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Virtual Reality Hits New Milestone as NBA Broadcasts Warriors-Pelicans Game Live

It's the first major U.S. sporting event to be publicly broadcast live in virtual reality.

Ina Fried for Re/code

As the Golden State Warriors celebrated their recent championship win by raising the ceremonial banner Tuesday night, the company was also part of a bold experiment in what could be the future of live sports.

In addition to the sellout crowd inside Oracle Arena, the game was being streamed over the Internet live in virtual reality — the first such broadcast of any major U.S. sporting event. Those with Samsung Gear VR headsets had their own court-side seats as the Warriors tipped off against the New Orleans Pelicans.

 NextVR executive chairman Brad Allen next to one of the company’s cameras
NextVR executive chairman Brad Allen next to one of the company’s cameras
Ina Fried for Re/code

Virtual reality is especially important to the NBA, which has a large global audience and broadcasts its games in more than 200 countries.

“The vast majority of our fans will never step in an arena,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said, just before going on the court to present the Warriors with their championship rings. “The holy grail is replicating the experience through virtual reality.”

The NBA had experimented in the past with recording games and offering up highlights after the fact. “The next step is to experiment with livestreaming,” Silver said.

Just off the court, in one of the dressing rooms, a group of league officials, TNT broadcasters and technology executives had their fingers crossed as members of the tech media ignored the very real game in favor of watching its virtual reality counterpart.

What the media — and those watching over the Internet — saw was very different from a traditional TV broadcast. For the most part, the game was shown from a single court-side camera, though NextVR actually had several others around the stadium.

There was no score at the bottom of the screen and the sound was the ambient audio and announcers that the fans hear, rather than the iconic sound of announcer Marv Albert, who was calling the game for the TNT television audience. Indeed, to see the score, fans had to do the same thing as fans at the stadium: Glance over at the nearest scoreboard.

Producing the event was a collaboration between the league, Turner Sports and NextVR, the 30-person Southern California company that also produced the recent public livestream of the Democratic presidential debate. Over the past several years, the company has been recording all manner of sporting events, from baseball to hockey to soccer, though this was the first complete public broadcast of a sporting event.

 The Wall-E-like camera that NextVR uses to capture live sports in virtual reality
The Wall-E-like camera that NextVR uses to capture live sports in virtual reality
Ina Fried for Re/code

Just how many people were tuning in remains a closely guarded secret. The league is unlikely to share viewership numbers given that the total potential audience is only the tens of thousands of people who have one of the Samsung units. Even that potential audience was limited by a lack of publicity announcing that the game would be streamed.

“We all know they are going to be really, really low,” said Jeff Marsilio, the league’s vice president of global media distribution. “It’s still early days.”

The other key unanswered question is when the next big game will be shown.

“We are still in the trial-and-error period,” said Scooter Vertino, a senior VP with Turner Sports. That said, he sees it as a very promising technology. “We want to be involved with this type of innovative venture as often as we can.”

Marsilio agreed that the game was an important test of what the league believes is an important part of its future.

Warriors co-owner and NextVR investor Peter Guber told reporters that the business model remains to be seen.

“I don’t have the answer to that,” Guber said, noting it could range from subscriptions to a la carte sales to free, depending on the content being shown.

“The key is, it’s a tsunami; this isn’t a puddle,” Guber said, noting that big companies like Google and Facebook are making billion-dollar investments in the area. “It is a major change in the engagement between audience and artists.”

And the change will be rapid, unlike the evolution of television, which took decades to go from a test screen to high-definition live broadcasts.

“This will take three years, two years, one year,” Guber said.

Though fans had less than a day’s notice that the game would be shown, the broadcast was the culmination of more than 18 months of work trying out different VR technologies, broadcasting styles and camera positions.

“In terms of timing, we just felt it was ready,” Marsilio said.

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