I am standing on the court of the Golden State Warriors and it is completely empty, but I’m there on the hardwood. Minutes later, I’m at half-court as the Warriors take on the Cavaliers in the 2016 NBA Finals from June. I am right there. Or I’m in the stands with the rabid crowd, or in the locker room as the Cavs huddle for a prayer before hitting the court. As only virtual reality can, I am a witness to one of the great sports stories of our day.
Today, Oculus and the NBA are releasing Follow My Lead: The Story of the 2016 NBA Finals as an app for Gear VR. This 25-minute documentary was produced by “m ss ng p eces” — joining the company’s excellent Inside Impact doc about Bill Clinton and his foundation’s work in Africa, in showing how powerful VR video can be.
“It’s all new. Nobody’s gone out and said, ‘Hey! Why don’t we take the 30 For 30 or 24/7-type classic sports documentary and turn it into VR,'” said Ari Kuschnir, producer and founder of “m ss ng p eces.”
Follow My Lead is similar to other sports documentaries. It doesn’t just replay the memorable seven games of the Finals with a flowery voiceover. It is a narrative of these two team’s efforts, of LeBron James vs. Stephen Curry, of Cleveland’s comeback from a daunting 3-to-1-game deficit. But being filmed in 360 degrees and in three dimensions makes it resoundingly different from other docs. You are there behind the scenes or during warm up or while players practice. The cameras are capturing the action from the crowd or from courtside or even from the hoop itself.
“Courtside seats are the iconic seat for entertainment. What’s better than that? It’s the seat you can’t buy, the one under the basket. So when LeBron makes one of the most famous blocks ever, he’s coming right at you. He’s going right in your face. Nobody can pay for a ticket like that. That’s the kind of thing you can do with VR that you can’t do with other mediums,” said Jeff Marsilio, NBA’s Vice President of Global Media Distribution,
While the release of the Gear VR headset has also meant a steady flow of VR documentaries, Follow My Lead is different from previous docs. Shot by experienced directors Ray Tintori (of music video fame) and Gabe Spitzer (an Emmy-award winner for sports docs), they were given access by the NBA to all the games of the Finals, the team’s spaces in the stadiums, the practices before the games, the hallways afterwards.
It is longer than most VR videos, using 25 minutes to tell the tale of 7 games — which would be hard to capture in the usual 5 to 10 minutes. It is shot differently too. Most VR documentaries let shots linger, but this one captures the excitement of the sports championship with quick shots of only 6 to 8 seconds, of sports actions, audiences going crazy, and quieter moments.
“There’s way more cuts in this than a normal VR film, where it’s maybe 15 to 20 second shots. We tried to get a little bit more frantic, because you are in this environment where you want to be everywhere,” said Spitzer.
The crew shot the documentary with two Ozo cameras for games 1 to 4, and then expanded to three Ozos for games 5 through 7. They also added a Gear 360 for the final game. There were challenges for a team used to flat Sports documentaries. They couldn’t use slow motion or the like.
“When you are doing a 2D documentary, normal sports documentary you can zoom in. There’s no zoom on this. We focused on what’s in front of you, but you also always have to be cognizant of what’s behind you. So trying to get as close as possible to the action is key,” said Spitzer. “We pushed the boundaries of access. It’s trying to give the fans that perspective they’ve never seen before. It’s also harder to interact with athletes when you don’t know where they’re going to go. We have to just put ourselves in the best positions during the Finals.”
When you consider this documentary’s place amongst all the 360-degree video offerings for the Gear VR and the Oculus Rift, it is just the next step in VR video as a medium. The company is showing one more way VR is successful — by making longer documentaries, and effective sports documentaries. The company contacted NBA with the idea of working together to capture the NBA Finals. Then that partnership looked for the team to pull it off, turning to “m ss ng p eces.”
“The Finals are so iconic and I didn’t want to walk away and wait another year to figure out what to do for it. I grew up with these sports documentaries like 30 For 30 or Hardknocks. Why can’t that happen in VR? Sports is live and it is real. The hope was we could capture that with this event,” said Eugene Wei, the Head of Video at Oculus.
Wei went on to say VR is uniquely suited for documentaries. Wei said, “The difference with VR video versus regular VR is that with regular video, there is a suspension of disbelief that needs to happen. You are not there and you know it is all a constructed thing. We can’t get away with that in VR because of the comfort issue. We need to immediately establish physical presence and proximity. So it actually takes the idea of documentary, which is to convey something that happened, to the next level.”
Watching the results, it is hard to argue with the power of VR. Normally, fans can’t see the game from under the actual basketball hoop. Now they can watch a championship in a way that has never been possible before. You can watch up close as LeBron does an impromptu jig, watch momentous three-pointers, or watch controversial fouls. There are some moments where the converging of the 3D image isn’t quite right or the resolution makes the crowd muddy, but those things are rare compared to all the amazing scenes and cuts present. Follow My Lead is not only a great VR documentary, it is the next step in VR storytelling.
“The question is whether this is feature length in VR. Maybe 30 minutes is the longest you should be in there. And you get a satisfying, full experience. We are still figuring it out,” said Kuschnir. “This is an attempt to have the sports documentary format figured out for VR. I want to see the music documentary format for VR. So for each vertical, for each type of story, I want to figure out how to best translate it to VR. Everytime I do a VR thing, I want to show it to someone who is either skeptical or never seen VR, and they take the headset off and they say, ‘F–k! I got to get a headset!’ That’s what I want.”
Follow My Lead: The Story of the 2016 NBA Finals is now available to download for free on Samsung Gear VR via the Oculus Home store.
Kevin is a freelance writer with work appearing in outlets such as Geek & Sundry, Kill Screen, and Fast Company. Follow him on Twitter: @.