How Virtual Reality is Transforming the Sports Fan Experience

Virtual Reality is a technology that is taking the world by storm and transforming quite a number of fields, including how sports fans consume content.

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Aug 17 2016, 8:40pm

Courtesy of Samsung

Created By Samsung

Sports is the one thing that probably has the most live value in the world. As sports fans, we always want to be as close to the action as possible. But alas, only so many people can attend a match in person, and not everyone can afford a ticket for the soccer stadium's VIP area, a courtside seat at an NBA game, or a place on the sideline during an NFL match. In fact, very few people get to live the most exciting moments of sport events to their fullest.

The rest of us have to settle for the remote experience offered by our TV sets.

But all of this is changing thanks to virtual reality, the technology that is taking the world by storm and transforming quite a number of fields, including how sports fans consume content. VR technology puts viewers in the center of action and enables them to enjoy an immersive experience whether they're attending the game in the stadium or are sitting in the comfort of their home thousands of miles away.

This is the most authentic experience you can get from an event that you're not physically at. Already, sports federations and teams are investing in the huge value provided by VR and are integrating the necessary technology to provide their fans with the ability to see their favorite teams perform in a completely different way. 360-degree cameras installed at key points in stadiums and arenas stream live feeds as the game is played. It is up to you to decide which angle you want to see the action unfold from.

Basically, all you need as a viewer to take advantage of this hot new technology is your smartphone or tablet. You use apps such as Facebook or YouTube to tune into one of the 360-degree video feeds, and you can move the camera by tilting and rotating the phone. It's like being in the game, the phone screen effectively acting as your eyes.

Photo courtesy of Samsung

But real immersive VR experience can be achieved by acquiring one of the several available VR headsets, such as the Samsung Gear VR, which seals you in and fills your vision with VR content, and lets you navigate by turning your head around, practically placing you in the middle of the action.

This is very important for leagues such as the NBA, whose fandom spans 200-plus countries. That's why the basketball league has been the most aggressive of the big leagues in adopting VR technology, and its officials are working hard toward the day where "100 million or a billion people from mainland China can feel like they're attending a Houston Rockets game courtside," says Jeff Marsilio, the NBA Vice President of Global Media Distribution.

With the help of VR startup NextVR, the NBA tipped off the 2015-16 season with the VR broadcast of the Golden State Warriors and New Orleans Pelicans game, the first live-streamed sports event using the medium. Consumers who owned a Samsung Gear VR headset had exclusive access to the unique viewing experience.

The NBA continues to explore the space and has become an initial partner in Samsung VR, Samsung's recently-launched virtual reality video network. Marsilio hopes someday to offer perspectives from courtside during games, mid-court during team practices, in the locker room before a game, and maybe even at the table with on-air commentators.

Basketball continues to be one of the hottest venues for VR in sports. In partnership with USA Basketball this summer, Samsung will be hosting the "Chasing the Dream" VR initiative, which will allow fans of the U.S. Basketball Men's National Team to follow Team USA through its matches and practice with their Gear VR headsets and watch them pound their way to glory.

VR is finding its way into other sports arenas as well. Last September, enthusiasts of Portuguese soccer had the chance to watch the faceoff between FC Porto and SL Benfica (two Primeira Liga favorites) in VR. Five 360-degrees cameras placed behind the goal-lines, benches, and the stands permitted viewers to view every minute of the thrilling contest from the most favorable vantage point.

The sold-out International Champions Cup (ICC) was also broadcast in VR for the first time this year, allowing fans from different countries to watch the event from five different angles.

NFL is still in the experimental stage, but football fans got their taste of the VR experience as well during three different season games last year. Coverage was also given to the Super Bowl, the most anticipated and watched sports event in the U.S., and fans were able to watch the NFL Finals from five different perspectives in virtual reality.

"One minute you're sitting at the 50-yard line, the next minute you may decide to go stand in the end zone or on the line of scrimmage," said DJ Roller, co-founder of NextVR, which hosted the VR event. "Those are all the things you can do with virtual reality."

NFL organizers are hoping to become more engaged in VR broadcast next year.

In some sports, VR transforms the experience altogether and opens the way for possibilities that were inconceivable before. A London boxing match that was captured in VR earlier this year gave fans an exclusive, live close-up view of the fight between David Haye and Mark di Mori, with two cameras mounted on each of the two neutral corner posts and another on one of the 2D jib arms. Imagine watching a NASCAR accident from up close, or swiveling your view while the ocean waves curl over a surfer. Not something you could experience with traditional mediums, but thanks to VR technology, it is gradually shifting from hypothetical to reality.

As virtual reality gains momentum and covers more ground, sports fans will want to create capture their own athletic moments and events in VR. How about being able to capture your son's participation in the junior league football finals match in VR and reliving every moment in later years? However, technology being used in stadiums is very expensive (NextVR's setup uses six Red Epic Dragon cameras, each at $30,000). But fortunately, with consumer-level cameras such as Samsung's Gear 360, sports enthusiasts will be able to create their own high quality VR streams at low costs. In fact, some of the "Chasing the Dream" VR footage was shot with the Samsung Gear 360.

Although we've come a long way, and it is fair to say that virtual reality isn't just science fiction anymore, we're still at the beginning of a new era of sports entertainment experience. This industry is advancing at a very fast pace and a lot of exciting surprises are waiting to be unearthed.

Innovators are hoping to be able to design cameras that can be attached to the athletes themselves and enable fans to view the game through the eyes of their favorite players. You might also be able to call up your preferred game stats in your field of view, or possibly collect virtual autographs of players while visiting locker rooms in VR.

In the next years, VR can become the biggest game changer for how fans watch games and consume content. The possibility of watching every sport event with the immersive experience of VR will soon become a reality of our daily lives.

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