I’ve never sat courtside as a fan at an NBA game. But thanks to virtual reality, I checked off that bucket list item on Thursday evening.
Well, kind of.
The Spurs took on the Kings last night in Sacramento and it marked the first of 25 games the NBA will stream in virtual reality, working with Laguna Beach, Calif.-based startup NextVR for the innovative offering.
Last season, the NBA experimented with virtual reality, teaming up with NextVR to live-stream the Warriors’ first game. But now the league leveling up this season with 25 virtual reality streams for NBA League Pass subscribers who pay $199 per year for access to all teams; $119 per year for one team; and $6.99 for one game (blackout restrictions apply).
League Pass is free during the first week of the season, so I had a chance to try out my first VR NBA experience.
In a nutshell, I was definitely impressed during some parts of the game. There were a few “wow” moments that made me smile — those who have tried virtual reality know what I mean.
But even though it felt like I was sitting courtside at the new high-tech Golden 1 Center, I’d rather just watch an NBA game with the traditional non-VR broadcast if I can’t actually go to the arena. It was a cool experience, but there is still a ton of work left to improve the production value.
The experience starts with having a Samsung mobile device and the Samsung Gear VR headset — both are required, for now. Then you download the NextVR app from the Oculus Store and find the NBA game widget. Having the right hardware and getting all this going is not super seamless, and could deter some non-techie folks from even trying this out.
That became even more clear when I ran into a frustrating roadblock. Before accessing the stream, the NextVR app required you to register for a NextVR account. But a glitch prevented me and several others from doing so, thus leaving no way to watch the game. Tip-off was 7:30 p.m.; it was 7:45 p.m. and I had already missed a good chunk of the first quarter.
It was a great example of how nascent virtual reality technology still is, particularly when dealing with live streaming to headsets in real-time.
If you are experiencing any app issues, please uninstall & reinstall the NextVR app. That should fix it! @NextVR_support
— NextVR (@nextvr) October 28, 2016
Email verification issue has been resolved. Apologies for the hiccup, traffic jam has been cleared. Please log back in. GAME ON!
— NextVR (@nextvr) October 28, 2016
Inexplicably, something in the app changed and I was able to watch the game, tuning in halfway through the first quarter.
The VR stream featured a half-court view that wasn’t actually 360 degrees; you could see a 180-degree view of the arena with the other 180 degrees as a blank space with a couple logos. So, you could watch the game, but not necessarily look at the fans behind you.
I immediately noticed a ton of improvements over last year’s test. For example, this stream actually featured dedicated announcers. Jonathan Yardley, Julianne Viani, and Mark Rogondino provided play-by-play and commentary specifically for those watching the stream. They were no Mike Breen-Jeff Van Gundy-Marc Jackson combo, but it was nice having professional media folks calling the game who could frame their analysis through the VR perspective. The stream had a very broadcast-like feel to it, from on-court interviews during timeouts, to the interview segments they showed at halftime.
“That’s an enormous posterior in your face,” Yardley joked at one point when Spurs forward Dewayne Dedmon went to the scorer’s table to enter the game and bent over right in front of the courtside camera.
NextVR switched between two camera angles during gameplay: one view from a courtside seat at center court, and another behind each basket.
There is a dedicated producer who controls what you see. When the ball is on one side of the court, the behind-the-hoop camera is used. When teams have the ball in transition, from one side to the other, the center court camera is used.
Personally, I wanted to just watch from the camera at center court. Switching from the two cameras, particularly during super quick fast breaks, was distracting. It was also tough to tell exactly what was going on from behind the hoop; you couldn’t see plays develop. NextVR should let the user decide which camera angle he or she likes.
Giving fans the choice to create their own broadcast, particularly as the company places more and more cameras around the stadium — and perhaps one day on the players themselves — would be a well-received feature. Folks like myself prefer to watch the whole game from center court; others like the behind-the-hoop view.
— William Bales (@iamwilliambales) October 28, 2016
Besides the camera-switching issue, watching the game in virtual reality has some drawbacks. The quality of the feed is still not optimal; I didn’t get motion sickness, but the slight blurriness and fast tempo of the game were a little distracting. It also sucks up your battery — my Galaxy S7 dropped more than 30 percent in 30 minutes or so.
But I have to say: getting that perspective from a virtual courtside seat was freakin’ awesome. When Patty Mills threw an alley-oop to Johnathon Simmons, seeing the play happen from up-close-and-personal was super exciting.
It was also fun to watch the players come out of a timeout, walk up right next to you, and get ready for the game to start. Coaches would sometimes approach, too, and it really felt like you were right there.
It was also fun to watch the action going on at the arena during TV timeouts. Normally, this time is reserved for commercials for a cable broadcast. But the NextVR feed did not play any advertisements, instead showing Kings legend Chris Webber being honored in the stands, for example, or a funny fan contest happening on the court.
