The Future of VR: Sports Programming to Drive Adoption?

Manatt Digital

Could sports become the killer app for virtual reality (VR)? At least one prominent venture capitalist believes that will be case. Todd Klein, partner of Revolution Growth, a Washington, D.C.-based investment firm founded by former AOL executives Steve Case, Donn Davis and Ted Leonsis, published an article in Forbes last month arguing that VR is on the verge of breaking out like television did 70 years ago, with the help of sports. Klein points out that in 1947, sports fans across America were, for the first time, able to watch the World Series on television, causing a rapid increase in TV purchases in the years following. By 1953, more than 50 million televisions had been sold, sparking the great era of American media.

Is VR about to have its TV moment? While there are many differences between VR and TV, there are some interesting similarities, particularly as they relate to sports and the desire of fans for a personalized, immersive and social experience. Ultimately, however, factors such as price, user experience and availability of content must be addressed before we see mass adoption of the type envisioned by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, who announced last week at the annual OC4 event his goal “to get a billion people in virtual reality,” a huge task for a market that analysts estimate currently includes only a million or so VR headsets. On the hardware front, new products like Oculus’ $199 stand-alone headset announced by Zuckerberg last week will certainly help, but a lot needs to happen before this is a market that reaches audiences of a billion.

What role will sports play in the growth of VR? Here are some of the VR projects in sports to date:

NBA

The NBA has been on the forefront in terms of adopting new technologies. In fall 2016, the NBA became the first professional sports league to offer regularly scheduled virtual reality broadcasts, and in spring 2017, the league partnered with Google Daydream to launch its first official virtual reality app offering the episodic VR series “House of Legends.” The app brings fans to a virtual sports lounge with former NBA players and includes on-demand video, NBA highlights and features, and player and team statistics.

Just this week, the league took the additional step of announcing with Turner Sports the addition of a new VR subscription package to its NBA League Pass live game out-of-market service. The new, season-long VR subscription package, developed by NBA Digital and NextVR, will be offered on Samsung Gear VR, Google Daydream and Windows Mixed Reality headsets. At a price point of $49.99, the VR service will be accessible across 19 platforms, including television, broadband, tablets, mobile phones and connected devices.

MLB

Not to be outdone, Major League Baseball (MLB) announced in June that it has teamed up with Intel to deliver a live-streaming game of the week in VR. Weekly games are blacked out in the participating teams’ local markets, the same way the league handles out-of-market streams on MLB TV and on Twitter. While terms of the deal were not disclosed, it is known that the Intel-MLB VP partnership is a nonexclusive three-year deal. Accessing the VR games requires Samsung Gear VR and downloading the Intel True VR app, which is available free in the Oculus store.

NFL

While the NFL does not offer live games in VR, the league has partnered with NextVR and is entering its second season of offering NFL game highlights in VR. The 10-minute postgame VOD VR segments featuring game highlights can be accessed using Microsoft’s Windows Mixed Reality, Samsung Gear VR and Google’s Daydream headsets. When will live NFL games be available? The league has said that it is waiting for more technical advancements before taking that step, including improvements in video resolution of mobile VR headsets, greater consumer reach of PC-grade VR and developments in social VR, which companies including Facebook and HTC are working on.

While technical challenges and price will continue to be an issue, as sports leagues and their tech and broadcast partners embrace VR and more engaging VR content becomes available, we should expect consumer adoption to grow, increasing the likelihood that with the help of AR and MR applications, VR’s television moment may be closer than we think.

Ned Sherman is counsel and director at Manatt Digital and has worked in the digital entertainment industry for 20+ years as an advisor to entertainment, media and tech companies and founder/chair of Digital Entertainment World, Digital Media Wire and VRTL Summit.