Retired NBA players Rip Hamilton (right) and Kenyon Martin chat courtside during a Big 3 game at American Airlines Arena in Miami. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Big 3/Getty Images)
Rip Hamilton is a seasoned NBA Playoffs veteran. He helped lead the Detroit Pistons into the Eastern Conference Finals six years in a row, and won the NBA championship in 2004.
The retired three-time NBA All-Star will be back for this season’s series, calling it from a virtual broadcast studio. He’ll be taking fans through the playoffs alongside co-host Stephanie Ready, a seasoned NBA broadcaster, from an on-site truck with a production team powered by Intel.
The tech company is in its second year as a virtual reality broadcast partner for the NBA on TNT. Last year, Intel and Turner streamed seven games in virtual reality during the regular season, and a dozen or so more games during the playoffs, including the Western Conference Finals in their entirety.
This season, fans tuning in via the Oculus NBA on TNT VR app have been given access to live games, full-game replays, and highlights. Intel streamed 10 regular season games beginning in December, as well as the All-Star weekend, and eight playoff games prior to the Eastern Conference Finals. Beginning this Wednesday, fans will be taken through the full series between the Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks by Hamilton and Ready. Last year, the Western Conference Finals were called by Ready and fellow sportscaster Spero Dedes.
(Courtesy of Intel)
Intel has been working to improve the stream and experience for fans tuning in via Oculus Go or Samsung Gear VR headsets. The company captures content with Intel True VR stereoscopic pods, each containing up to 12 4K-resolution cameras. It improved its arsenal of cameras this year, shrinking the size of each pod for added mobility and creating a wider-angle view to give greater perspective from each camera position. With that increased field of view, fans can now look farther to their left or right, and, for example, better see the projection and arc of a ball shot from the three-point line.
A new display in the virtual reality app also includes advanced features related to content navigation and interactivity. From the Intel stream, fans are able to choose up to seven different camera views, hopping between, say, courtside seats and a dunk camera, or between the mid-court stands and the corner of the court nearest the tunnel. They can also switch views based on game action, all while listening to color commentary and digesting a slate of real-time team and player statistics.
Each view now also includes a shot clock and game clock in addition to scores, giving viewers that key information as they roam through the virtual reality world checking out alternative perspectives. And since the virtual reality broadcast doesn’t break for commercials, viewers are given a 360-degree view of games as though they’re attending them all in person—halftime shows and all.
“Intel Sports has brought fans closer to the game and our job as color is to bring you inside the locker room,” Hamilton said in a recent interview. “As a kid, I never had an opportunity to go to a professional basketball game and watch it from the floor. Now with VR, we’re sitting with you watching the game at your house and we’re just having a conversation. You don’t have to be there to feel like you’re there.”
Expanding the accessibility of live sports to fans who might never be able to attend in person has been one of the goals of Intel Sports through its virtual reality media arm. During the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics, Intel brought fans inside the Games, streaming 18 live events in a 180-degree view over the two-and-a-half week event. The company shot 30 events in total, a dozen or so that fueled 360-degree video-on-demand content. The NBA, too, has been ambitiously expanding its international reach through services such as VR streams and League Pass to appeal to those who might never attend a live game in person.
Intel True VR in action. (Courtesy of Intel)
Hamilton said he plans to inject his personal experience and knowledge into the streams and dive deeper on certain storylines that might be missed if he were constrained to the traditional live telecast.
“Fans don’t just want to hear stats or analytics they want to hear what the player was thinking, why they made a certain move. And with certain camera angles, we can break it down better than the traditional telecast where you might miss certain aspects of the game because it’s moving so fast,” Hamilton said.
For Intel, the stream is not meant to replace or replicate the live telecast, but to create a different type of viewing experience. Virtual reality gives users the ability to pick and choose what they want to focus on, not just by switching camera angles, but by simply looking around.
Intel True VR set up ahead of a TNT broadcast in 2018. (Courtesy of Intel)
“Going to a game is so much more what’s happening on the court. It’s the sights, smells, sounds, overall experience,” said Lindsay Grant, Intel Sports’ senior director of growth. “By choosing different camera angles, fans can hear the squeaking of the sneakers as the players run by. Every camera has its own audio so the fan is able to experience the game like they’re sitting in that position.”
With two seasons almost complete, Intel is now looking at the next phase of the VR broadcast. So far, the company has been busy improving the production with new cameras and views, sounds, and commentary. This season, it also introduced a social aspect: launching emojis that enable fans to visually interact with the stream if they like a particular play.
As has been the trend of streaming experiences from Caffeine and Twitch to Amazon Prime, the next stage of sports viewing is one that embraces personalization and interactivity. Intel is only starting down this path, but Grant said both are a focus as her group further evolves its virtual reality streams. The company is working to “dial up the social aspect for viewing,” she said.