NBA games in virtual reality have potential. Here’s what watching one is like

Jabbari Young wearing an Oculus Quest 2.

Source: Jabbari Young

Boston Celtics coach Im Odoka came off the 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 boot, and I saw the Lance Stephenson 3-pointer from an angle I hadn’t seen before.

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

The National Basketball Association is offering virtual stadium seating on the $299 Meta Oculus Quest 2 hardware. Headphones were one of the most sought-after Christmas gifts of 2021, showing that people seem more willing to experience virtual reality than ever before. Companies are trying to keep eyeballs on their content by creating VR versions of their apps and games.

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

Phil Parker | the future | Getty Images

A free NBA experience available on Meta Horizon Venues, a free download of the Oculus headset software. People appear as digital avatars, sort of like cartoon versions of their real selves, and watch the NBA game from a stadium perspective. It’s not the Jack Nicholson seat of the Los Angeles Lakers at the Crypto.com Arena or Spike Lee’s seat at Madison Square Garden, but it almost duplicates the real thing.

From a business perspective, the deal could give the NBA a new batch of media rights, which is important at a time when regional sports networks are struggling.

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

Mark Zuckerberg is investing $10 billion in the metaverse, a virtual world that he believes will become the standard for social networking, gaming and even work.

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

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

Jim Davis | Boston Globe | Getty Images

Experience is not a ‘trash can’

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

As soon as you enter the game, you will immediately notice other avatars participating in live discussions. The proximity to the event also catches your eye. Here you can immerse yourself in the experience, where you actually feel pretty much like you’re in a stadium-side seat, right down to interacting with fans nearby.

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

The balcony level is quieter for a more private place and the view is good.

Don’t be afraid to start a conversation with someone whose mic is turned on, especially if you need help navigating the room, which feels like two levels from a private social club.

As the Celtics were up 23-18 in the first quarter, an avatar approached me to ask for help watching. I was confused at first, because 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 led him to call the NBA metaverse experience “garbage.” Moments later, I asked another avatar standing next to me what he thought of the experience.

The avatar named “Tuttle” replied, “This is a drug.” “They need to get this for football.”

The stunning views of Boston that emerged during the breaks were also impressive, and gave me the feeling of being in the city where the game is being played.

Cons: Glitches and image quality

“Man! Are you alright,” I heard one avatar ask another.

The avatar in question was overwhelmed and unresponsive. It almost looked like the metaverse was having a seizure.

The avatar eventually regained its shape and started to speak, but this flaw was definitely strange.

Controllers are your hands in the metaverse, so it can be strange to see close-up avatars with their hands and arms looking skewed with their bodies.

In the fourth quarter, Stevenson hit 3-pointers, then Pacers striker Tori Craig converted a layup to cut the Celtics’ lead into three, 71-68.

Watching the close sequence was fun, but the relatively poor image quality eventually became noticeable. TV and video presenters have viewers pampered with high-definition games. Therefore, any slight difference in quality can be quickly noticed.

The NBA is working with virtual reality production company Media Monks to show games on the Oculus platform.

During the NBA’s pandemic “bubble” season in Orlando, the company used Sony FX6 cameras, which cost nearly $6,000, to shoot virtual reality games. This season, though, the games are shot with Sony FX9 cameras, which cost around $11,000.

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

A single FX9 camera is located on the announcer’s table, providing a front row view. FX9 cameras are also located on every rear panel. One is used for taking distant shots and the other for walking around.

Cameras switch angles during a match, which can be annoying but necessary when coaches accidentally block the view. Odoka’s leg was right in my face every time he walked to Central Court, for example.

The featured supervisor is former NBA forward Richard Jefferson, but the commentary is boring at times. And general questions will not help.

The Meta uses former NBA players like Jefferson to interact with avatars that attend the stadium experience. And in some competitions, room commentators can appear as an actual avatar to chat with fans.

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

Screenshot of Jabari’s home screen to remind you of a virtual NBA virtual reality event on the Oculus Quest 2 platform.

Jabari Young | CNBC

Finally, the selection of games could be better. Celtics-Pacers were good, but highlights will be more engaging and may attract more people, making it a more social experience.

The next two NBA VR games on Oculus are scheduled for January 17 — Covid delays permitting — with the Oklahoma Thunder playing Mark Cuban’s Dallas Mavericks. A virtual reality experience Jan. 22 had the Sacramento Kings play the NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks.

These are not necessarily must-watch games.

What then

I missed my Celtics-Pacers overtime session due to my Oculus headset running out of battery. But, judging by how many people were in Tier 1 in the late fourth quarter, with more Venues lobby arriving, it’s fair to say the NBA VR experience was popular that night in the metaverse.

Three days after attending the game, I spoke with Rob Shaw, Meta’s Director of Sports Tournaments and Media Partnerships, to understand how far the stadium experience has progressed and where it’s heading.

Shaw was reminded of comments made on CNBC in 2020 when he said the Oculus concept for the NBA was “still in the early stage.”

Meta Oculus Quest 2 Virtual Reality Headset.

T3 Magazine | the future | Getty Images

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

“We are now in the foundational moments of building and learning the experience,” Shaw said.

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

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

He added that if the virtual reality experience could really evolve to mimic being in the stadium, “I can see them wanting to set a price point for the ticket. But that’s a decision that the league and the media company are making.”

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

While the NBA remains silent on the matter, Meta is looking forward.

Shaw envisions immersive VR advertising and allows users to purchase iconic T-shirts from the Metaverse NBA Store. Then, for an additional fee, special live viewing options. There are ideas for a stadium seat experience and VIP options that include watching games with an NBA legend or celebrity.

“I think care can be redefined,” Shaw said. “Branding activation that was historically limited in place is suddenly becoming more accessible and customized to metaverse.”

CNBC’s Steve Kovac contributed to this article.

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