The NBA and other sports bet big on an emerging technology; how does it feel to put on those goggles?

I’m Courtside With LeBron! (In Virtual Reality)

The NBA and other sports bet big on an emerging technology; how does it feel to put on those goggles?

By Jason Gay Dec. 8, 2016 3:17 p.m. ET
ENLARGE
Photo: Bruce MacPherson

I’ve reached the point in my life where I know I’m not courtside seat material. At least not free courtside seat material. I’m not famous enough, connected enough, or fabulous enough. I dress like a dad and fall asleep at 9 p.m. on Saturdays. I’m pretty sure I’m not going to win a Grammy, an Oscar, or a Nobel. I’m not friends or work colleagues with Jack Nicholson. I don’t even have Jack Nicholson’s telephone number. I haven’t heard from Jack in years. Or, ever.

The cruel truth is that if I’m ever going to sit courtside at an NBA game, I’m going to have to pay full freight. No thanks! Have you seen how much courtside seats cost? If I want to set my money on fire, I’ll just stick to my original plan, and send my children to college.

Thankfully, there is an alternative for schmoes like me: sitting courtside through virtual reality.

Now I know what you’re thinking: Dear God, not those insane goggles they show on TV with the people wiggling around like lunatics.

Yes: Those insane goggles they show on TV with the people wiggling around like lunatics.

Virtual reality, aka VR, is having a cultural moment. It is the new new new tech that is going to save the world, showbiz, the media, and all of our jobs. If you want to impress people at your job, all you have to do is stand up in a meeting and say “Maybe we should do it in VR” and the boss will clap and cut you a raise. You should try this; it really works.

The NBA is jumping in wholeheartedly. They’ve been aggressive about VR for a while now, to the point that they’re doing one game each week in the format, when the tech is still developing and the audience is just getting started.

Live sports are considered an ideal environment for a virtual reality experience, because they’re popular, visually arresting, and, with exceptions like a December Jets game, a desirable place to be. If VR can put you courtside at the U.S. Open or on the baseline at Warriors-Cavaliers, there are no shortage of people who will want to be there. Geography isn’t a barrier. That is a big reason the NBA is going so gangbusters about VR—basketball has a widening world-wide audience, with a huge number of fans who are not likely to see a game in the flesh. VR is a chance to approximate that experience, putting you a few feet from Steph Curry when you’re really 6,000 miles away.

A couple of weeks ago, the league lent me a Samsung phone and a set of goggles to check it out. (For now, you need Samsung equipment plus an NBA “league pass” subscription to watch VR; but it will open up to other devices later in the season.) I watched two games: Cavaliers-Bucks and Knicks-Heat. Neither game was terribly competitive, though I have to say: it was the most fun I’ve had watching the Knicks in ages.

How does it work? Well, you put the phone in the goggles, and the goggles on your head. The goggles are a bit more comfortable than they appear, though you look like someone who just had radical eye surgery. A few taps and clicks bring you to the game of the night.

New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony controls the ball over Miami Heat guard Rodney McGruder during the second half of the game on Dec. 6. ENLARGE
New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony controls the ball over Miami Heat guard Rodney McGruder during the second half of the game on Dec. 6. Photo: jasen vinlove/Reuters

If you’re wondering if the NBA on VR delivers a “Holy Mackerel” moment, I’m here to tell you: Yes, there is a bit of a Holy Mackerel moment, right at the beginning. Instead of looking at the game, you are enveloped in it. The action is much closer, fluid, mesmerizing. It’s utterly unlike a conventional TV broadcast (for this reason, the NBA uses a different announcer team for VR, since the product is so different).

The NBA’s virtual reality experience is a partnership between NBA digital and a company called Next VR and it puts you in a pair of very desirable locations: courtside center court and then right under the basket. Basically, the best seats in the house. It’s not a full 360-degree experience—it’s currently 180, to use as much possible bandwidth to deliver the game—but it makes you aware of the stadium environment to your right and left. The score appears at the bottom when you look downward. All of this quickly becomes second nature.

Here are the hitches, in my opinion: It still looks a tad unreal, like it’s 85% real life, 15% a videogame. The players seem weirdly smaller than they actually are. The video definition can improve (and will). You also can’t watch it for a long time. At least I can’t. The VR environment is intoxicating, but best in small doses, as a supplementary experience to the standard broadcast.

It’s possible that’s generational. When I brought the goggles to my 11-year-old NBA-aholic friend Henry, he seemed prepared to wear them for the next seven decades of his life. During Knicks-Heat, he was bouncing around the living room couch, yelling at Kristaps Porzingis and Carmelo Anthony. Honestly, I’ve never seen someone so happy, and I’m including when I asked my wife to marry me.

In Henry’s enthusiasm, it’s easy to see the future. Virtual reality is a work in progress, and on its heels is augmented reality, a potentially superlative experience in which computer-generated imagery will put you in the environment (imagine hologram J.R. Smith in your TV room, and you get the idea.) Sports will be heavily invested in all of this. There will probably need to be breakthroughs to simplify it and take away necessities like goggles—let’s face it, the goggles are neat, but antisocial. A huge part of the sports-viewing experience is doing it with friends. (But what if you could virtually watch the game with friends….?)

‘When I brought the goggles to my 11-year-old NBA-aholic friend Henry, he seemed prepared to wear them for the next seven decades of his life.’

A final note: The night Henry and I sat courtside in VR to watch Knicks-Heat, I got a text from my friend Dominic, who was actually inside Miami’s arena, sitting courtside (unlike me, Dominic is connected, fabulous and courtside material.) He texted a telltale photo of his sneaker tips on the floor, just inches from the players, and later, a shot of Porzingis attacking the rim.

In the virtual world, Henry and I were sitting just a few feet away from Dominic, seeing basically everything he saw. But I was still jealous. Even now, there is nothing like the real thing.

Write to Jason Gay at Jason.Gay@wsj.com

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