Sports Could Become Virtual Reality’s Killer App – Forbes
At Revolution, we’re always on the lookout for investments that are game changers. And one of the sectors that may be finally having its day is virtual reality (VR). In addition to plunging hardware prices (see HTC’s recent Vive announcement), there are other factors at play, and one of the most exciting is how VR intersects with sports and amplifies the fan experience.
The past is prologue
My thinking around the adoption of VR derives from the pace of early television adoption. TV in the US increased modestly from its introduction in 1928 through the late 1940s, as the number of sets grew steadily from 4,000 in 1939 to 44,000 in 1947. However, in September 1947 an event happened that catalyzed TV’s rapid invasion into American’s living rooms.
In 1947 sports fans across America were able to watch the New York Yankees beat the Brooklyn Dodgers four games to three in the World Series on television. As the chart below shows, after relatively uninspiring sales for nearly a decade, TV purchases grew eight-fold in the year after the first World Series broadcast, another five-fold the following year, and within six years the number of units had blown past 50 million units sold.
Back then visually bringing fans closer to the game jump-started a technology that at the time many said was too expensive and unsatisfying. So will the same playbook work for VR today?
The same, but different
A quick review of the recent past shows that fans have been trying to get on the playing field for years and VR may simply be the next stage in a continuum. So far, the closest fans have come to experiencing the field first-hand has been Skycam (the camera that zooms around on Kevlar-reinforced rope behind the quarterback in football games), which was introduced in 1984. Much like the current criticism of VR, Skycam was initially considered an expensive novelty and didn’t take off until Vince McMahon’s 2001 XFL experiment wowed fans with zippy angles and dynamic perspectives. The ill-fated XFL only lasted a year, but Skycam became a staple of NFL games, Olympics coverage, and high-end concert broadcasts ever since.
Skycam and similar technologies like drones, or GoPros have accelerated behavior that is already in transition. In most cases, fans attending games or viewing flat screens already experience a game while reviewing fantasy scores, texting with friends, and accessing information feeds well beyond anything provided by a single TV commentator. When combined with the technologies noted above, these behaviors indicate that the fan experience has become more personalized, social, and immersive. It’s no coincidence that these three characteristics are the ones that VR is especially well-suited to enhance.
With VR, viewers will write their own sports programs. They will be able to choose camera angles, review plays, change commentators, and essentially create their own narrative experience. They’ll be able to craft a personal chronicle of what happened, what the most import moments were, and potentially what it felt like to pick off a pass over the middle or land a right hook. And they’ll be able to do it all in real time.
While VR headsets are meant to establish a specific type of isolation, they also create opportunities for broader socialization. For a glimpse at where social VR and sports may intersect, remember Facebook’s Oculus investment and then consider their recently announced partnership with sports network company Stadium to livestream 15 NCAA football games. Rather than a one-way broadcast, Facebook has emphasized that these games will offer a number of interactive elements, including dedicated social teams that actively engage fans, as well as curated commentary from football celebrities. Eventually, any viewer using Oculus gear will be able to give and get insights from friends, amateurs, and professionals located across town or across the world directly — all from their headset.
It’s an established trend that many fans today—especially Millennials—tend to follow players more than teams. While this affiliation might worry some team owners, who rely on fan loyalty through both fat and lean years, there is an upside. If a fan has a relationship with a player, that relationship is no longer bookended by a season; it’s potentially year-round. Through VR, a fan might train in the offseason with their favorite athlete, work through a rehab regimen, or “be there” when they sign a new contract. Collectively, these interactions generate more overall touch points and connections that both deepen fan affinity and create additional commerce opportunities.
Many technical challenges will need to be overcome before the “virtual reality” fan experience becomes simply the “regular reality” fan experience. Connection speeds, standardized communications protocols, stitching technologies, natural language processing capabilities, image capture and integration, all will need further development, but the trend lines are unmistakable. Whether it’s a football game or an MMA fight, the opportunity now exists to place fans in the action. And once there, they won’t want to leave.
Revolution is an investor in various sports and media-related entities including Scopely, Sportradar, and Draftkings.