Jurassic Park was just filling up. Two hours before game four of the Eastern Conference finals between the Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks, the line of Raptors fans snaked around Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena, waiting to flood the designated fan area outside the arena that’s become one of the biggest party zones in the NBA.
Sitting just next to this raucous affair, one sure to be even more rollicking as Toronto hosts its first NBA Finals game Thursday night, was a nondescript truck trailer where the NBA, TNT, and Intel are trying to create the sports fan experience of the future.
The Intel Sports’ VR broadcasting headquarters, jam-packed with screens, servers, production personnel, and on-air talent, is where TNT’s 3D VR broadcast of the game is created. If you’re not among the thousands outside, or one of the lucky 20,237 folks with a ticket, the VR broadcast is quite literally the closest thing any other fan could get to being there.
As I watched the game–from the Intel trailer–on an Oculus Go headset, the “Director’s View” mode seamlessly and automatically shuffles me between camera angles as the play flows up and down the court. I have the option of picking my favorite camera angle and sticking with it as long as I want. If I look far right, there’s a real-time stats board with each player’s scoring stats, fouls, and so forth. Look far left and there’s a selection of highlights to check out. When I look down, I see my camera options. Peering way up, I view the scoreboard, just like in the arena. In my ears, the broadcast team of Stephanie Ready and former NBA star Rip Hamilton are calling the game, but making suggestions–look left, look right–that make it feel like we’re sitting at the game together.
Which is exactly what Intel wants.
Although there will not be an Intel virtual-reality NBA Finals experience to explore the Raptors and Golden State Warriors in 3D–Intel’s partnership is with Turner/TNT, and the NBA Finals air exclusively on ABC–if VR headset sales, and the innovation behind the viewing experience, continues apace, fans of all sports will soon be asking for this all game, every game.
Bringing the couch to the court
Intel’s push into VR sports began in earnest after the company acquired Voke in 2016 for what the Wall Street Journal anticipated was at least $150 million. This is Intel’s second year as the NBA on TNT’s VR broadcast partner. Last year, they streamed seven regular season games in VR, then a selection of playoff games, and the Western Conference Finals. This season, the Oculus NBA on TNT VR app has live games, full-game replays, and highlights, with 10 regular season games, All-Star weekend, eight playoff games, and the Eastern Conference Finals.
Executive producer Bobby Hayden has been producing sports in virtual reality for about four years, including NFL games and NCAA March Madness. Before this, he’s worked in linear TV since 1994. He says it’s taken three years to figure out the nuances of a 3D VR production, namely, how to set things up and the overall direction. “If a fan stands up in front of the camera, in traditional TV we’d lose our minds because we want the magic of TV to always be there,” says Hayden. “Here, forget about the magic of television. If my camera is blocked, that’s okay, because my goal is to make the viewer feel like they’re at the game.”
Inside the production truck, Hayden is leading the team through the first quarter. He sits at one end of the trailer, facing a wall of screens covering every angle of the court. The middle of the trailer is stacked with servers that take in the feed from the cameras, process the data, send it to Intel’s studios in Manhattan Beach, California, which then shoots it up to Amazon Web Services cloud, and from there to fans’ eyeballs watching on the app. Just next to the servers, at the far end of the trailer, is the broadcast booth where Ready and Hamilton call the game. It’s a tight fit, packed with tech, a server farm, and a broadcast booth jammed into a TV production truck.
Hayden says the biggest lessons they’ve learned over the two seasons shooting the NBA have been in finding the best camera angles and adjusting how the game is called. “While we want you to be able to look around and experience it, we don’t want to make you work too hard, so we’ve learned a lot about camera placements that really work, to make the game shine,” says Hayden.
One of the best is the “bongo cam,” a knee-high camera set at half court, where players check in and out of the game, and coaches tend to pace. When Milwaukee’s Brooks Lopez checked in, he chucked a towel and it felt like it was going to land in my lap. The other real standouts are the cameras behind the rim. Your ability to see the player rotations is unlike anything on regular TV.
Hamilton says it’s even helping the teams themselves. “I’ve talked to some guys who are now watching games through VR from a scouting perspective, just because the camera angles are there that you don’t get from a normal telecast,” he says.
For Ready, a former Charlotte Hornets broadcaster with Fox Sports Southeast, one of the biggest differentiators is the ability to talk about things happening in real time as if we’re all sitting there at the game together. “I can say, ‘Look over there to your right: You can see Steve Kerr jumping off the bench,’ or ‘Look left, and you can see the Lakers bench is going crazy,'” she says. “On a linear TV broadcast, you can’t do that. I’d have to ask producers to get me a shot of the bench, and by the time they get that organized, it may or may not still be happening.”
According to a recent IDC study, sales of VR headsets are expected to increase 54% this year when compared with 2018. Fans’ appetite for an evolved, live sports-viewing experience hasn’t gone unnoticed. ESPN has created “ESPN Mode” within its app, which superimposes stats and graphics over the live game stream. Make no mistake, we are in the midst of an unprecedented time of experimentation in sports broadcasting.
Sankar “Jay” Jayaram, CTO of Intel Sports and founder of Intel True VR, says VR technology growth has steadily improved, with cameras becoming smaller and higher resolution, while headsets continue to get cheaper, lighter, and more mobile. The real innovation will be in how broadcasters use the technology to improve and enhance the sports fan experience. “The significant change that’s happened is putting the focus more on how are we going to give this experience to fans in a way that they can enjoy while setting the stage for the future,” Jayaram says.
That includes combining Intel’s True VR with its TrueView tech, which uses 5K cameras to capture volumetric data like height, width, and depth to render the action in multi-perspective 3D video. Intel rolled out TrueView in a select number of England’s Premier League soccer stadiums earlier this year, and it has VR deals with Major League Baseball and Spain’s La Liga.
For the last 75 years, TV has been a variation of the same concept: Point a camera at something and tell a story. We’ve gone from watching sports on black-and-white sets to 4K color. Games that were once shot on two cameras now deploy 30, with instant highlights and eye-popping graphics, but it’s still essentially the same format. For Jayaram, VR is about changing the entire concept. “We believe that immersive, interactive, personalized experiences are going to define the next wave of how fans experience sports–and that that’s what we are focusing on.”