Go Behind the Scenes of the NBA’s In-Your-Face VR Broadcast

Four minutes into the second quarter of last Thursday’s game between the Sacramento Kings and the San Antonio Spurs, the Kings’ Matt Barnes got the ball above the three-point line. There, he spotted star center Demarcus Cousins getting around his defender with tons of room in the paint. Barnes lobbed a perfectly weighted pass to land in Cousins’ hands as he cut to the basket for an uncontested and emphatic dunk. It sent the crowd into hysterics, adding to the celebratory atmosphere at a new stadium that guaranteed the home franchise would remain in Sacramento.

But for fans watching the game through the free preview of NBA League Pass on Samsung Gear VR, it was as in-your-face as it gets. They saw that play from right underneath the basket.

Stacked in Sacto

Last year, the NBA offered up the Golden State Warriors’ first game of the season against the New Orleans Pelicans through NextVR, a company making a name for itself as the go-to sports streaming provider for VR viewers. (NextVR’s app can be downloaded and run on a compatible Samsung phone slotted into a Samsung Gear VR.) That first game was something of a proof-of-concept for this season, as the NBA announced that it would broadcast one game per week to League Pass subscribers who also have a Gear VR headset and a capable Samsung phone.

Pairing the VR broadcast debut with the first regular season game at the Golden 1 Center, the new home of the Kings, made a lot of sense. Under the ownership of Vivek Ranadive, it’s the most technologically advanced sports arena in the country, featuring enough fiber-optic cable and Wi-Fi access points to keep everyone connected and sharing the experience inside. For everyone else outside of the city who couldn’t be in attendance, it served as the christening for a viewing experience designed to offer out-of-market fans the most.

Camera Work

There are eight cameras in NextVR’s setup: courtside at the scorer’s table, one under each basket, one in each of the team’s tunnels to the locker rooms, one above the lower bowl which allows a full-court view, and two roving cameras used in spot situations like sideline reports.

The VR broadcast is an attempt to marry the best of the courtside experience—the players up close, the roar of the crowd, the thump stadium PA system—with the best parts of the home viewing experience—play-by-play announcers, instant replays, and stat-filled graphics. In that respect, it mostly succeeds, but unlike NextVR’s setups for golf tournaments, which allow viewers to watch either a produced feed, stay at one hole, or follow a single player through a round, there’s no option to just stay with one angle.

Out in the production truck, a director calls out shots, and brings up instant replays (or V-Plays, get it?) with the same speed as typical television broadcasts. But it’s not exactly the same routine. In order to combat any viewer wooziness from watching the game in VR, the director lingers on a certain vantage point for longer, holding back on quick cuts that would disorient the audience. In a way, these NextVR broadcasts are feeling around for a new standard in broadcast editing, figuring out how to teach an audience to watch a game in VR in a way that takes full advantage to what these cameras can deliver.

NextVR CEO David Cole said there’s about a 20-second delay between events occurring at the stadium and when viewers see a play on their Gear, but with a good pair of headphones, it was impossible to detect even the biggest roars of the crowd before seeing what inspired the reaction.

Courtside Seats

The first game at a brand new stadium is always an exciting experience, with the crowd full of energy and reveling in the shiny amenities—especially the 84-foot screen that’s as big as three 18-wheelers stacked on top of each other. But watching the game in a small production office off the ground-level tunnels of the arena, while the celebratory atmosphere of the stadium rocks on through a few layers of concrete, was a distinctly unique instance of FOMO. There was only one catch—for reporters interested in covering the NextVR broadcast launch in Sacramento, the league had to circumvent its own blackout rules for League Pass, which is designed as an out-of-market viewing package, in order to watch the game from inside the stadium.

The most common angles throughout the broadcast went from one under the basket view, to the courtside camera at the scorer’s table, to the other basket with dissolve transitions. But the pace of the game played by certain teams can be so fast that missed shots and quick passes can mean the broadcast has to hurry through that courtside shot to the other basket, where viewers have to reorient and remember that the sidelines switch depending on which hoop you’re watching. It gives a much more immersive view of the players in the key (which resembles a large square instead of a skinnier rectangle), but there is a learning curve.

The other quirk is one that creates some unintentional comedy. Players and referees know how to interact around traditional television cameras—and to avoid them unless they’re crashing down after a play at the hoop. The VR cameras are more discreet and thus somewhat invisible to the people on the court, especially the courtside view. Because of this, players and refs occasionally get so close that a midriff or a posterior dominates the field of view.

Face Business

The NBA doesn’t provide subscriber numbers and nobody wanted to talk about the kind of viewership this season-long experiment could expect, but with the data the league released about NBA League Pass it’s possible to reverse-engineer some estimates that give a rough picture of the market. The service saw 26.7 million game views over the 2015-2016 season—the league said subscribers rose 10 percent but didn’t provide exact figures. At 1,230 games during the regular season, that averages to around 21,700 viewers per game. With Samsung Gear VR sales projected to reach five million units in 2016, there’s a lot of room for growth among NBA fans and early VR adopters.

The schedule covers one weekly game on Tuesday nights on the NBA’s out-of-market service through the end of the regular season—including tonight’s game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Indiana Pacers, available through a League Pass free trial—but the league currently has no plans to extend the broadcast to the playoffs, when the games are carried by other broadcast partners like TNT and ABC. When ticket prices go up, fewer teams are playing, and it’s harder to get the in-stadium experience due to that scarcity. It seems that would create the perfect situation to deploy the VR experience for viewers. But if not, there are plenty of chances to see the most exciting teams over the course of the season: LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers will appear in two games, while the Golden State Warriors top the list with four VR games throughout the year.

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