The NBA made history last night.  Not only did the Golden State Warriors receive their 2015 championship rings, but their opening game vs. the New Orleans Pelicans was live streamed in virtual reality.

Tinkering with VR since 2013, the NBA just delivered the first live broadcast of a professional sports game in virtual reality. Los Angeles-based company NextVR teamed up with the pioneering owner of the Warriors, Peter Guber, to deliver the live immersive action to watch on the Samsung Gear headset.

The sports world is abuzz with the potential of immersive reality. Virtual reality will power the evolution of live sporting events, create deeper ways for fans to engage, drive the already-exploding e-sports industry, and revolutionize training modalities for real-life athletes.

BE there, Live

Even if you lived 1,000 miles away and couldn’t score tickets to the opening night Warriors vs. Pelicans game, as long as you had a Samsung Gear headset and lived somewhere in the US, you could virtually appreciate all of Steph Curry’s swagger as he accepted his MVP award.

Instead of watching sports on TV, virtual reality will enable us to experience the action viscerally as participants. We’ll be able to fly through the air with an Olympic gymnast, wipe out on a gnarly snowboard halfpipe in the XGames, or as a quarterback feel the thundering feet of the blitzing offensive lineman.

Virtual reality does not merely deliver a video depiction of sports, it serves up the ambience as well. You are in the action; you are part of the crowd. Sports are emotional experiences for many (for reference see the many war-painted rabid fans), and virtual reality is at the essence a powerful emotional vehicle.

In addition to supercharging the emotional connection between fan and sport, virtual reality also increases the accessibility of live events. Physically attending a sporting event is prohibitive to many: it takes time, energy, and is expensive. Most fans report better viewing experiences via TV.  Sports franchises have been struggling for years to raise sagging ticket sales. Removing logistical constraints and virtually deepening an at-home experience results in more fans participating-- and more opportunities for revenue.

Virtual Experiences, Real Engagement

Virtual as well as augmented reality open up entirely new worlds with which fans will engage more deeply with teams, players, franchises, venues, and brands. Effective advertising is at its core an emotional venture, and VR is a highly emotive medium. When we are inside a virtual environment, we feel that we’ve actually been to that place. The memory created is real. Exciting and pleasurable memories create deep-rooted loyalty.

Behind-the-scenes content like halftime pep talks, locker room interviews, and virtual live streams of practices will enable superfans to step inside the sports world.  Take another basketball example: this season, Indiana University has added 5 Samsung Gear headsets to Assembly Hall during games, where Hoosiers will be able to experience 360 video live stream as though they were on the court.

Fans will be able to connect with sports in a richer, more impactful way. To take the passive consumption of a live event a step further, empowering fans to affect certain virtual experiences provides more opportunities for fans to profoundly connect.

Virtually injecting the Fan into a sports scenario, allowing them to affect the reality and outcome of the scene, expands the Fan’s role and increases the Fan’s importance.  The media becomes thoroughly participatory, and the Fan becomes Creator. However, this blurring of reality and fantasy between competition and pixels is not new…

Electronic Sports, Real Money

E-sports is a big industry: in 2017 it is slated to generate $465 million, and is expected to generate more than $1 billion in just a few more years.  Activision Blizzard, a leader in the space, just hired former ESPN CEO to head up their e-sports division.

In fact, a trend seems to be developing as traditional media C-levels have converted to the emerging e-sports world in order to grow the business, looking to real life sports revenue models: advertising, licensing, merchandising, sponsorships, and ticket sales.

League of Legends generated almost $100 million in microtransactions in 2014 and it is predicted to break the $1 billion mark in 2015. Participants in the Call of Duty world league compete for $1 million prize pool. There is serious money involved, and serious dedication.

This deep dedication to competitive video gaming will grow exponentially with the mass adoption of virtual reality video games. Imagine when these rich environments become even more real, immersive, and emotionally engaging. Adding virtual reality components to e-sports tournaments and events will not only achieve more revenue but will achieve more converts. 

Virtual Practice Improves Real Athletes

VR is not just limited to viewers, fans, gamers, and consumers but real athletes are utilizing it in powerful ways to enhance training. STRIVR Labs, based out of Stanford, promises that “immersive performance training has arrived” and utilize 360 videos to aid football teams’ training programs.

360 video cameras, placed at strategic points around the practice field, capture the live action and players and coaches can later step into the experience via immersive 360 video.  The enormous time commitment to passive tape watching has become exponentially more effective: instead of watching past plays, athletes relive them. The quarterback can re-experience his offensive line collapse, as well as why and exactly when it collapsed; he can also virtually relive perfect completed passes over and over again. The STRIVR system allows players to add many more mental repetitions to their arsenal, without the wear and tear of physical repetitions.

“It blows normal film out of the water. It’s like you’re taking a live rep without throwing.” –Brandon Weedon, Dallas Cowboys quarterback

A handful of NFL teams and college football teams are using the STRIVR system in the 2015 season, and by the end of the season STRIVR founder and CEO Derek Belch predicts that 8-10 total NFL teams will have adopted the technology into their training. Rookies and new coaches will have their learning curve shortened when the playbook X’s and O’s come to live, backup players will get more mental reps and expand their point-of-view, and officials could even have the STRIVR system implemented into their training and education.

Virtual Reality and Sports: A Perfect Pair

Although football has been the first sport to embrace the STRIVR technology, teams in the NBA, WNBA, and NHL have begun using the system as well. Not just basketball is pioneering virtual reality technology to provide engaging experiences for fans: NASCAR, NHL, WNBA, golf Masters, soccer, and snowboarding are getting in on the action.

Live sporting events will be able to virtually increase their attendance, franchises will continue to bring rich engagement opportunities for fans, the growing e-sports industry will broaden and deepen, and real life athletes will continue to enhance their real life training with VR.

The magic of virtual reality will continue expanding in the exciting world of sports: it could be a match made in heaven.

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