Broadcasters and content owners are racing to innovate to make sports more powerful and immersive for their viewers, who increasingly consume live and on-demand programming on the move, across several devices and platforms. At the same time, they are competing for the attention of younger, digitally savvy audiences, who have an insatiable appetite for bite-sized content and highly customised entertainment experiences.
Missing a trick
While virtual reality (VR) is certainly making waves in the industry, it’s fair to say that the technology has not yet hit mainstream. To begin with, not everyone has a VR headset to watch virtual content with. Furthermore, widespread use of this technology in sports has been thwarted by the common misconception that you must build end-to-end experiences – separate from the main event – to make people embrace VR.
For example, Sky Sports VR is a dedicated app that enables fans to immerse themselves in a range of VR content from the sport of their choosing, but it is complementary to the main broadcast rather than a part of it. It is not designed to augment the live action on the pitch or the track.
In my view, that’s where the industry is missing a trick today. The biggest opportunity in VR for broadcasters and content owners lies in enhancing and augmenting the main event by enabling sports fans to dip in and out between the live match or the race and the virtual experience. This will help make VR mainstream.
Every millisecond matters in sports
While fully-fledged VR experiences are still gathering momentum, the best way for broadcasters and content owners to bring their audiences more immersive sports experiences is through live 360˚ video. It gives audiences a VR-like experience without the need for a headset, whether they’re at home or on the move. It’s not about taking viewers away from the live action on TV, but about enabling them to get different perspectives by panning around the pitch or circuit during a key moment for their favourite player or driver.
Although 360˚ sports coverage has been explored before, previous technologies have stopped short of live footage that can be viewed without a headset. Intel has shown how viewers could be empowered to choose their vantage point for an immersive view of live MLB games and the NCAA March Madness finals. However, in both of these instances, viewers were still required to download an app and don a VR headset.
Other so-called live 360˚ experiments haven’t actually been live. In some cases, immersive replays have been stitched together shortly after the action has taken place. Even when the 2017 UEFA Champions League Final was broadcast as-seen-live earlier this year, it involved the live video being processed through a number of filters which turned it into an immersive VR experience. This resulted in a delay of around 30 seconds behind real-time, which is not good enough for many sports where every millisecond matters.
Immersing fans in the action with truly live 360˚ video
Yet, the challenges of delivering truly live 360˚ video cannot be underestimated, especially when – as is often the case with global sports – there are multiple time zones and thousands of miles between the match or race and people’s homes. But the rewards will be immense: truly live 360˚ video will push the boundaries of the sports experience, providing an extra element of behind-the-scenes access for those watching the action onsite, while making fans in their living rooms feel closer to the excitement too.
Whether through VR, AR, ultra high definition or live 360˚video, it’s paramount for broadcasters and content owners to harness the power of the latest digital technologies to stay relevant and competitive, and generate new revenue streams. Only through constantly driving to innovate through new content delivery methods, can they keep their audiences tuned in, hungry for more captivating sports experiences and inspire the next generation of fans too.
Read one of my previous blogs on the evolution of content distribution.