Barcelona played Real Madrid in Miami on Saturday, the first time El Clasico has left Europe in 35 years. What was it like in virtual reality? Watch the video report here.
El Clasico in Miami in July, if the marketers were to be believed, was the hottest ticket in town, the hottest ticket in North America, really, if the marketers were to be believed. Never mind it was a friendly. Never mind it was preseason. This was El Clasico. You can’t fake a Clasico. Except you can, obviously, because they did.
Apparently one fan, which feels like far too nice a word, spent in excess of $10,000 to attend the match, for which price you could buy tickets at Camp Nou and the Bernabeu, and fly round-tip to Spain twice to watch two, real, La Liga Clasico’s in their natural habitat.
This is well-worn territory by now, as the Miami Clasico received lengthy write-ups everywhere from Sports Illustrated to the New York Times, the primary source of excitement seeming to be the sheer size of the corporate cojones required to organize such an historic event as the first El Clasico to be hosted outside Europe for 35 years.
Perhaps we’re so far removed from meaningful soccer it’s inevitable we work ourselves into such a frenzy. These few soccer-less months work weird magic on our ability to differentiate important events from meaningless nonsense. (A good rule of thumb is that there are none of the former; if you find yourself handing over thousands of dollars to attend a soccer game in late July, stop and really think for a minute about what you’re doing, and then don’t do it.)
So it’s worth stressing, before we go on, that if you’re not a player or a manager preseason is completely, entirely meaningless. There are tactics to perfect, touches to hone, new signings to integrate, fitness to be gained and a million non-lessons to be non-learned by fans who will non-forget them so quickly once the season starts maybe it’s no wonder we go through the same, stupid cycle every 12 months. It is worthless. And it costs $10,000 a match.
As if the whole weird thing couldn’t get any weirder, I watched the match via virtual reality headset in Chicago, or I guess virtual Miami, courtesy of the nice folks over at NextVR, on the agreement I’d writing something about “the energy and passion of a truly immersive experience.” Which made me complicit in the whole corporate circle jerk, and now, I guess, 500 words into this piece, also a hypocrite.
But anyway, virtual reality. The future is now, and the future is freaking me out. The way it works is this: you slot your phone into your headset and you put your headset on your head and all of a sudden you are in Miami, sitting in the upper deck of Hard Rock Stadium behind two men wearing Real Madrid jerseys, taking pictures on their phones.
These men are, as I understand it, real people, only I am not really behind them. The technology involved, according my very limited amount of Google research, is called stereoscopy, which is when you take two pictures of the same object, from slightly different angles, and combine them to trick the viewer into thinking they’re seeing the object for real, which makes VR a kind of magic trick, or at least an optical illusion.
The product isn’t perfect. The image quality is mostly much worse than it is on TV, and it can be difficult to refocus on the fly. You are also often much further from the action than you’d like to be. NextVR’s two-part workaround for this is (1) to move you around several “seats” across the stadium, depending on where the ball is, a couple along the side of the pitch and one behind each goal, and (2) to include a screen within the virtual reality showing the regular TV view of the match. Look up, and you’re watching TV. Look down, and you’re watching a slightly grainy Marcelo wipe the sweat off his forehead with his shirt.
So the product isn’t perfect. But it takes only a very small leap of imagination to see how it could get close. And the biggest problems seem to have simple enough solutions: more and better cameras, basically. Which is easier said than done, but also, if the development of regular TV cameras is anything to go by, only a matter of time.
And there are moments, when the ball’s in just the right place, and the players move in just the right way, when it feels really, truly, like you’re there. Neymar exchanges a series of rapid, one-touch passes with Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets, turns, plays an outside-of-the-foot pass to Luis Suarez down the line, and you can feel the speed these guys are playing at, the absolute impossibility, for any normal person, and even most normal players, of doing what they do.
This is not only thrilling, but it also exposes TV’s greatest trick, which is that it makes what these guys do look easy. So easy, at times, it’s tempting to ask why you’d ever go through the trouble of making it to a live match at all. The answer, as VR reminds you just enough to make you think, is that what these guys do is, as far as you’re concerned, impossible.
And so sitting there in virtual Miami, watching virtual Neymar and Lionel Messi and Luka Modric flit in and out of focus, you get to wondering about the future. The big question long-term seems to me to be this: is VR really competing with TV, or does it have its sights set higher? That is, do companies like NextVR ultimately hope to replace screens or stadiums?
Surely there are some things about the stadium experience VR could never replicate. The feeling of actually being in the stands, standing next to real people, singing real songs, falling over real seats when your team scores real goals, listening to the real old man sitting next to you who has had absolutely enough with Danny f–ing Welbeck missing real chances.
It’s tempting to assume these experiences can never be replicated, however convincing our virtual realities become. But then it was tempting to assume tickets would always be affordable, and that the people buying them would be fans, and that El Clasico would stay where it belongs. Things change.
This is all a long, long way off of course. The technology’s not there yet. Though it might be good enough in the meantime to save a few poor idiots $10,000.