The NBA hopes VR will expand its audience

After dabbling in 360 video the league is building a reputation for experimentation.

USA Today Sports / Reuters

This year's NBA All-Star Weekend wasn't just about the iconic Slam Dunk Contest or the riveting game between the best players from the Eastern and Western conferences. Yes, these were certainly the main attractions for attendees and viewers at home, but the event was also an opportunity for the NBA to showcase the ways in which technology will play a role in the future of the game. That future includes wearables, eSports and virtual reality, a medium whose immersive format the league says will help it reach wider audiences.

Last week, the NBA announced it had made its first original content for virtual reality headsets through a partnership with the Hollywood digital production company Digital Domain. The NBA VR app, available exclusively for Google Daydream, features on-demand episodes of a talk show called House of Legends, where former NBA players discuss moments from their careers as well as various pop culture topics. There are also 360-degree video tours of team arenas, player interviews and highlights.

NBA's "House of Legends" show for Google Daydream

This is notable because until the launch of NBA VR, the league had only focused on making live games with NextVR, a company that develops broadcast tech for virtual reality events. Although the NBA did introduce a VR documentary titled Follow my Lead: The Story of the 2016 NBA Finals last year, the experience was created by Oculus, not the league itself. In the documentary, viewers got an immersive look at the championship series between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors, narrated by actor Michael B. Jordan (Creed, Fruitvale Station, Friday Night Lights).

The NBA's push into the VR's live space kicked into high gear in 2015, when it streamed its first game of the season in 360-degree video. Today, the league is now livestreaming one game every week to Gear VR and Google Daydream via NextVR's application. At first, the main caveat for fans was that to access the content they needed an NBA League Pass account, which isn't exactly feasible since the service costs $200 per season. That said, the NBA recently added an à la carte option that lets users pay $7 per game if they want to watch it on their VR headset.

Neither the NBA nor NextVR was willing to disclose viewership numbers to Engadget; they only said they've received "tremendous positive" feedback from people tuning in to these 360-degree video streams. The benefit to watching this way over a traditional TV broadcast, the two companies say, is that it allows fans who may not be able to attend the arena to feel like they're actually there. Jeff Marsilio, NBA VP of global media distribution, said being able to offer games in VR is particularly valuable for fans who don't live in the US or can't afford a front-row ticket.

"That's why the courtside seat is such an iconic seat in all of entertainment," Marsilio said. "With virtual reality, you can actually deliver something like that experience. You can make people feel closer to the action." He claims there's not any other medium that delivers on this kind of promise, but he cautions that it's too early to tell if this will be successful for the NBA in the long run. The challenge, he said, is making sure fans are actually enjoying the content and that it doesn't take away from simply enjoying the game.

As far as production goes, the setup isn't much different from a TV broadcast. For a typical game, NextVR has seven to eight cameras around the NBA arena. They're placed on the scorer's table, behind the baskets, in the locker room hallways and floating mid-court. Through it all, there's a producer choosing the best camera angles and cutting graphics that display stats, game clock, shot clock and other information you'd expect to see as you're watching an NBA game.

Naturally, you also have announcers narrating the event. Their main goal is to guide you along the way and ensure that your head isn't all over the place in the virtual arena. At the same time, though, NextVR wants you to have that freedom to explore whenever you want; that's what makes this different than the 2D viewing experience you get from TV. Mark Rogondino, a sports broadcaster who now does games for NextVR's NBA games, said the key part is knowing everyone is different; some people may want to keep their eyes on the ball whereas others may be more interested in what's happening on the team benches.

When asked if watching in VR could end up distracting people from the game, Rogondino said he believes it's more like peeling another layer for the viewer. "Did people feel it was distracting when the game, or whatever they were watching, went from black and white to color?" he asked. "All of a sudden they were like, 'Oh my gosh, those flowers in the corner are so much more vivid than I ever thought they were.' Then eventually, over time, you adjust to watching that and if you ever went to black and white you would think, 'Oh my God. This is archaic.'"

There are some downsides to the tech, though. For one, don't expect to watch games in high resolution with a VR headset, though that could change later on as VR production cameras improve. The other thing is, can your brain really handle a two-hour basketball game in 360-degree video? Everyone's different, but personally I would prefer sitting on my couch and watching an NBA game on my big-screen TV. That's not to say I don't understand the benefits of the medium, such as making me feel as if I'm sitting courtside. It's definitely a more immersive experience than what I can get from a TV.

In an interview during All-Star Weekend 2017, two-time NBA MVP Stephen Curry, of the Golden State Warriors, told Engadget that he hopes the league continues to experiment with VR and other tech like it. "From a fan standpoint, anytime you have technological advancements like that, where you can just create a more immersive experience for the game, " he said. "I think that's special." Curry said he's tried a number of undisclosed virtual reality projects and is always amazed at how he can step into "a whole new world."

When it comes to experimenting with VR, the NBA is a step ahead of fellow major sports leagues like the NFL, MLB and MLS. But, if the medium starts to prove its worth among fans, don't be surprised to see more of them follow in the NBA's footsteps and start livestreaming their games to VR headsets all over the world. In fact, the NFL announced its first 360-degree video series for Daydream and YouTube a couple of months ago, so chances are it won't be long before you can catch a Sunday night football game on some VR platform.

Marsilio said the NBA plans to keep learning as it goes and, most importantly, listen to feedback from fans on what works and what doesn't. "I think we've got a ways to go before we really, truly fulfill [VR's] potential," he said. "And as the technology improves we want to make sure we're improving with it, so that when it's fully materialized and mature, we're ready."