Head trip: The experience of broadcasting an NBA game in VR

NextVR made sports history by broadcasting weekly NBA games in virtual reality. The next step is getting people to watch.

Terry Collins Staff Reporter, CNET News
Terry writes about social networking giants and legal issues in Silicon Valley for CNET News. He joined CNET News from the Associated Press, where he spent the six years covering major breaking news in the San Francisco Bay Area. Before the AP, Terry worked at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis and the Kansas City Star. Terry's a native of Chicago.
Terry Collins
5 min read
A technician makes last-minute preparations inside NextVR's production truck prior to the company's broadcast of a Warriors-Timberwolves game.

A technician makes last-minute preparations inside NextVR's production truck prior to the company's broadcast of a Warriors-Timberwolves game.

James Martin/CNET

In a flash, it seemed Golden State Warriors star Draymond Green was about to come crashing into me after blocking a shot from behind.

Moments later, I saw Green on the run, lobbing a basketball for an alley-oop to teammate JaVale McGee, who appeared from out of nowhere for the slam, ultimately helping the Warriors win their April 4 game against the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Though I was at the Warriors' home turf, Oracle Arena in Oakland, California, I wasn't sitting courtside. I was in one of the tunnels. But I was wearing a virtual reality headset and watching the game through a series of cameras installed around the court by NextVR. The company's mission is to make basketball fans wearing VR headsets feel so immersed in a game that they feel like they're sitting in the front row, close enough to think they can touch the players.

"In five years our goal is to produce this content so realistically that you will have a hard time distinguishing it from actually sitting in one of these seats," said NextVR co-founder David Cole. We were speaking at the arena during a behind-the-scenes look at the way his company has learned to broadcast games.

NextVR's efforts have become one of the biggest selling-points of virtual reality, which in the past couple of years has gone from a hobbyist pipe dream to arguably Silicon Valley's most-hyped new technology. That's in part because in 2014, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spent $2 billion to buy a startup called Oculus VR, and the tech industry took notice.


CNET's Brian Tong catches a glimpse of the NBA action in virtual reality.

Now tech giants like Samsung, Google, Microsoft and Sony are battling to sell their own VR headsets, or develop VR applications. There's plenty of uncertainty though, despite analysts predicting that VR revenues will spike to $75 billion by 2021, more than 10 times the projection for this year.

It's an expensive gamble, as some experts warn virtual reality still isn't quite ready for prime time. But that hasn't stopped companies like NextVR from pushing forward.

The Orange County, California-based firm has just concluded its inaugural season of streaming 25 NBA games, marking the first time any matchups in a pro sports league were broadcast in VR on a weekly basis. Though the company and the NBA both say they're pleased, there's been much trial and error along the way.

Initial broadcasts tested the patience of even die-hard fans. For example, there were few instant replays during the late October contest between the San Antonio Spurs and the Sacramento Kings. And it wasn't until a few games into the season that graphics and stats were meshed onscreen in real-time.

Also, the producers stayed on some camera angles too long, causing viewers to miss some key plays.

The broadcasts gradually improved though, particularly as producers learned to make the cameras track gameplay better. NextVR began adding other features too, like showing player warm-ups and sending a cameraman roving around the arena to capture the sights and sounds in the stands.

"We've come leaps and bounds from where we started," said Josh Earl, a NextVR coordinating producer. "We're turning our production around much quicker. We're still learning as we go."

Watch this: Trick your mind into thinking you went to a Warriors game

Pregame rituals

If you peek inside NextVR's cramped production truck parked in the back of Oracle Arena during a game, it looks like any other broadcast rig.

Producers check camera feeds on a bank of screens while editors scramble to package videos. One person is working on a video of Warriors star Stephen Curry's must-see pregame routine, including his popular 30-foot shot from the tunnel. It'll run during halftime, because NextVR's broadcasts are commercial-free and need to fill three hours of airtime.

Look a little closer and you see subtle differences. Samsung Gear VR headsets sit nearby, so producers can put them on occasionally to monitor the stream of the game.

The videos on the wall aren't typical, either. They show fish-eye-like views, instead of the usual TV format. When viewers don a VR headset, that video wraps around them like a bubble, allowing them to turn and see in all directions.

NextVR has also set up various cameras around the arena. There's an unmanned one midcourt at the scorer's table, and one under each basket. A camera sits at each locker room tunnel, and one hangs above the court for overhead shots. A roving camera can get up close and personal if a player gets injured, or focus on a reporter doing an interviews during a time-out.

The announcers' VR-specific commentary goes beyond typical sportscasting too. They often have to tell viewers where to look during the fast-paced play (like telling me to look to my left to see who's dribbling the ball).

All this added effort is because, unlike in games airing on big-screen TVs, NextVR can't zoom in on a shot or use multiple cutaways to give viewers a sense of the action. The cameras remain stationary to prevent viewers from getting sick while wearing the sometimes hot and uncomfortable headsets.

"It is a way-different discipline than calling the game for television," Cole said.

The growing pains are similar to those experienced by a 24-hour all-sports cable network that began in the late 1970s airing sometimes fringe sporting events with few cameras, blurry images and static graphics. Today that network is known as ESPN.

Now it's NextVR's turn, and the NBA is all in -- for the time being.

"VR has a level of immersion you can't get from traditional broadcasts, and that hammers home what's so promising about this medium and why we're pursuing it," said Jeff Marsillo, the league's associate vice president of global media. He noted it's been three years since the league and NextVR aired the first-ever NBA game in VR, a precursor of sorts. In that game, the Warriors beat the Denver Nuggets.

Sure shot?

Early indications are that VR has a shot with the sports crowd. About 40 percent of sports fans say they're very interested in watching live VR broadcasts, according to a 2016 survey by Greenlight Insights. But there's more work to be done, particularly on overall broadcast quality.

"We're simply not there yet," said Greenlight CEO Clifton Dawson.

So far, NextVR's NBA games attract a small audience. There were just 5 million Samsung Gear VR headsets being used around the world in 2016, according to Samsung. Though users spent more than 10 million hours watching all sorts of video, NextVR and the NBA won't say how many viewers watch their games.

It's likely a tiny fraction of the record 22 million fans who saw games in person during the regular season. From a video standpoint, the NBA's app and its website last season set traffic records with 11.5 billion views.

Those who did see NextVR's broadcasts apparently stuck around. The average viewing time spiked from 7 minutes to 42 minutes as the season progressed, said Brad Allen, NextVR's executive chairman. He said the continuous improvements helped.

"You have every reason to take the headset off because it's so big and bulky," he said. "We're trying to keep you engaged so that you won't."

Back at the game, it was just another win for Green and the championship-contending Warriors. But it may end up an even bigger win for virtual reality.

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