You can experience almost anything in virtual reality. You can be on stage as Paul McCartney performs. You can travel around the globe. You can even watch a live game in virtual reality from the NBA, NCAA and NASCAR. But you can’t watch an NFL game live.
For the most part, the only NFL you can get in virtual reality is highlight packages from virtual reality companies NextVR and Voke. Though impressive, they leave a lot to be desired. You get close enough to Odell Beckham catching a one-handed pass in the end-zone to unconsciously jerk your body back so you don’t impede his motion. But you also get up close and personal with meaningless, unexciting catches that bump into the camera. NextVR and Voke are in the business of selling specific experiences, rather than selling an all-access pass to an entire game.
Why hasn’t the NFL taken games into VR yet? To find out, Digital Trends spoke to the NFL’s Director of Media Strategy and Business Development, William Deng; Voke CEO Sankar Jayaram; and spokespeople from NextVR, as we tagged along behind the scenes of one of NextVR’s NFL productions in December. The answer: it’s complicated.
Blame Samsung? Phones aren’t ready for VR
The NFL is still experimenting with the viability of virtual reality, so the league is by no means an expert. But it does have what Deng refers to as “minimum viable product experiences,” and each VR project is expected to hit its targets. The NFL wants the cameras to be nimble enough to follow the action smoothly, and headsets to be comfortable enough for fans to want to spend hours inside them. And above all else, the NFL wants fans to see the action clearly.
“When I’m in the headset and I’m watching content or a highlight on the other side of the field, can I actually see what’s happening? Resolution today limits that ability,” Deng says. Both NextVR and Voke have yet to find a fix to this problem. Both companies filmed highlight packages for the NFL this season with cameras primarily in each end zone, while both companies only capture video for VR from one sideline. This made plays on the opposite side of the field look grainy, no matter the phone.
If Tom Brady is on the opposite side of the field, how can the NFL be sure you’ll focus on him?
“Right now we are capturing much more data than we can display on a phone,” Jayaram told Digital Trends. Voke and NextVR each attest it can capture a game in 4K video quality per eye in the headset, but there are not many phones with 4K displays.
Since PC-based VR headsets like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive are “less of a reach platform than the mobile-enabled VR world” to Deng, phone resolution is a big hinderance to bringing a live NFL game into virtual reality. Any attempt to bring the NFL to viewers in VR is “very reliant on the mobile phone industry.”
NextVR co-founder Dave Cole thinks advancements such as Japan Display’s new panels for VR headsets and Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 mobile chipset will help. “You won’t be able to build a bad Android VR phone, because all of the components supply will be specific to making a great VR device.” But until those advancements become standard, or at least popular, people won’t want to watch a three-hour live football game.
Blame the camera guy? No one knows how to tell a story in VR
To the average fan, a live NFL game on TV is nothing more than that — a game. To the NFL, those games are meticulously produced and edited mini-movies, and the NFL doesn’t believe anyone knows how to tell a good story in VR.
“What we want to do is make sure we figure out what is the best way to tell a story that leverages the medium of VR; not just ‘hey let’s put a live broadcast in VR,'” Deng told Digital Trends. “What’s the right balance between giving our viewers the flexibility to take advantage of this medium, and be able to access this game from different vantage points, but at the same time making sure the storyline around the game is still coming through?”
If Tom Brady is on the opposite side of the field, how can the NFL be sure you will focus on him, and not a referee that’s nearer in the shot? The NFL cares deeply about this, which is why its original VR content was a nine-part documentary series made in partnership with Google for its Daydream VR headset that goes behind the scenes of nine NFL teams’ preparations. A post-produced narrative means the NFL controls how long you are in a certain space, limiting the amount of time someone can gaze around at things other than the focal point of the video.
Voke’s CEO may agree that “no one knows how to tell a really good story in VR,” but it is certainly not because of a lack of trying. Digital Trends went inside NextVR’s one-of-a-kind production truck during the Chicago Bears matchup against the New York Giants last November at Metlife Stadium. Inside was a maze of wires and TV screens along with a director, editor, line producer, and audio technicians, similar to broadcast TV.
