Is there a place for Virtual Reality in sport?

The propulsion of new technologies has reshaped the nature of practically every sector of global industry. To see evidence of this, you needn’t look further than the great technological disruptors of our society, who have worked to empower consumers by facilitating seamless and reliable services. Amazon turned retail on its head by offering a delivery service with unparalleled speed, while another insurgent company Netflix did the same by revolutionising how we consume TV. 

The nature of fandom in sport, either by attending live matches or watching on the TV, has always struck me as something which is somewhat immutable and resistant to that all encompassing effect of technology being played out in the rest of society. Yet, gradually we are beginning to witness technology playing a greater role in dictating how the modern fan watches sport, in line with new consumption behaviours in humanity. Already we have seen Facebook test the waters by streaming matches from the Mexican Football League on its social media platform, while Amazon are reportedly preparing to redress the monopoly of the Premier League’ traditional broadcasters for the rights. Last week in an astonishing development, newcomers Eleven Sports announced that it had won the La Liga rights for three years from Sky, and is rumoured to be setting up its own online platform to show matches. It now feels probable that the sports broadcasting market will only become more fragmented and continue to change.

Somewhere further down the line lies the next and more radical chapter of disruption of the sport market and it goes by the name of VR. The phrase “virtual reality” was first coined in the 1970s and although it is still in its infancy, it feels like its been simmering beneath the surface for a while now. Jonathan Cavendish, a co-founder of London’s performance capture company The Imaginarium which is attempting to harness and experiment with VR technology, asserted that it “will affect everything in interactive entertainment — the video gaming industry, the sex industry — and the practical applications will also be huge”. Indeed, in the VR world, whenever that eventually may be for sports, the business model of brands will have to change again to create effective engagement.

Increasingly, fans of sport are want to feel empowered and closer to the game itself and VR could play an important role in facilitating these desires in the future. In theory, the application of VR in sport, would enable supporters to undergo a deep and immersive experience of events, for instance through the development of headsets which allow for a 360-degree perspective of a game, close ups of their favourite players or moments such as a referee explaining a decision or the dressing room before and after a game. BT Sport have already experimented with these new possibilities, making last season’s Champions League Final between Real Madrid and Juventus available in in 360-degree virtual reality.

Virtual reality would certainly open up a whole new world for advertisers to devise new modes of interaction with fans and increasing brand engagement. In his piece for Campaign, Simon Tracy underlined how the use of these advanced technologies, in the form of equipment such as headsets or lenses could help brands to make a more impactful impression on consumers during a sports event, ’Branded and sponsored content could play out through the technology during half time or the pre-match build-up, while brands could sponsor virtualised player data and augmented graphics, such as the celebratory goal explosions.’ This would also have the potential to change how engagement is measured. Unlike on social media platforms like Twitter or Facebook, a VR headset would direct where someone is looking. In this, movements like ‘glances’ could replace ‘likes’ or ‘retweets’ as the all important metric for engaging a user.

However, even as VR becomes more advanced and accessible, the idea that it could realistically result in 50,000 fans gathered around a stadium, each watching events unfold in front of them through their own personal headset seems unlikely and quite frankly unpalatable. It would certainly create an unsettling sense of estrangement, which is at odds with the very basis of being a supporter of a club, which as Simon Tracy correctly points out is ‘inherently social’. He elaborated on this point, highlighting that ‘A day at the stadium means having a drink with friends and getting involved with the rest of the crowd. It’s shared experience. If you are wearing a VR headset, you can’t engage in the tribal behaviour that fans love.’  Indeed, convincing supporters that VR is for them would require a compelling vision of how it could enhance their match day experience, whilst upholding the social side of things. 

So, what sort of role could computer technology perform in a sport in the near future? Some have suggested that Augmented Reality (AR) could be a more realistic option, one which simply mixes reality with the computer graphics, so as to enhance the spectator’s experience without departing entirely from the real world. This would  represent a more mild, watered down version of the aforementioned VR, but which still offers some of the same possibilities for supporters and sponsors alike. AR, unlike VR could be used in a far more interactive way through mobile, upholding that social and shared aspect of sport, as opposed to completely immersing oneself in a headset.

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