The NBA Is Committed to Virtual Reality. Are Fans?
On the last Thursday night in October, David Cole, chief executive officer of NextVR, sits in a small room beneath the stands at Golden 1 Center, the home of the NBA’s Sacramento Kings. Through the cinder-block walls come the muffled sounds of the crowd as the Kings and the San Antonio Spurs begin the first regular-season game at the new arena. Under the circumstances, Cole seems pretty calm. He and his company are streaming the game live in virtual reality, one of the biggest tests yet for his equipment and personnel. “Tonight, we rolled out everything,” he says.
Earlier in the month, the NBA said it would give viewers a VR streaming option for one game in each of the 25 weeks of the 2016-17 season. It’s the first sports league to commit to a regular VR schedule. The NBA chose NextVR, a California startup specializing in live streaming, as its producer.
The broadcasts will be available at no additional cost to people who pay the $200 a year for League Pass, the NBA’s subscription package for live, out-of-market games. For now, they’ll also need a $99 Samsung Gear VR headset and a compatible Samsung phone. The NBA says it’s likely that by the end of the season League Pass will be compatible with other VR headsets.
For past VR experiments with NBA games, including last season’s home opener for the Golden State Warriors, NextVR stationed three rigs in the arena but mostly left viewers courtside. This season, it’s aiming for TV-style productions with multiple cameras, graphics, replays, and play-by-play commentary. In a semitrailer parked inside the bowels of Golden 1 Center, NextVR’s director and live producer sit in front of a screen showing fisheye views from eight unmanned, dual-lens, 180-degree camera rigs: one courtside at the scorers’ table, one mounted on each stanchion under the baskets, one next to the TV camera in the stands, one in each tunnel where the players come and go, and two roving mobile units.
So with the nonvirtual game a few hundred feet away, I strap on a Gear VR to try the virtual experience. Inside the headset, I hear play-by-play announcer Jonathan Yardley tell me to look down to see the score. Below me, or so it seems, a graphic shows the Kings are up 16-9 in the first quarter. I turn my head left and see Kings coach Dave Joerger pacing the sideline a few feet away. Then I’m watching from a perch above the baseline. “I hope you whipped your head across,” Yardley says after a crosscourt pass by the Kings. At a break in the action, a referee walks toward me and stands unnervingly close.
The NBA won’t say how many other people were twisting their heads back and forth that night. Jeff Marsilio, the NBA’s vice president for global media distribution, says the VR audience is “modest.” It’s a small subset of the population that might have used a League Pass login to access the game in the NextVR app on a Wi-Fi-connected Samsung phone and then dropped it into a Gear VR headset. (Total subscribers, app downloads, and headset sales are undisclosed.) “We want people with League Pass to be motivated to get VR gear and people with VR gear to be motivated to get League Pass,” says Marsilio.
NBA Digital, which manages the league’s digital assets in a partnership with Turner Sports, has a multiyear deal with NextVR. “We think that NBA basketball is some of the most valuable virtual-reality content on the planet,” says NextVR’s Cole. He wouldn’t disclose production costs. Mark Alamares, co-founder of the video-streaming production company Mobeon, estimates production costs are at least $250,000 per game.
For now, the only advertising in the VR broadcasts is for other NextVR events. The NBA’s Marsilio imagines a future where, during timeouts, viewers go skiing down a mountain courtesy of Mountain Dew.
Founded in 2009, NextVR grew out of the wreckage of 3D TV, an expensive technology briefly championed and since abandoned by ESPN and most TV manufacturers. Until 2014, NextVR was called Next3D. When 3D TV “had a heart attack and died,” as Cole puts it, from lack of consumer interest, the company changed focus, using its proprietary software for capturing, compressing, and rendering stereoscopic video to make VR productions. By that point, the displays on mobile phones had become good enough to deliver VR via headsets that magnify their pixels.
Over the past few years, NextVR has produced dozens of live events, including college football, Nascar races, soccer matches, the Masters, boxing, MLB’s Home Run Derby, and the Kentucky Derby. It also has a deal with Live Nation to produce concerts. The company has raised more than $115 million from investors including Time Warner, Comcast, and Golden State Warriors co-owner Peter Guber.
VR is still in its infancy. Later this year, Cole says, NextVR will pass the 500-hour mark for live VR productions, more than was ever broadcast live on 3D TV. During the Kings game, the action on the far edges of the court is fuzzy and the jumps between cameras sometimes disorienting. But at moments it delivers on the promise of a fully immersive, visceral experience. As I watch DeMarcus Cousins of the Kings and Pau Gasol of the Spurs jostle for position under the basket, seemingly a few feet away, I gape, mouth half open, and forget that I’m sitting in a small, crowded room.
The bottom line: One NBA game a week is available in streaming VR, if you pay the $200 a year for a League Pass subscription.