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Watching My Favorite Soccer Team in Virtual Reality -- And Real Reality

And the technology is said to be coming to our living rooms "this year."

Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

At a Re/code staff meeting last Friday, our resident virtual-reality reporter Eric Johnson announced: “This weekend, I might be going to a soccer game to watch it being livestreamed into the VR headset.”

He couldn’t be talking about the game, right?

Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

As a lifelong Manchester United fan, I was well aware that my team had spent the last week in the San Francisco Bay Area. They were here gearing up for a big preseason showdown with another of the European giants, FC Barcelona, at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.

And then Eric said it: “The game is tomorrow at Levi’s Stadium.”

“I cannot f—ing believe this!” I shouted.

The rest of the staff had no idea why I was suddenly fuming. I have been watching Manchester my whole life, but I’ve never had a chance to see them play in person. Now my colleague, who knew the match only as “a soccer game,” was going to get to go?

Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

Thankfully, there is justice in the world. A few hours later, Eric texted me: “I’m going to be too sick to go. Want my spot?”

The next day, I boarded the train and trekked down to Santa Clara. I was nearly 25 minutes late for the game, but who cares? I was about to watch two of the biggest teams in the world square off, and in two ways — virtual reality and real reality. The event was organized by NextVR, a startup that was livestreaming the game to a Samsung Gear VR headset in the media booth.

And yes, going to a real stadium just to watch a game being livestreamed to a screen on my head is sort of silly in concept. But the stunt is meant to tease at NextVR’s business plan, charging people to see what I saw — live sportsball! — from a VR device at home.

Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

The screen resolution was crisp, and the action was easy to follow — when it was happening close to one of the five cameras that NextVR had set up around the stadium pitch. However, the fisheye lens made players seem farther away than they actually were when the action drifted. Still, I was able to watch a match from angles I have never seen before.

The greatest moment of my first livestream VR experience was when the fourth official walked up to the touchline to announce added time after the first half. Normally, a TV viewer just gets an alert on the screen. But in VR, I looked to my left and saw him punching the numbers onto his board, then walking right by my shoulder and showing it to the attendees. I felt like I was standing on the pitch.

Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

(Later on, we actually did go down to the pitch, which is where I got the photo above. Who says working on a Saturday has to be a chore?)

Although I was free to look in any direction that the camera could see, I wasn’t totally free. With the goggles on, you couldn’t switch between the cameras at will. Just like in a normal TV broadcast, the producer on set toggled from one camera to the next.

Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

There were two main panels in the control room — one for audio and the other for video. They were overseen by a team of three producers and NextVR founder DJ Roller, who was proud of their first-ever livestreamed soccer match and eager to move onto other sports. When asked when we can expect to watch the next NBA Finals from the comfort of our homes, he replied: “This year.”

(NextVR walked this back when we asked them about it later; Roller clarified that although live broadcasting to the home would be coming this year, “we can’t say what event or when just yet.”)

Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

NextVR hopes that by offering a live sports experience that feels real, they can sell their broadcasts to people who couldn’t or wouldn’t otherwise make it to the stadium. Some analysts say there could be a $4 billion market in virtual-reality sports broadcasts.

But whatever! All that mattered to me was that we won. Final score: Manchester 3, Barcelona 1.

Additional reporting by Eric Johnson.

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