There’s no foul called but the two players were clearly involved in some kind of serious collision. I can say that for sure because they just landed mere inches away from my feet.
It’s the first half of Butler and Providence’s March Madness matchup at Madison Square Garden and I’m sitting court side watching these two squads duke it out. As play resumes after the collision, I look to my left to check the shot clock above the basket. There’s still plenty of time for the trailing Butler (the team I’m there to cheer for) to make a shot and start to close the gap. My eyes dart around the court as the Butler offense dishes around the perimeter and ultimately misses a short jumper – returning possession to the Friars.
I groan and decide to check my phone for texts. As I lift the VR goggles off of my face I’m instantly transported from the pounding music and adrenaline laced arena to my dimly lit bedroom. As I yawn and stretch under the covers I decide that this is the only way to watch sports.
NextVR and FOX Sports are broadcasting the Big East portion of this year’s NCAA March Madness basketball tournament live in virtual reality. As the proud owner of a Samsung Gear VR headset, turning my bedroom into floor seats at the game was as simple as downloading NextVR’s app through the Oculus store and firing up the live-stream.
Both the app itself and the broadcast are completely free. Together they are mere pieces of NextVR’s larger mission to elevate VR sportscasting to a level that rivals its televised counterparts. My experience had moments where that ambition seemed very far off, but it also held a good amount of those that convinced me there is no better way to watch sports at home. Or, perhaps, no better way to watch sports at all.
Let’s start with the bad news. VR live-broadcasts are still an early craf and as such its faults are forgivable, but not invisible.
The biggest problem with my experience was resolution. When the action was close to my-point-of view I could clearly make out faces, jersey numbers, and names. However, Every step away from me the players took muddled those details considerably. At its worst I could barely make out the faces of some players and referees.
Those refs were a big part of my second problem with the experience: Camera angles. The experience only offered 3-4 different camera angles – half court from the side, near each basket facing down-court, and way up in the nosebleeds. This meant that when players were in the paint it would put me into a forward-facing viewpoint which was a bit less satisfying and tougher to see the ball actually go in the hoop; at the half-court angle refs would occasionally block my view of the action; and in the nosebleeds the action down below was slightly understandable but mostly blurred.
This experience was also only available in 180 degrees rather than full 360 although this isn’t as damaging as it could be because.
Now that that’s out of the way let’s talk about the good stuff.
First of all, the the moment the experience started I found myself grinning like a fool. It honestly made me feel like I was at the game not watching a broadcast. All the little cues audio and visual cues of being at a live-sporting event were there and it made me actually laugh out loud all alone in my apartment.
There is also no HUD (heads up display) to separate you from the experience like there is during a TV sports broadcast. If you want to know the score, just look up at the giant scoreboard above your head. Wondering how much time is left in the half? Repeat step one. The experience also slowly fades to black and then back into the action when it needs to change cameras so you don’t get nauseated zipping around the stadium in the blink of an eye.
The announcers were also present in my ears for the whole game, although this became a bit odd as there was no way to cut away to replays or b-roll so occasionally they were talking about things I could not see. However, this reminded me of listening to games on the radio while at the game itself like my grandpa does so it actually became more of a blessing than a curse in my opinion.
Conclusion: More Please
There was a moment during the game where I was sitting up in the nosebleeds and looking out on the slightly blurry frenzy below and I had this thought: I wonder what this would look like in HD?
Just that simple dream – of being able to do the exact same experience just with higher resolution – convinced me instantly that this will one day become the preferred sports delivery system in my life. There is no reason to think that higher resolution VR broadcasts aren’t already in the works, especially considering the fact that the commercial launches for the industry’s biggest headsets haven’t even taken place yet.
Watching this game in VR was an amazing experience that I’m eager to try again and this is just the beginning. I’m just a few pixels away from going full on Howard Hughes with this incredible new technology.
A full schedule of the VR broadcasted games can be found here.