Courtside cameras weren’t enough. This year, the NBA is doing VR right

Watching Steph Curry sink threes from your couch on TV isn’t the same as seeing it in virtual reality.

Not today, anyway. When you watch a two-hour basketball game on ESPN or broadcast TV, you expect constant slow motion highlight footage after plays, commentators giving quips, and an uninterrupted video stream. The NBA live-streamed its first VR game a year or so ago (following 18 months of private testing), and the result was … not good. There was no announcer offering expert insight, no instantaneous highlight reels, no statistics to lend context to Curry’s three-point prowess. Instead, there was a 180-degree view from a courtside seat, with authentic audience noise, and a video stream that routinely stopped, stuttered, and froze like a fresh-from-the-bench nobody facing a thundering LeBron James. Plus the scoreboards behind the baskets were on the edge of the screen, making it nearly impossible to follow the score.

What the hell, NBA?

“Our assumption when we started in VR was that it would be enough to put a camera on a courtside seat and — lo and behold — you’ll feel like you’re sitting courtside,” Jeff Marsillo, the NBA’s Vice President of Global Media Distribution, told Digital Trends. “The reality is you still need to provide all of the contextual clues, all of the elements you would in a real broadcast: announcements, graphics, and they should be specialized for the VR broadcast.”

That’s set to change this year, Marsillo explains. This season’s live-streamed VR will be nothing like the NBA’s past efforts. These games will be fully produced with dedicated announcers, VR-specific commentary, in-venue entertainment, and behind-the-scenes footage, just like a traditional broadcast.

The NBA had treated virtual reality as an unfamiliar medium for live broadcast — until the league realized it didn’t need to reinvent the wheel and “could take a lot of what we already knew about production in basketball and apply it to VR,” Marsillo explained. The NBA had “sort of a watershed moment” a month ago with the release of Follow The Lead, a 24-minute VR documentary that chronicled the 2016 matchup of the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers, the eventual NBA champions.

This season’s live-streamed VR will be nothing like the NBA’s past efforts.

The documentary featured perhaps 30 seconds of actual footage from each game, aside from the climactic game 7, which was the focus of more than two minutes of footage. Instead, it merged the immersive vantage points of VR with the fast-paced commentary and editing you expect from broadcast TV. Watch the series and you’re one of the guys in the Cav’s backstage huddle, you’re inches from Steph Curry drilling three pointers, you’re face-to-face and goofing off with the Warriors — with Lebron James’ offering insights over the action.

“We realized you could do storytelling, you could do longer form, you could do something simple. You could cut every eight seconds, like you do on television,” Marsillo said.

Social VR

More than multi-millionaire players (and multi-billionaire owners), it’s fans that create the communal experience that drives attendance in arenas and sports bars. Few games involve scream-inducing slam dunks; sharing your own color commentary or the trades you’d make if you owned the team are what keep us interested when the action slows down. It’s the reason the most mundane preseason NBA game regularly attracts more conversation on Twitter and Facebook than the most popular Game of Thrones episodes.

So how do you make an inherently isolating experience like virtual reality more social and stop people from taking their headsets off to tweet about that insane 360-degree windmill dunk Paul George just unleashed?

For the NBA, the answer comes from social video gaming. Playing video games with your friends evolved from face-to-face group sessions to digital avatars with speech and text capabilities in Halo. During a panel at the Virtual Reality 20/20 Summit in New York City last week, Marsillo said that sort of social interaction will exist “pretty soon in virtual reality” and that a number of companies are working on it.

Mark Zuckerberg recently unveiled a new social experience with the Oculus Rift where avatars of your friends can appear in your virtual reality experience as you place calls, look through photos, and play games together.

“Once you feel like you can connect socially in a VR space…I don’t think you’re going to feel that itch to check your Twitter quite as much.”

“Once you feel like you can connect socially in a VR space, watching a Knicks game or otherwise, I don’t think you’re going to feel that itch to check your Twitter quite as much,” Marsillo said. Panelist David Aufhauser, chief strategy officer for VR media company VOKE, envisioned a future where you can live stream an NBA game while checking out Steph Curry’s stats if you “go through a door and maybe the game is going on over here, but now I’m looking at Curry’s stats.”

Days after the panel, the NBA announced its biggest VR initiative to date: live streaming one game in VR through the NextVR app every week for the entire 2016-2017 NBA season (for those with NBA League Pass subscriptions).

All of this seemed highly unlikely just a year ago. By December 2015, the NBA’s involvement in virtual reality was experimental and tepid. Its first live-streamed game between the defending champion Golden State Warriors and New Orleans Pelicans was in October 2015; the few other experiences it offered failed at VR. In one, NBA fans were offered the chance to stand around during a mundane practice session — yawn. Who’s got the remote? Melissa Rosenthal, Senior Vice President of Digital Media at the NBA, told Digital Trends at the time that the lack of VR headset options and consumer adoption were behind the NBA’s hesitation.

Delivering what the NBA and others promise smoothly over a VR headset powered by a cell phone is cumbersome, if not virtually impossible with current internet speeds. Estimates put the requirements for 3D 4K at a minimum of 20 Mbps, nearly double the national average of 11 mbps, and almost three times that of the average 4G smartphone connection. Devin Poolman, SVP of Digital Platforms at Fox Sports, said during the panel that America is five years from the bandwidth needed for the VR experience the NBA wants to deliver this year.

The NBA and Marsillo don’t share the same skepticism — but don’t empty your savings account for those courtside VR seats anytime soon.

“I think the question maybe really boils down to ‘when is this going to be an experience as compelling as the other ways that we deliver the live game,” Marsillo told Digital Trends. “I think that’s sooner than a lot of the skeptics.” After all, teams like the Cavaliers and Warriors are already working on independent VR productions; the Warriors even used it to to lure superstar free agent Kevin Durant to the team over the summer.

Will the experience happen tomorrow? Maybe … or maybe not. But sometime soon, when a friend tells you they’re going to an NBA game, they may not move for the next few hours — yet still be in the middle of all of the action.

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