The league Thursday will announce a multiyear partnership with virtual reality company NextVR, ushering in a wild new world of hoops viewing that they hope rivals the courtside experience — and is a whole lot cheaper.
At least once a week, subscribers to NBA League Pass who purchase all the necessary equipment will be able to see a fully produced game in live virtual reality (starting with the Oct.27 game between the Sacramento Kings and San Antonio Spurs that comes during a free trial period).
This is a multilayered offering, with multiple camera angles, commentators who are exclusive to the VR telecast, VR instant replays, graphics and the like. By season’s end, all 30 NBA teams will have had at least one game aired in VR.
These are uncharted technological waters, as no professional sports league has ever offered regularly scheduled virtual reality broadcasts (NBA Digital, which is co-managed by Turner Sports and the NBA, is heading these efforts). But more than that, it’s the latest sign of the NBA’s global growth.
“We’ve got fans all over the world,” said Jeff Marsilio, the NBA’s vice president of global media distribution. “We broadcast our games in over 210 countries now, and these are passionate fans. But for most of them, they’re not able — for logistical reasons — to attend a game in person, let alone sit courtside.
“So we do feel that VR provides the potential, if we do it right, to be the next best thing to that in-person experience. But in order to get there, we’ve got work to do. That’s why we felt that it was time to make a commitment.”
There are two truths about the NBA fan experience that make this kind of platform potentially powerful.
The league has a massive following outside of North America, meaning those fans will likely never step foot inside an NBA Arena (1.2 billion likes and followers globally across all social media platforms). The VR perspective, with that in mind, is a fun Plan B.
There is no shortage of fans inside the USA and Canada who simply can’t afford courtside seats and, thus, will never know what it’s like to sit so close you can see the sweat. (NBA Finals Game 7 tickets, to pick the most extreme example, were available via third-party outlets for as much as $141,012.50.)
If all goes according to plan, this is an innovative way to bridge that gap. As Marsilio noted, the NBA’s objective was to have a VR foundation in place before the market shifted toward the mainstream.
So they had a dry run of sorts nearly a year ago, when NextVR produced the season-opening game between the Golden State Warriors and New Orleans Pelicans at Oracle Arena that was the first professional sports game to be aired in live VR.
Coincidentally, Warriors co-managing partner and entertainment magnate Peter Guber leads NextVR’s advisory board. Step One, eventually, led to this monumental second step.
At present, it requires a Samsung Gear VR headset and a compatible Samsung smartphone to see the action. But more platforms are expected to be compatible during this coming season as well, and all involved expect the evolution to speed up from there.
The goal from here on out is to provide “goose bumps material,” as NextVR executive chairman Brad Allen called it. What if there had been a baseline VR camera up and running in Game 7 of the Finals, when LeBron James had that epic chase-down block of Andre Iguodala’s layup? Or perhaps a sideline view when Stephen Curry hurled his mouth guard toward the scorer’s table in Game6?
“This is a major game-changer,” Allen said. “I think there’s enough noise in the marketplace about VR that people are getting interested in it, or curious about it, to prompt them to go try VR out.
“You want to make it so compelling that nobody wants to take their headsets off because they’re going to miss something. … Those are the things that we’re really excited about.”