Photograph by Rachel Murray/Getty Images
Courtside seats at an NBA game are usually the province of team owners, celebrities like Drake (Toronto Raptors), and tech executives such as Apple ’s(AAPL) Eddy Cue (Golden State Warriors).
It’s part of a full-court press by some of tech’s biggest players to get a piece of the fledgling market for live sporting events and an emerging new viewing audience weaned on 3-D games, 360-degree viewing angles, mixed media, and social media.
Intel (INTC), the NBA and Turner Sports are broadcasting games in virtual reality for a second straight season, but this year includes new 4K-resolution cameras, more games (10 regular-season games, starting Dec. 27 with Boston at Houston, plus All-Star Game weekend festivities, playoff games, and the Eastern Conference Finals), and more real-time data in the form of game and shot clocks, and team and player stats.
An NBA on TNT VR app, powered by Intel True VR cameras and head-mounted gear from Samsung Electronics (Korea: 005930) and Facebook ’s(FB) Oculus GO, gives fans the option of switching between vantage points and cueing up instant replays on demand. It’s also a high-profile showcase for what Intel’s technology can do, as it and other companies pursue a virtual reality market expected to skyrocket to $19 billion by 2020 from $2.2 billion in 2017, according to Statista.
The experience approximates watching a videogame from a digital device rather than a two-dimensional TV screen, as consumers have for more than 50 years, says Howard Wright, a former NBA player who is appointed vice president of global business development for the Intel Sports Group at Intel Capital, the chip maker’s investment arm. Intel has also broadcast games in VR for Major League Baseball, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, and Spain’s LaLiga soccer league.
In capturing the event in 3-D, presenting it from multiple camera angles, and stitching captured images in real-time, Intel has taken an early lead in a blooming media landscape that should only get better with the coming of 5G networks and better battery technology, say mixed media experts.
“Having the ability to watch sports in VR is almost inevitable,” Tony Parisi, head of AR/VR brand solutions at 3-D real-time engine company Unity Technologies, told Barron’s in an email. “You’re talking about giving a viewer the same type of immersive experience they’d have if they were courtside.” Unity wasn’t involved in the app or hardware, but Parisi has seen videos of the app in use.
Cathy Hackl, a futurist at You Are Here Labs, a VR/AR company, calls the shift to VR broadcasts of sports events “immersive spectating” that is particularly appealing to under-30 viewers weaned on video games with multiple viewing angles and visually-rich data. She has viewed basketball games on NextVR and soccer matches on Oculus Venues, but not Intel’s NBA app.
“It’s an extension of the gaming experience,” she told Barron’s in a phone interview.
Sports attendees, particularly millennials, are eagerly adopting the technology as augmented reality, virtual reality, and mixed reality permeate commerce and entertainment. PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates sports-related advertising will help lead an ad revenue surge to $127.4 billion in the U.S. in 2022 from $88 billion in 2017.