How Microsoft and Michelob Ultra brought NBA fans 'Courtside' in the Orlando Bubble
In early March at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, after the Lakers beat the Milwaukee Bucks in one of the final NBA games before COVID put the season on hold, a reporter asked LeBron James how he felt about potentially continuing the season without fans. “I ain’t playin,” he bluntly said.
That sentiment is at the heart of an NBA innovation that has brought basketball fans literally into the game after the league restarted its 2019-2020 season and now prepares for the playoffs inside the "Orlando Bubble" at ESPN's Wide World of Sports Complex in Walt Disney World Florida. The association teamed up with Microsoft, Michelob Ultra and the beer brand’s agency partner FCB New York to create “Michelob Ultra Courtside,” a totally virtual experience whereby fans are able to sit together in the arena during NBA games
Via massive digital screens and Microsoft tech, during each game,300 audience members appear surrounding the court, rooting for their teams. It’s just one part of a suite of new tech offerings that the NBA has incorporated into games to help enhance audience experience under current restrictions. Here, we break down the idea and how it came together.
Earlier this year, as COVID-19 threatened to impact the NBA, its official beer sponsor Michelob Ultra had been looking for ways to bring its platform of “active enjoyment” to the game. This would be the brand’s big debut—this year, it took over sponsorship from fellow Anheuser-Busch brand Budweiser after two decades. Michelob Ultra VP-Marketing Ricardo Marques presented various partners including agency FCB New York a simple brief: “How can you talk about enjoyment in a world where fans cannot cheer for their teams?”
According to FCB New York co-Chief Creative Officer Gabriel Schmitt, talk from both fans and players, including that LeBron James interview, inspired his team to think big. The agency, which proved its out-of-the-box tech thinking on award-winning ideas like Burger King’s “Whopper Detour,” landed on an idea to somehow bring fans to games virtually as if they were there, and Schmitt texted the concept to Marques. His response? “Let’s go.”
The brand and agency had researched various technologies to ensure the idea was possible, but hadn’t finalized partners to make it happen. But when they approached the NBA with the idea, the stars aligned.
Not surprisingly, NBA’s head of Next Gen telecasts Sara Zuckert and her team had already been cooking up their own way to bring fans to the court. "Back in March, when we shut down, we started to think about what games would look like without fans, and we focused on creating the best possible experience for not just fans but also our players,” she says. In April, Microsoft became the official tech partner of the NBA, a relationship aimed at enhancing and personalizing the fan experience. Among the things they were already developing was tech that dovetailed with Michelob Ultra’s concept.
Jeff Teper, corporate VP-Microsoft 365 and Teams, said COVID lockdown had inspired the company to explore how to make its virtual conference technology Teams more robust. “What if we didn’t have everybody in boxes? What if they could be in a virtual coffee bar, a virtual classroom?” he says. Brainstorms ultimately led to “Together Mode” in Teams, which unites multiple video feeds in the same “location”—seats and all—allowing people to break free from their “Brady Bunch” squares.
Even before Microsoft officially announced “Together Mode” in July, the company presented it to the NBA as one avenue to explore for fan engagement. “People want to be in the same kinds of seats, high five each other, pat each other on the head,” Teper says. “Part of the fun of going to a sporting event is to go crazy with people you have nothing in common with.”
All that thinking converged to create “Michelob Ultra Courtside,” which manifests in the stadium as a “virtual audience,” appearing on 17-foot screens that surround the players on three sides of each the three courts in the Bubble. During broadcasts, the fans appear as they would in real life, with a few minor but arguably charming, quirks. The motions at times a bit jerky. Also, they are slightly-larger-than-real-life size—”That allows us to project on TV with enough resolution,” Teper says.
All of it becomes ripe for social media comedy. When Shaq dropped in for a game, he’s “literally sitting on the kid next to him!” commented one viewer. “Shaq taking up like 2 seats as a virtual fan 💀,” said another.
The Fan Experience
Michelob Ultra has been inviting viewers into the game with messaging on various platforms directing them to Ultracourtside.com, where fans can sign up for a chance to snag a seat. A joyous spot featuring five-time All Star Jimmy Butler of the Miami Heat packing before heading to the Bubble also helped to kick-off the partnership, promoting the idea of anticipation despite the unusual new NBA setup.
Those who nab seats get step-by-step instructions on how to join the experience. Downloading Teams is a prerequisite, of course.
At game time, guests using Teams will see a split-screen. On the left half is the audience, whom you are able to interact with. On the right, you’ll see a live feed of the game. The NBA has also tapped emcees to engage audience members throughout, and at half time, celebrities like Cleveland Cavaliers’ Andre Drummond have dropped in for Q&As.
If you watch on television at the same time, it can get a bit—unreal. “It’s mind blowing,” says FCB's Schmitt. “While you’re watching the game and talking to people, you are seeing yourself watching the game.”
Adds Microsoft’s Teper, “It’s surreal to see people react when someone misses a free throw—you can see them all groan at the same time. “
Back to LeBron
The idea is meant not just for the fans, but having them there, in real time, is important for the players too. Though the games are all in Orlando, the NBA has designated “home games” for each of the 22 teams playing, and fans who appear “courtside” are encouraged to wear clothing to show their support. For example, when the L.A. Lakers are on “home” turf, they might be surrounded by a sea of fans decked out in purple and gold gear (or unibrows, as in the case of fans cheering on the team's Anthony Davis).
On Twitter, ESPN reporter Royce Young cited Oklahoma City Thunder’s Chris Paul’s reaction to seeing his wife and son in the virtual audience. “In the fourth quarter when I looked up there and saw my wife, that was pretty special,” Paul said.
Looking to the future
Even post-COVID, it’s easy to see how the technology can evolve to eventually bring NBA fans to the game when they can’t get to the stadium. “Imagine living in New York and you’re a Lakers fan and you can’t go to the Staples Center,” Michelob Ultra's Marques says. “The more you can integrate the physical world and the digital world, the more fun.”