The NBA has a problem of its own making: It has spent years and many millions of dollars fostering international basketball fandom, and now has large and enthusiastic bases in places like China and India. But most far-flung viewers only know the NBA as a television show. They will never be inside an arena, cheering with other fans, having the kind of experience that turns casual fans into lifelong ones.
That’s why the basketball league is now toying with a big idea: What if fans everywhere could attend games using virtual reality—just put on some goggles, and score the best seat in the house? "When the day comes that 100 million or a billion people from mainland China can feel like they're attending a Houston Rockets game courtside, that's the dream. That's the holy grail," says Jeff Marsilio, the NBA’s associate vice president of global media distribution. "That's what we're working toward."
We’re not quite there yet. But come February, basketball fans around the world will get regular doses of virtual-reality basketball. The NBA is an initial partner in Milk VR, the virtual reality video network that Samsung launched Monday. The league is still experimenting with the kind of content it will offer, and Marsilio says he’s thinking big—offering perspectives from courtside during games, mid-court during team practices, in the locker room before a game, and maybe even sitting at the table with on-air commentators.
Brands have been stampeding into virtual reality, with varying degrees of usefulness: Lexus offered virtual test drives, say, and Marriott offered a tour of futuristic hotel rooms. But sports are a particularly natural usage—broadcasters, after all, have long experimented with ways to bring fans closer to the action. Samsung seems aware of this: Its first virtual-reality partners also include Mountain Dew and Red Bull, two brands that have long associated themselves with extreme sports.
So what does it feel like to watch a virtual-reality basketball game? I went to the NBA’s Manhattan headquarters to find out.
Marsilio and I sit down in a small conference room. To begin, he loads an app on a Galaxy Note 4; he then snaps the device into the front of Gear VR, Samsung’s $199 virtual reality goggles. It's as simple as that: The goggles enable my eyes to focus on a screen that’s roughly an inch from my face.
I strap on, everything is black, and then the action fades in.
I am sitting courtside, at half-court, at a preseason Heat-Cavaliers game from last October. Initially, it is totally disorienting. I’m clearly looking at a screen; the Note 4’s screen resolution, good as it is, can’t maintain crispness when it’s that close to my eyes. But unlike every time I’ve ever watched sports on a screen, there are no camera cuts, no graphics, no instant replays. I’m just here, stationary but free to look wherever I like. In those first few seconds, as my brain adjusts, the players seem somehow fake. It feels like watching the world’s most realistic video game.
"It's not 100% reality yet," Marsilio says. "And I think the guys who are in charge of selling tickets are grateful that it's not. But it does get you probably as close to the game as you could otherwise hope to get, aside from actually being there."
This is true, I admit. After a minute or so, I adjust and begin enjoying the action. Players dribble by me. I watch for a minute, turning my head back and forth. I look down and to the right, and stare at an ESPN cameraman crouched a few feet away. I look up and see the arena scoreboard. I look behind me and see . . . well, nothing. This particular clip was only filmed in 180 degrees, though future ones will be in 360.
This clip was relatively easy for the NBA to produce. The cameras were contained in a box that Marsilio estimates is about 18 inches tall and wide; it was placed on the scorer’s table. The NBA is now looking into how to make its virtual reality experiences more dynamic—allowing the viewer to move around the court to follow the action, say, or even change perspective to peer down from above the basket.
As I continue watching, I remember the two NBA employees in the room with me. They aren’t watching the Heat-Cavaliers. They’re just watching me with a box on my face, turning from side to side. And that makes me realize: Unlike gathering around a television, virtual reality is an isolating experience. I wouldn’t want to sit in a living room with friends as we all watch a game from behind our own screens. For one, we’d probably end up blindly smashing pizza into our fancy face-gadgets.
Marsilio agrees, but says that a good portion of the NBA’s audience tunes in alone anyway. "I don’t know that this will replace the social experience of watching basketball with friends, but look, Facebook bought Oculus," he says. (Samsung partnered with Oculus to create Gear VR.) "I think they recognized this obstacle and thought, ‘We can make this a more social experience.’ Maybe we’ll hear each other’s voices. Maybe see avatars next to us, and that’s our friends."
Anything seems possible right now. And so, to hell with the awkwardness: I ask to watch the clip again. The box goes back on my face, and the NBA guys watch me as I re-watch the action from courtside. I could get used to this view.