Nowadays, a sports network’s job is not as simple as showing the plays, the score, and a winner. Fans accustomed to high-quality immersive content from online platforms like Facebook and YouTube expect more — they want to see the game from as many angles, with as clear of a picture, as possible.
A new initiative from Turner Sports, the division of Atlanta-based Turner that jointly manages NBA Digital, will not only immerse basketball fans in televised games, but allow them to choose their preferred vantage point themselves.
Through a partnership with Intel, viewers of select NBA on TNT basketball games who have the right tools will be able to watch live matchups in virtual reality on a weekly basis.
The technology is called Intel True VR, and it uses multiple panoramic camera pods placed around the court to create a complete, 360-degree view of the action. Viewers will be able to choose from a number of different perspectives to watch the game, from a close-up in courtside seats to high in the stands for a full view of the action. The viewer can toggle amongst different camera angles throughout the game.
The deal means that Intel will be the exclusive VR partner for NBA on TNT.
“We have been working with Intel for some time, specifically in the VR space, so the opportunity to go deeper with quite frankly one of the most legendary tech companies of all-time was a no-brainer,” says Gerry Manolatos, Director of Business Communications at Turner.
“Intel and Turner Sports saw a great opportunity, and with the NBA being a league at the forefront of infusing technology into the game, this came together fairly quickly. We are going to use our collective efforts — across cutting edge technology, media promotions, and the league footprint — to power this partnership,” says Manolatos.
The NBA offered VR-broadcast games this year — the first professional sports league to do so — to NBA League Pass members. These did not include NBA on TNT games.
Turner Sports has been exploring using VR as a medium for basketball viewing for a few years already. They experimented heavily with the technology for the NCAA Championship games (collectively known as March Madness). In 2016, the Final Four and Championship games were made available in VR for the first time in a partnership between Turner Sports (which manages NCAA March Madness Live), CBS, Capital One and Oculus. The app, available for Oculus, allowed fans to view the action live on the Samsung Gear VR headset.
In 2017 Turner expanded their NCAA VR offerings for even more games, and this time with Intel’s True VR. Manolatos says that experience was key for the team to learn how to pull off this type of coverage logistically.
The first VR-broadcast games will be the 2018 NBA All-Star Weekend in February, and will continue for one game each week following that. Fans who want the experience will have to download the NBA on TNT VR app, available on the Oculus and Google Play stores. The game can then be streamed through Samsung GearVR and Google Daydream VR headsets.
Virtual reality offers a new and exciting viewing experience at a time when live sports broadcast ratings are seeing a general downward trend. Dave Beck, founder of Atlanta-based VR firm Foundry45, says the medium also provides opportunities for brands to engage with viewers as an alternative to a traditional TV ad spot.
“VR is a great way for brands to reach audiences and promote their products. Unlike traditional 2D video and printed materials that are more passive, people using VR are actually immersed in the message. So, viewers are much more likely to hear what the brand has to say,” says Beck.
“It’s like a teleportation device combined with a time machine. Viewers can be transported from their homes to their favorite arena to see the big game winning shot from the playoff run last season. Being immersed in the experience is very powerful.”
Manolatos says that, though basketball is the primary traditional sport they are pioneering VR within, Turner Sports has also piloted the medium for its eSports property, ELEAGUE. This fall saw ELEAGUE’s first live 360-degree VR coverage.
“At the end of the day, what ultimately guides us is if fans, and the fan experience, will benefit from these kinds of developments. VR may work in most places, but it may not in others, so it’s finding the right cadence in adopting this tech that is key,” says Manolatos.
“As the VR market continues to mature and grow, there will certainly be other opportunities to tap into innovations, like VR and other things, to up the experience.”
Photos via Intel Corporation and Turner Sports