What the player can see from inside their headset (Photo: Rezzil)
The boffins behind groundbreaking technology tell Simon Hart why it has the potential to revolutionise the game
Raheem Sterling flies by in a blur of movement. Within a couple of seconds, the ball rests in the back of the net behind me. This is not quite the Etihad Stadium – I am wearing a virtual reality headset and standing on a 3m x 3m green carpet in a Manchester office – but it feels as near to it as the lay person will ever get. As Adam Dickinson, my guide to this impressively immersive, whole-body experience, affirms: “That was actually how quickly it all happened.”
We are reliving Sterling’s goal for Manchester City against Monaco in the 2016/17 Champions League. “You’ll see that Benjamin Mendy [then of Monaco] is drawn to [Kevin] De Bruyne, leaving Raheem free to use his pace and beat him to [Leroy] Sané’s cross,” explains Dickinson, a co-founder and development director of Mi Hiepa Sports, a pioneering VR training platform for football. He has placed me in Mendy’s position to highlight its benefits to coaches. “A typical manager’s view of that scenario would be over here,” he adds, referring to the technical area, “and you can imagine the conversation: ‘Why weren’t you looking over your right shoulder, why did you let him go there?’”
Yet with VR, it is now entirely possible for a coach to stand in the shoes of any player. “You might come in on Monday morning and say, ‘Let’s take that position and replay that moment in the game’,” Dickinson continues. “We can view this from any angle, any player’s position or from one of our fully controllable 38 fixed camera positions. It’s an invaluable tool for analysis.”
Manchester City’s fast-paced game with Monaco is used as an example (Getty Images)
It was in 2017 that Dickinson, who previously worked for EA, the company behind the Fifa video game, established Mi Hiepa with sports director Andy Etches, formerly digital manager at Manchester City, and technical director Gareth Thatcher. By the end of that year, Manchester United’s academy players had begun performing VR drills at Carrington. The pair offer impressive anecdotal evidence of the prominent names, past and present, who have visited the company’s office since to try out the headset, worn with black shoes and shinpads with small sensor devices attached.
Moreover, they have a growing roster of clubs either using or trialling the equipment, including Bristol City and Hull City from the Championship. There are bigger clubs both in this country and abroad actively employing this technology, although don’t want to reveal publically their use of a system they see as a secret weapon. A recently opened satellite office just outside New York is evidence of a deepening footprint in the United States.
One manager who has used VR already in the EFL is Gary Bowyer, the former Blackburn Rovers and Blackpool manager. At Blackpool last season, Bowyer loaned the equipment from Mi Hiepa for a two-month trial, and he says: “From the tactical side as managers and coaches we always watch the game and wonder why he made that decision, but this takes it another step further where you can go in and see what they saw at that particular time.”
His players were equally enthused. “They’re in the generation of virtual-reality computer games so there was buy-in automatically,” explains Bowyer, who points to the possibility of using VR to maintain both the sharpness and morale of injured players. “For the players that were out injured it provides the opportunity to still feel they were doing some football without actually risking further injury or worrying about the load. Plus there’s the motivation – it’s something different. We set a league table up so straight away there’s competition and it generates a spirit among your players.”
As close to the action as the lay person will ever get (Photo: Rezzil)
There are exercises that test mental agility, such as Colour Combos whereby as a series of different coloured balls fly out towards the player, who must connect with the side of the foot corresponding to each ball’s colour. Dickinson says: “If your player is injured, mental sharpness might fall over the eight or ten months of an ACL injury but why can’t we keep them mentally sharp just because they can’t physically be sharp?” A virtual seaside pier, meanwhile, provides such games as crazy golf and darts – all with the feet. “A player might be months and months away from kicking but what we’ve found is we take the entertainment level right up to counteract the mental health issues,” adds Dickinson. Moreover, the games are designed to work different muscles. “These are physiotherapy movements in rehab,” explains Dickinson.
He and Etches present an intriguing vision of the future, one where substitutes might don headsets and perform warm-up exercises in the tunnel before taking the field. Or where new players can step into virtual match situations alongside their team-mates to speed up the settling-in process. “A player might sign on a Friday and have to play the Tuesday, but how is he going to get the information?” says Dickinson. “The easiest way is not to sit in a room with a screen but to put him in there on his feet. When a player has just come over they say ‘it’ll take a couple of months to get up to speed’ but you can have a virtual playbook – ‘Here’s how we line up for corners, here’s how we stand up for free-kicks.’ If you’re a right winger, you can see where the keeper is going to aim.”
There are also exercises designed to instil resilience, for example, by helping younger players get used to the noise and pressure of a stadium on a match day. One exercise places them in a situation where they must decide what to do with the ball – amid loud shouts of “pass” and “shoot”. “We are trying with the academy level to make you confused and see how you react,” says Dickinson. (Indeed they have recently launched a development tool for academy players featuring five drills which simulate pressure situations, called Rezzil.)
Before my own VR experience concludes, I find myself on the pitch at Anfield, hearing the swell of sound from the Kop. This is the ‘Score in front of the Kop’ experience, which was made available to visitors to the Anfield stadium tour during August and September this year. It is an experience, reveals Dickinson, that even Man United old boy Paul Scholes, on a visit to the Mi Hiepa HQ, enjoyed – even if one thing was missing. “The first thing that Scholes said when we showed him the Liverpool one was ‘It feels great but no one is swearing at me!’”