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The NBA is back in VR. Maybe fans will watch

NextVR is airing another slate of NBA games in virtual reality. Will more games and new features woo new viewers?

Watching Houston Rockets playmaker Chris Paul lob a pass from midcourt to fellow all-star James Harden for a thunderous dunk on TV is one thing, but will fans clamor to see it in VR?

That's a key question this season as the NBA and NextVR team up for the second year in a row to livestream a game a week in virtual reality. The Rockets tip off a 27-game VR schedule when they take on the Dallas Mavericks on Oct. 21. 

Will NBA fans watch Rockets star James Harden, left, dunk in virtual reality?

Will NBA fans watch Rockets star James Harden, left, dunk in virtual reality? 

Getty Images

Though watching sports in VR has been promoted as being the next best thing to actually attending a game, fans haven't really warmed to it. (Part of the problem is comfort. To watch VR, fans have to strap on a heavy headset that tricks your brain into thinking you're inside the action.) That's a problem for the VR industry, which sees professional sports as the immersive experience that will draw viewers. Even so, the NBA hasn't given up on its VR experiment. 

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who spent $2 billion to buy Oculus VR three years ago, said Wednesday that he wants to get a billion people using virtual reality, though he didn't say by when.

The NBA's second season of VR broadcasting is part of a multiyear deal. As with last season, all 30 NBA teams will have games in VR. Fans can watch the games using a Samsung GearVR, Google Daydream and, starting next week, the Microsoft Windows Mixed Reality headset.

Headset wearers can take advantage of a new feature called the Screening Room, which lets League Pass subscribers watch up to 13 games in letterbox mode (but oddly, not in VR). Other new features include real-time statistics and scores that float like holograms over the court, NextVR CEO David Cole said in a statement.

Brad Allen, NextVRs executive chairman, said in April that the average viewing time per game last season jumped to 42 minutes by season's end, from 7 minutes at the start. Neither NextVR nor the NBA said how many fans watched last season.

"We've been able to listen to fan feedback in real-time and deploy improvements on a weekly basis," Jeff Marsillo, the NBA's associate vice president of global media, said in a statement Thursday.

A record 22 million fans attended NBA games in person during the 2016-17 regular season. The NBA's app and its website also set traffic records with 11.5 billion views last season.

So far, VR hasn't been able to deliver a similar slam dunk. But the NBA is still hopeful it can.