“The moment Blake Griffin dunked on my head, I was hooked”.
I’m at CES’s Pepcom event – a pre-show on the eve of CES, if you will – and NextVR’s Matt Drummond is telling me why Virtual Reality is going to change sports viewing forever.
The California-based company is the exclusive rights holder permitted to broadcast one NBA game per week live in VR to customers.
This is no run-of-the-mill broadcast, either. Drummond, a former Fox Sports Australia and Channel 9 sports producer, is in charge of an entire crew tasked with providing a bespoke production for VR viewers.
NextVR don’t take the ESPN or equivalent broadcast and simply turn it into VR… they bring their own commentators, cameramen, sound engineers and technicians to each game.
While the production effort in itself is impressive, it pales in comparison to the experience of watching pro basketball in VR for the first time.
I strap on the Samsung Gear VR (Google Daydream is compatible, too) and access a game via NBA League Pass. The action tips off, and I instantly feel like I’m sitting courtside at the Staples Center.
Chris Paul dribbles downcourt and I turn my head left to watch as he dishes to Paul Pierce who drains a three. As the crowd cheers I look up to check the in-stadium scoreboard hovering over the court.
But then the magic gets even stronger. The beauty of NextVR’s independent broadcast – which makes the best of the VR technology – manifests when Blake Griffin makes a fast-break.
The camera switches to the baseline view as Griffin goes up for a two-handed slam. His shiny white Nike’s are literally dangling above my eyes as he throws it down. My mouth is agape, my senses heightened. I’m at the game. I’m actually at the game.
Had this been a Lakers match, I’d half expect to look sideways and say g’day to Jack Nicholson. And I’d give him one of his Joker smirks, too, knowing my seat is better than his.
I take off the goggles and I’m back in the mayhem of the Pepcom showroom, Drummond beaming a knowing smile back at me as I shake my head in agreement slash disbelief.
“The idea is we want to be better than television, and better than being at the game,” he says.
“We bring you the best parts of being at the game – you don’t just see the action, you also see the halftimes, the run-outs, and you can feel like you’re there.
“But then we’ve also got the commentators, the replays, graphics and stats – everything you’d expect from a telecast – all the info you want to know that you can’t quickly get when sitting courtside.”
Drummond admits the inherent roadblocks to VR still remain a challenge: more people need to adopt use of VR headsets for this to really take off. Thankfully, this kind of tech is becoming much more affordable for the everyday consumer.
And while the tech is undoubtedly impressive, the relatively low resolution and visible pixels of the display doesn’t compete with watching on a high-def television.
But in time, that will improve. What won’t change is the thirst of the viewer to get closer and closer to the action.
Amidst all the noise at CES about the ‘next big thing’ in TV – be it OLED, QLED, or 70 inch 8K panels – the most mind-blowing experience may actually come from the smallest package, and I can’t get enough of it.
Just one question remains – when can I watch State of Origin in VR?
“We’ve had every major league in the world reach out to us wanting to be involved. We are working on what works best for VR now… but one day!”