“If you look over to your right in the stands, you can see people around [former NBA point guard and current Sacramento Mayor] Kevin Johnson,” Yardley said during the broadcast.
The scoreboard was along the bottom edge of the screen, so you just had to look down slightly to see the score and time — not bad at all.
Being immersed in the game is nice, but I wish there was a mixed reality solution for this experience where I could interact with the real world. I found myself constantly taking off the headset during the game to check Twitter, chat with friends on Facebook, or look at something else. Maybe that can be built into the NextVR app somehow.
All in all, I’m glad NextVR worked out whatever bug caused the initial hiccups. It was fun testing this new technology; others thought so, too.
I thought I'd seen everything in sports. @nextvr proved me wrong. That was an amazing quarter of hoops. NBA in VR is amazing Simply amazing
— Sean Hardwick (@twitsean) October 28, 2016
@nextvr 1 Quarter in and I'm blown away by the amazing experience of the NBA in VR. Best sports watching experience I've ever had!
— M Snyder (@MSny_36) October 28, 2016
While I’m sticking with the traditional broadcast feeds for now, I can definitely see potential for this.
It’s why NextVR has been able to raise $115 million, with investors recently valuing the company at $800 million.
NextVR Chairman Brad Allen spoke at our GeekWire Sports Tech Summit in July and talked about the NBA, noting the opportunity for his company in a country like China.
“We have a big strategy around China,” he said. “There are 300 million NBA fans in China. How many of those will ever get to sit courtside, or even go to a game, much less sit courtside? You think about the virtual ticket to a courtside seat in an NBA game — you can sell millions of the same seat to every game.”
For the NBA, meanwhile, there are plenty of opportunities with this new medium and technology. For now, it’s a way to attract more NBA League Pass subscribers — sounds like a strategy Amazon uses for Prime memberships, doesn’t it? — and there are some advertising opportunities to cash in on if this catches on with fans.
There are many, many improvements to be made for the feed to become worth paying for. But there is clearly potential, particularly as the technology — both the software and hardware — becomes better and cheaper. I’m definitely more excited about watching sports in virtual reality than ever before.
Here is the full schedule of games broadcasted in virtual reality this season:
Oct. 27, 2016 – San Antonio Spurs at Sacramento Kings – 10:30 p.m. ET
Nov. 1, 2016 – Los Angeles Lakers at Indiana Pacers – 7:00 p.m. ET
Nov. 8, 2016 – Phoenix Suns at Portland Trail Blazers – 10:00 p.m. ET
Nov. 15, 2016 – Brooklyn Nets at Los Angeles Lakers – 10:30 p.m. ET
Nov. 22, 2016 – Portland Trail Blazers at New York Knicks – 7:30 p.m. ET
Nov. 29, 2016 – Cleveland Cavaliers at Milwaukee Bucks – 8:00 p.m. ET
Dec. 6, 2016 – New York Knicks at Miami Heat – 7:30 p.m. ET
Dec. 13, 2016 – Golden State Warriors at New Orleans Pelicans – 8:00 p.m. ET
Dec. 20, 2016 – Denver Nuggets at LA Clippers – 10:30 p.m. ET
Dec. 27, 2016 – Memphis Grizzlies at Boston Celtics – 7:30 p.m. ET
Jan. 3, 2017 – Toronto Raptors at San Antonio Spurs – 8:30 p.m. ET
Jan. 10, 2017 – Cleveland Cavaliers at Utah Jazz – 9:00 p.m. ET
Jan. 17, 2017 – Minnesota Timberwolves at San Antonio Spurs – 8:30 p.m. ET
Jan. 24, 2017 – Boston Celtics at Washington Wizards – 7:00 p.m. ET
Jan. 31, 2017 – Sacramento Kings at Houston Rockets – 8:00 p.m. ET
Feb. 7, 2017 – Portland Trail Blazers at Dallas Mavericks – 8:30 p.m. ET
Feb. 14, 2017 – Toronto Raptors at Chicago Bulls – 8:00 p.m. ET
Feb. 23, 2017 – Portland Trail Blazers at Orlando Magic – 7:00 p.m. ET
Feb. 28, 2017 – Utah Jazz at Oklahoma City Thunder – 8:00 p.m. ET
March 7, 2017 – Washington Wizards at Phoenix Suns – 9:00 p.m. ET
March 14, 2017 – Philadelphia 76ers at Golden State Warriors – 10:30 p.m. ET
March 21, 2017 – Golden State Warriors at Dallas Mavericks – 8:30 p.m. ET
March 28, 2017 – Miami Heat at Detroit Pistons – 7:30 p.m. ET
April 4, 2017 – Minnesota Timberwolves at Golden State Warriors – 10:30 p.m. ET
April 11, 2017 – Charlotte Hornets at Atlanta Hawks – 7:30 p.m. ET