NextVR’s vice president of content Danny Keens says members of NFL Films were in the production truck with them at every game NextVR filmed, and helped mostly with the coveted storyline. “They don’t really dictate editorially, they’re just here to help us with storyline, and the look and feel of the piece.”
Blame the medium? VR is too isolated
Aggressive high-fives and vociferous arguments between fans is as important a part of the live sporting experience as announcers and cheerleaders, yet virtual reality is inherently isolating. You strap a headset on your face, put a pair of headphones on your ears, and block the outside world. The NFL wants the experience to be a bit more social before it puts a live game in virtual reality. “If you’re watching something live [in virtual reality] how do we make that experience social like it is with traditional sports viewing and a viewing behavior we know our fans have,” Deng wondered.
The NBA was as skeptical about virtual reality as the NFL, only to be streaming NBA games in VR the next year.
Voke is currently working on bringing fantasy football and Twitter feeds into its VR experience; NextVR says it can do all of that too, but Cole is hesitant to implement the features.”You just don’t want to glam this thing up with a bunch of crap,” he said. “What it really is in its purest form is to make you feel like you’re at the game.”
Oculus’ recently released Rooms feature is the best social experience for the Samsung Gear VR, and the closest to actually watching video in VR with other people. In Rooms, people can invite their friends to watch videos or play games in a virtual living room. People are represented by floating, colored heads, with a photo from the person’s synced Facebook account underneath. They can communicate in a text chat system and through voice calls. But it’s missing one key thing: NFL games.
In Rooms, you can currently watch only videos from Facebook, and after the social network unsuccessfully bid for streaming rights for games for the 2016-2017 NFL season, it’s not certain whether the most popular social media platform in the United States will make another bid for the 2017-2018 season.
Small strides towards getting the NFL into VR
Even with all of these technical and contextual hurdles, there is still hope a live NFL game will be streamed in virtual reality as early as next season. Deng told Digital Trends the NFL has been running private tests to see what a live NFL game in VR would look like. Voke’s co-founder said the company is helping with those tests. NextVR has said it was capable of live streaming any event back in January 2015, when it captured four games in virtual reality for the NFL Experience fan exhibit at Super Bowl XLIX.
“I think that we’re seeing the NFL recognizing that VR is going to be a significant part of their digital subscription media strategy,” Cole said. “They’ve basically said that with the tests they’ve done and the work they’ve done with us.” He believes the nine-part documentary series and highlight packages are getting fans interested, comparing it to a “drug dealer that gives you a few free” to get you to come back for more.
Back in 2015, the NBA was as skeptical about virtual reality as the NFL, only to be streaming games in virtual reality the next year. The NBA’s fledgling VR initiative consisted mostly of bringing fans a few feet away from stars as they get introduced at the NBA All Star Game, as well as mundane shooting drills. In 2016, as the number of active VR users increased exponentially, the NBA became the first major sports league to include live VR games in a subscription package — its NBA League Pass — offering a NextVR-produced live game in VR every week for the entire 2016-2017 NBA season.
The NFL’s digital subscription strategy loosened up in 2016, allowing Twitter to stream 10 games this season. The League also began allowing CBS to stream games to its over-the-top All Access service, a move NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell attributes to fans wanting to watch games on “emerging digital platforms.”
If the NFL is starting to embrace emerging technology to bolster declining viewership numbers, it may not be too long before virtual reality is used as a catalyst. Deng does not rule this out, saying he “can see a world where VR is a premium subscription product that compliments the traditional, linear broadcast experience.”
But first the VR companies of today and tomorrow need to figure out how to make fans feel like they are at the game without losing any of the NFL’s storytelling DNA. And until the technology catches up with those ambitions, you’ll have to settle for watching live NFL games the old-fashioned way.