Unless you have a spare key to the Federal Reserve, the courtside NBA seat is almost always reserved for the rich and famous. Jay-Z, Drake, Rihanna, Jack Nicholson, James Goldstein and the rest of the one percent remind you of that on a nightly basis as you’re seated on a sofa.
Because most of the world is not blessed with a bounty of commas in their bank accounts, they’ll be watching the Warriors and Cavaliers battle it out for the third consecutive NBA Finals on standard, two-dimensional television, because last month’s statements say you have no other choice.
But thanks to the immersive vertical of virtual reality, basketball fans can now come within arm’s reach of Stephen Curry’s killer crossover, or the freight train that is LeBron James, simply by strapping on a headset.
The NBA has partnered with NextVR to bring a courtside perspective to fans by releasing an on-demand VR highlight video package after each Finals game. Yes, it’s not the same as being there, of course, but it’s the next best thing before pulling the trigger on seats and going bankrupt.
The announced deal is part of a season of growing firsts for the NBA as they continue to run a marketing fast break in VR. The league enjoyed a watershed moment in 2015 when they became the first major US sporting event broadcast live in VR and have been gaining momentum ever since. Before the start of the basketball calendar back in October, the NBA gifted League Pass subscribers by securing a multi-year partnership with NextVR to livestream one game per week in VR.
Jeff Marsilio, the NBA’s vice president of global media, told AListDaily that it’s all part of a marketing strategy that at its core evolves around live VR broadcasts and brings basketball experiences forward through high-value, off-the-court rich media content.
“We’re really impressed at how far VR has come, and the optimism and excitement about what it could do for the fan experience,” says Marsilio, who manages strategy and business development for the NBA’s domestic digital media business. “It was during last summer when we made the decision that if we’re going to continue to move the NBA experience forward in VR, we needed to make a bigger commitment. It wasn’t going to be enough to do one-off experiments as we’d been doing. We were going to need to commit to working with one partner, and commit to a schedule of games to make sure that every time we did one, the experience got better.”
The NBA is now producing the games—which total 25 broadcasts featuring all 30 teams at least once—in collaboration with NextVR, a purveyor of live and on-demand VR programming that specializes in concerts, sporting events and award shows, with their sights set on growing the game from the 215 countries and 49 languages that they’re already featured in. Of the 155 million core fans of the game around the world, less than one percent actually experience the game in an arena, so the incorporation of technology becomes even more imperative to keep fans engaged.
“What we’re doing with NextVR is really the next step toward that future, and eventually I have every reason to believe that every game will be produced in VR. I don’t think that it’s replacing TV or mobile any time soon. It will be additives—in the near term anyways,” says Marsilio. “And it’ll just be another way people can experience the game. It’ll be the most immersive way. VR will become a third option. But I do think that future is coming—and it’ll be coming pretty soon.”
After All-Star Weekend this year—for which the NBA released a 360-video experience with Oculus—the league rolled out VR to the entire world, excluding China. Marsilio says the international expansion opportunities are one of the primary reasons they planted a pole in VR to begin with, and they’re already beginning to see engagement. But it’s too early to assess the performance he says because VR is still in a nascent stage, and they knew that going into it.
“The numbers are modest compared with what you would see with traditional, 2D digital content,” he says. “But it’s always improving. We follow the fan reaction directly on social media, and the response has been terrific. People are really excited about it, and happy with the direction the product is going. What we’re most focused on is how long users are engaging with the content, and how much they’re enjoying it. We use every game as an opportunity to improve the broadcast, but we’re also looking forward to the offseason where we can make more step-changes, more significant changes.”
The league will be experimenting throughout the summer with new ideas, production techniques and technology—like letting fans get up and physically walk around inside the experience—in order to reintroduce an updated product. They’ll also be looking to leverage VR with esports for the 2K League—but that’s still in an exploratory phase.
“VR’s roots are definitely in video gaming, or at least there’s a lot of video game interest and overlap with VR, and there’s a lot of overlap with video game audiences and basketball audiences. So there’s a lot of potential for cross pollination,” Marsilio says. “The sort of holy grail of VR is not only to show somebody something, but give them the ability to interact with it. We’ll be interested to see where that goes.”
In the meantime, the NBA has procured partnerships and content deals to further strengthen their marketing muscle in the space. Earlier this year they partnered with Google and Digital Domain to introduce House of Legends, a VR talk show that uniquely reinvents the format by giving fans a sense of presence and access in an NBA-themed loft. In March, they announced that they’ll be training referees through VR technology. Last year they partnered with Oculus to create an NBA Finals documentary.
“Brands inside and outside of VR come to us with interest in participating. That’s one of the reasons that we wanted to be a leader in VR. We felt that we could help shape the direction of industry—and certainly with our basketball experience—but really VR in its entirety,” Marsilio says. “Hopefully that would attract more interest, more inbound interest, and it really has. We’re looking at VR in a few different buckets, if you will. The first and most important to us is the live game itself. That’s what our fans clamor for, and that’s what makes the NextVR partnership so important. Storytelling in VR can be compelling. We’re also talking about doing even more storytelling experiences with Oculus going forward.”
In addition to the league and NextVR, companies like Intel are pushing live VR forward with Voke, which is complemented by their acquisition of the 3D technology and marketing deal with LeBron James to show off their 360-degree replay technology.
Coincidentally, the Finals participants have been at the forefront of the cutting-edge technology by leveraging VR in their marketing strategies. Did you know the use of VR played a role in helping the Warriors land Kevin Durant last year? Golden State has also given away cardboard VR viewers and an Andre Iguadala bobblehead of him wearing a VR headset as part of their promotional calendar. Warriors co-owner Peter Guber is also an investor in NextVR.
On the other hand, the Cavaliers have previously teamed up with Budweiser for a VR experience, and LeBron has leapt into the space with a 12-minute, Oculus-produced film as well as deals with Samsung VR and a 360-degree Uninterrupted original series.
“The NBA players love VR. The players that we’ve shown VR have probably been the biggest fans,” Marsilio says. “But some of us are a little more cynical as technologies come and go. So we’re just a little bit more cautious about our pronouncements about the future of VR.”
Some of the cynics Marsilio alludes to include Charles Barkley, who told AListDaily he doesn’t like VR.
“Listen man, we need to worry about our product (on the floor). I don’t want to watch it in virtual reality. I don’t want to see it. Number one, it’s weird and whacky, in my opinion. But some people might like it,” says Barkley. “I don’t use a lot of technology. It’s probably suited better for Shaq, because he uses a lot of technology. I know he doesn’t look smart, but he uses a lot of technology. . . . I’m a part of the growth of the game that really started with the Dream Team. It’s amazing how popular some of these guys are around the world. The game is fine. The game is always going to grow, at some point. The most important thing is the product.”
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban echoes some of the same sentiment. In an interview last year with AListDaily, the Shark Tank star, who’s also invested in the space, said “[VR] has zero chance of impacting our business. The whole ‘front-row experience’ doesn’t work, and won’t. I would rather be in the top row at a game than watching a live VR stream, and I don’t see that changing in many, many years. . . . The cameras are a long way from being able to support live [programming] in a meaningful way.”
Marsilio says there will be a critical moment when everyone either has a VR headset or knows someone who does, and therefore can try it—and that will be the beginning of the tipping point for mass adoption.
“The marketing of VR is tricky because it’s difficult to describe or show what a VR experience is without actually just giving someone a VR headset. So, it’s a little bit of a marketing and messaging challenge,” he says. “We’re all really excited about the potential—it’s just a matter of getting it right.”
Follow Manouk Akopyan on Twitter @Manouk_Akopyan