capture for where the technology is today are those that are played in small arenas with controlled lighting where weather conditions aren’t a factor, so things like boxing, MMA, NBA and ice hockey are all really well suited. When you get to larger sports, it’s still a little bit of a challenge, but we’ve found ways to produce that keeps the content compelling.
Keens says VR is a good fit for the NBA because games take place within a small arena with controlled lighting conditions where weather isn't a factor
How mature is VR at the moment, and how much more room is there for it to evolve?
We’re at the very very early phase of the VR medium, and I equate it to the old phones you had in your house which were attached to a cord, or even the brick cell phone era. The amount of money that is being invested in VR by the largest technology companies in the world is astonishing, and we’re only at the beginning. There is a long way to go, but it’s really exciting because we can already see the product growing from some of these media tech giants and what they’re building.