Space Jam: NBA to Offer Live Virtual Reality Games Weekly This Season

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The NBA sees the technology as a way to vastly increase the number of people who can experience the thrill of a courtside seat, or at least a close approximation.
The NBA sees the technology as a way to vastly increase the number of people who can experience the thrill of a courtside seat, or at least a close approximation. Credit: Photo by Allen Kee / ESPN Images
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The National Basketball Association will broadcast one game a week in virtual reality during the 2016-17 season, the NBA will announce today, in an effort to greatly expand access to the courtside game experience.

To produce the games -- the first time a sports league has offered a regular VR broadcast -- the league is joining with NextVR, a California company that specializes in virtual reality live-streaming. The productions will be available at no additional cost to subscribers to the NBA's out-of-market, live-game package, League Pass ($199.99), which is available online and through cable and satellite TV providers. The first broadcast will be of the Sacramento Kings home opener against the San Antonio Spurs on Oct. 27.

At the outset, viewers will need a Samsung Gear VR headset ($99) and a compatible Samsung phone. The league says it plans to launch the service on other devices during the season.

"We needed to make a bigger commitment if we were going to drive innovation forward," said Jeff Marsilio, the NBA's VP-global media distribution. "We can't just be scattershot experimenting anymore."

The league declined to comment on the terms of the deal with NextVR, except to say that it is a multiyear agreement. The NBA and NextVR will collaborate to produce 25 games this season, with all 30 teams appearing at least once. The full schedule is yet to be released.

"We want to present the best matchups in League Pass," Mr. Marsilio said. (Nationally televised games aren't available in League Pass and won't be among the VR offerings.) Only full subscribers, not single-team or single-game subscribers, will be able to watch the VR games. To access the games, customers will enter their League Pass log-in and password on the NextVR app.

Live sports, along with gaming and pornography, are the focus of early investment and development in VR. The NBA sees the technology as a way to vastly increase the number of people who can experience the thrill of a courtside seat, or at least a close approximation. The relatively static nature of the experience -- viewers sit and turn their heads to watch the games, rather than walking or running through a virtual world -- makes for few problems with nausea.

Still, it remains to be seen whether VR will take hold and become the default way to watch sports at home, or whether it will go the way of 3D TV.

"Certainly 3D is a cautionary tale, one that is whispered in VR circles pretty frequently," Marsilio said. But VR is much cheaper to produce and to access. The combined NBA and NextVR crew for each weekly game will be about 20 to 30 people, and viewers don't need a $3,000 TV to get access -- just a smartphone, a $100 piece of headgear, and a decent Wi-Fi connection.

For each game, NextVR will set up cameras courtside and beneath both baskets. The production crew will choose the vantage point for any moment. In addition to an immersive view of the action, there will be dedicated graphics, replays, and announcers for the VR feed. Mr. Marsilio declined to say who will call the games. "They are pros," he said.

If viewers turn fully away from the court to look toward the stands, they'll see a three-dimensional graphical presentation of statistics and other game information.

"This is a true, complete broadcast," said Mr. Marsilio, "with all the elements that you have in television."

~~ Bloomberg News