NBA games in virtual reality have potential. This is what it’s like to watch

Jabari Young with an Oculus Quest 2 device.

Source: Jabari Young

Boston Celtics head coach Ime Udoka jumped off the team bench and before I knew it, blocked my view. Indiana Pacers coach Rick Carlisle was close enough for me to see his Cole Haan shoes, and I saw Lance Stephenson’s 3-pointer from an angle I’d never seen before.

This is just a part of my recent experience of watching an NBA game with VR goggles.

The National Basketball Association is offering virtual court seats on Meta Oculus Quest 2 devices for $299. Headsets have been one of the most popular Christmas gifts in 2021, showing that people seem more than ever ready to try VR. And companies are trying to keep you in the loop by creating VR versions of their apps and games.

An Oculus Quest 2 virtual reality headset and controllers taken on September 28, 2020.

Phil Barker | Future | Getty Images

The NBA experience is free and available on the Meta Horizon Venues platform, which is a free software download for the Oculus headset. People look like digital avatars, a kind of cartoon version of themselves, and watch the NBA play from the side of the court. It’s not Jack Nicholson’s place at the Los Angeles Lakers at the Arena or Spike Lee’s place at Madison Square Garden, but it’s almost a replica of the real thing.

From a business standpoint, the deal could give the NBA a new set of media rights, which is important as regional sports networks struggle.

Meanwhile, Meta – the company formerly known as Facebook – is using partnerships with sports providers including the NBA, WWE and the Premier League to give people new reasons to try virtual reality.

Mark Zuckerberg’s company is investing $10 billion in the metaverse, a virtual world that he believes will become the standard for social media, gaming and even work.

Meta shipped an Oculus 2 headset to CNBC last month. I witnessed the January 10 NBA game between the Celtics and the Pacers. Here’s what you need to know.

The Celtics’ Jaylen Brown drives towards the basket between the Pacers’ Jeremy Lamb (left) and Miles Turner (right) in an NBA regular season basketball game at TD Garden in Boston on January 10, 2022.

Jim Davis | Boston Globe | Getty Images

Experience is not garbage

First, you should know what you are not allowed to watch if you live in a market where an NBA game is shown on TV. The NBA uses RSN feeds from its League Pass product and local markets are subject to the same annoying restrictions you experience elsewhere.

As soon as you enter the game, you will immediately notice that other avatars are participating in live discussions. The proximity of the action also draws your attention. This is where you get immersed in the experience, as it’s actually very much like sitting on a court, right down to interacting with nearby fans.

The digital room has two levels where you can watch the game. The first level usually has a crowd watching, chatting, and this evening I counted about 15 people in the room during the first quarter.

The balcony level is quieter for more privacy and the view is lovely.

Don’t be afraid to start a conversation with an avatar that has the microphone turned on, especially if you need help navigating a room that looks like two levels of a closed social club.

With the Celtics leading 23-18 in the first quarter, one avatar came up to me to ask for help watching. At first I was confused as my broadcast was fine, but then it became clear that the real person behind the avatar had poor contact or was limited due to local power outage regulations.

This prompted him to call the NBA metaverse experience “garbage”. After a few moments, I asked the other avatar standing next to me what he thought of the experience.

“It’s a drug,” replied the avatar named “Tatli.” “They have to get it for football.”

The scenic views of Boston during the breaks in the game were also impressive and gave me the feeling that I was in the city where the game was taking place.

Cons: Glitches and image quality

“Hey dude! You’re all right,” I heard one avatar ask another.

The avatar in question hunched over and did not respond. The figure from the metaverse seemed to be having a seizure.

Eventually the avatar regained its form and began to speak, but this glitch was certainly strange.

The controllers are your hands in the metaverse, so it can be strange to see avatars side by side whose arms and hands don’t look in line with their bodies.

In the fourth quarter, Stephenson hit a three-pointer, and Pacers forward Torrey Craig then converted a layup to cut the Celtics’ lead to three, 71–68.

It was fun to watch the close sequence, but eventually the relatively poor image quality became noticeable. TV and video providers have spoiled viewers with high-definition games. Thus, any small difference in quality is quickly noticeable.

NBA works with VR production company media monks to show games on the Oculus platform.

During the NBA’s pandemic bubble season in Orlando, the firm used Sony FX6 cameras, which cost approximately $6,000, shoot VR games. However, this season the games are filmed with Sony FX9 cameras, which cost about 11000 dollars.

But Meta often experiments with the resolution and frame rate of VR games that are technically still in “beta” or testing mode. Media Monks placed five cameras in the NBA arenas but added a sixth for the Celtics-Pacers game to capture the feel of the space.

One FX9 camera is located at the announcer’s desk, providing a view of the front row. FX9 cameras are also installed on each board. One is used for shooting distant shots, and the other is used for moving around.

The cameras change angle during the game, which can be annoying but necessary when coaches accidentally block the view. For example, Udoka’s leg was in front of my face every time he went to the center of the court.

The guest moderator is former NBA forward Richard Jefferson, but his comments are boring at times. And simple questions don’t help.

The meta uses former NBA players like Jefferson to interact with avatars that visit the court. And in some competitions, commentators could appear in the room as real avatars to communicate with fans.

Let’s see how interesting it actually is when it happens.

Screenshot of Jabari’s home screen, reminiscent of the NBA virtual reality event on the Oculus Quest 2 platform.

Jabari Young | CNBC

Finally, the selection of games could be better. The Celtics Pacers were fine, but marquee matches would have been more attractive and could have attracted more people, making them even more social.

Next two NBA VR games on Oculus scheduled for January 17 — If Covid delays allow — featuring the Oklahoma Thunder and Dallas Mavericks, Mark Cuban. That January 22 In virtual reality, the Sacramento Kings play against the NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks.

These are not necessarily must-see games.

What’s next

I missed a Celtics-Pacers overtime session because my Oculus headset battery died. But judging by how many people were in the first tier at the end of the fourth quarter, and even more came from the Venues lobby, it’s fair to say that NBA VR was popular in the metaverse that night.

Three days after attending the game, I spoke with Rob Shaw, Meta’s director of sports leagues and media partnerships, to get a sense of how far the gaming experience has come and where it’s headed.

The show was reminded of comments made by CNBC in 2020 when he said the NBA’s Oculus concept was “still at an early stage.”

Meta’s Oculus Quest 2 virtual reality helmet.

Magazine T3 | Future | Getty Images

Shaw said the new Oculus Quest 2 and its distribution have changed a lot since then. He noted that the device is lighter, has a better image, and is cheaper than its $399 sister device, making it more popular as a gift.

“Now we are at the foundational moments of creating and learning experiences,” Shaw said.

I asked if the NBA experience would remain free, and Shaw didn’t rule it out.

“I think the business model can be revisited,” he explained. “It doesn’t have to be pay-per-view, but an economy that can be built on the viewer experience.”

He added that if virtual reality can actually simulate being on the court, “I can see they want to set the ticket price. But that decision must be made by the league and the media company.”

Ultimately, the NBA decides whether to charge consumers. The league did not provide a CNBC official to discuss the matter.

While the NBA remains silent on the matter, the Meta is looking ahead.

The show features immersive virtual advertising and allows users to purchase avatar jerseys from the NBA metaverse store. Then, for an additional fee, live private viewings. There are on-court sports bar ideas and VIP options that include watching games with an NBA legend or celebrity.

“I think sponsorship can be redefined,” Shaw said. “Brand activation, which has historically been limited to space, is suddenly becoming more accessible and adapted to the metaverse.”

– Steve Kovacs of CNBC contributed to this article.

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