Virtual reality NBA games have potential. Here’s what it’s like to watch one

Jabari Young wearing the Oculus Quest 2 device.

Source: Jabari Young

Boston Celtics head coach Ime Udoka came off the team bench and, before I knew it, he was blocking my view. Indiana Pacers coach Rick Carlisle was close enough for me to see his Cole Haan shoes, and I saw a 3-point Lance Stephenson from an angle I had never seen before.

This is just part of my recent experience watching an NBA game while wearing a VR headset.

The National Basketball Association is offering virtual courtside seating on Meta’s $299 Oculus Quest 2 devices. Headsets were one of the most popular Christmas gifts in 2021, showing that people seem more willing than ever to try virtual reality. And companies are trying to keep your eyes on their content by creating VR versions of their apps and games.

An Oculus Quest 2 virtual reality headset and controllers, taken September 28, 2020.

Phil Barker | Future | Getty Images

The NBA experience is free and available on Meta’s Horizon Venues platform, which is a free software download for the Oculus headset. People appear as digital avatars, much like cartoon versions of their real selves, and watch an NBA game from the perspective of the court. It’s not Jack Nicholson’s Los Angeles Lakers headquarters at Arena or Spike Lee’s headquarters at Madison Square Garden, but it almost replicates the real thing.

From a business perspective, the deal could give the NBA a new set of media rights, which is important as regional sports networks struggle.

Meanwhile, Meta – the company formerly known as Facebook – is using partnership with sports providers such as the NBA, WWE and Premier League to give people new reasons to try virtual reality.

Mark Zuckerberg’s company is investing $10 billion in the Metaverse, a virtual world it says will become the norm for social media, gaming and even work.

Meta sent CNBC the Oculus 2 headset last month. I experienced the January 10 game on the NBA field between the Celtics and the Pacers. Here’s what you need to know.

Celtics Jaylen Brown heads for the basket between Pacers Jeremy Lamb (left) and Myles Turner (right) during a regular season NBA basketball game at TD Garden in Boston on January 10, 2022.

jim davis | Boston Globe | Getty Images

Experience is not ‘trash’

First of all, you should know that you are prohibited from watching if you live in the market where an NBA game is shown on TV. The NBA uses RSN feeds from its League Pass product, and local markets are subject to the same annoying restrictions you encounter elsewhere.

Once in-game, you’ll instantly notice other avatars participating in live chats. The proximity to the action also grabs your attention. This is where you’ll immerse yourself in the experience, as it’s very much like a pitchside seat, right down to the engagement with fans nearby.

There are two levels in the digital room where you can watch the game. The first level is usually where the crowd watches while chatting, and that night I counted about 15 people in the room for the first quarter.

The balcony level is quieter for a more private setting and the view is lovely.

Don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation with an avatar with the microphone on, especially if you need help navigating the room, which looks like two levels of a private social club.

With the Celtics leading 23-18 in the first quarter, an avatar approached me asking for help watching. I was confused at first as my stream was fine, but it became clear that the real person behind the avatar had a bad connection or was restricted due to local blackout rules.

This prompted him to label the NBA’s metaverse experience “trash.” Moments later, I asked another avatar standing next to me what he thought of the experience.

“It’s drugs,” the avatar named “TUtley” replied. “They need that for football.”

The panoramic views of Boston that appeared during game breaks were also quite impressive and made me feel like I was in the city where the game is being played.

Cons: glitches and image quality

“Yo, man! Are you okay?”, I heard one avatar ask another.

The avatar in question was slumped and unresponsive. It almost appeared that the metaverse figure was having a seizure.

The avatar eventually regained its form and began to speak, but this issue was certainly odd.

Controllers are your hands in the metaverse, so it can be odd to see nearby avatars with their hands and arms misaligned with their bodies.

In the fourth quarter, Stephenson made a 3-pointer, and Pacers forward Torrey Craig then converted a layup to cut the Celtics’ lead to three, 71-68.

Witnessing the close-up footage was fun, but the relatively poor image quality eventually became noticeable. Television and video providers spoiled viewers with high-definition games. Thus, any slight difference in quality is quickly noticeable.

The NBA is working with VR production company Media Monks to stream the games on the Oculus platform.

During the NBA’s pandemic “bubble” season in Orlando, the company used Sony’s FX6 cameras, which cost around $6,000, to film VR games. This season, however, the games are being shot with Sony FX9 cameras, which cost around $11,000.

But Meta frequently experiments with the resolution and frame rates of VR games, which are still technically in “beta” or test mode. Media Monks places five cameras in NBA arenas, but added a sixth for the Celtics-Pacers game to capture a sense of spaciousness.

An FX9 camera sits at the announcer’s table, providing the front row view. FX9 cameras are also found on each rear panel. One is used for capturing distant images and another for roaming.

Cameras change angles during play, which can be annoying but necessary when coaches accidentally block the view. Udoka’s leg was in my face every time he walked to center court, for example.

The star moderator is former NBA forward Richard Jefferson, but the commentary is sometimes boring. And trivial questions don’t help.

Meta uses former NBA players such as Jefferson to interact with avatars participating in the on-court experience. And in some contests, commentators may appear in the room as actual avatars to chat with fans.

We’ll see how exciting it is when it happens.

A screenshot of Jabari’s home screen reminiscent of an NBA virtual reality event on the Oculus Quest 2 platform.

Jabari Young | CNBC

Finally, the game selection could be better. Celtics-Pacers was fine, but the marquee games would be more appealing and could attract more people, making it an even more social experience.

The next two NBA VR games on Oculus are scheduled for January 17 – Covid postponements permitting – with the Oklahoma Thunder playing Mark Cuban’s Dallas Mavericks. The Jan. 22 VR Experience has the Sacramento Kings versus NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks.

These are not necessarily must-play games.

And after

I missed the Celtics-Pacers overtime session because my Oculus headset battery died. But, judging by the number of people who were on the first level at the end of the fourth quarter, with others coming from the Venues lobby, it’s fair to say that the NBA VR experience was popular that night in the metaverse.

Three days after watching the game, I spoke with Rob Shaw, Meta’s director of sports leagues and media partnerships, to understand how far the on-field experience has progressed and where it’s heading.

Shaw recalled comments made to CNBC in 2020 when he said the NBA’s Oculus concept was “still in its infancy.”

The Oculus Quest 2 virtual reality headset from Meta.

T3 Review | Future | Getty Images

Shaw said the new Oculus Quest 2 and its cast have made a big difference since then. He noted that the device is lighter, has better visuals, and is cheaper than its $399 sister device, making it more popular as a gift.

“Now we’re in the fundamental moments of building and learning from experience,” Shaw said.

I asked if the NBA experience would remain free, and Shaw didn’t rule it out.

“I think the business model can be redefined,” he explained. “It won’t necessarily be pay-per-view, but an economy that can be built around the viewer experience.”

He added that if the VR experience can really evolve to mimic being pitchside, “I can see them wanting to put a price on a ticket. But that’s a decision that has to be made by the league. and the media company.”

Ultimately, it’s up to the NBA whether or not to charge consumers. The league has not made an official available to CNBC to discuss.

While the NBA remains silent on the subject, Meta is impatient.

Shaw is considering immersive VR ads and allowing users to purchase avatar jerseys from an NBA metaverse store. Then, at an additional cost, private live screening options. There are ideas around a sports bar courtside seat experience and VIP options that include watching games with an NBA legend or celebrity.

“I think sponsorship can be redefined,” Shaw said. “Brand activation that was historically limited on site is suddenly becoming more accessible and adapting to the metaverse.”

— CNBC’s Steve Kovach contributed to this article.

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