You’re a quarterback in the Super Bowl. It’s the game’s climactic play, you’ve made the call, you look up, the receiver’s away. The pass leaves your hand cleanly, but it is intercepted before it reaches your teammate and the play dies. Instead of facing the din of the fans, the scorn from the coach or the disappointment of your teammates, though, the play simply resets before your eyes and you go again, ready to make a different decision and pick the right pass.
OK, not exactly, but virtual reality training programs are infiltrating the NFL and are predicted to spread quickly, with coaching teams determined not to miss any new technology that could give them a competitive edge. Setting up specific scenarios with real opposition in regular training can be difficult, and is arguably a waste of time for those present to simply act as defenders. With VR, though, a coach can run a play over and over, take the time to explain the decision-making process to their player, without having to leave their office.
The applications of the tech range from the game-like to the hyper-real. Dutch company Beyond Sports VR use real match data to replicate scenarios virtually. Their video game-like systems, or ‘virtual reality solutions’, are targeted at professional soccer teams. The software simulates a game situation and offers the player multiple choice options for passes to make, for example, with a correct answer awarded points. Players can relive specific moments from games and assess the outcomes, with the system measuring the speed of the decision making so a coach can aim to improve not just a player’s intuition but their sharpness too.
Used by Louis van Gaal’s Dutch national team before the 2014 World Cup, as well as clubs like Ajax, PSV and AZ, coaches can use the tech to create custom scenarios to visualize something perhaps otherwise difficult to explain or replicate on the training ground. Spacial awareness and decision making are two of the most vital attributes across all team sports, and VR just gives players more time to hone them. the push to adopt VR will be seen not just in soccer, but football too.
US company STRIVR go one further than their Dutch counterparts. Using 360 degree cameras, STRIVR presents actual scenarios through VR, realistic enough to trick an athlete’s brain into thinking they’re on the field - something founder Derek Belch claims he has biometric data to support. The founder and CEO also says the company are aiming to get eight to 12 NFL franchises using their software by the start of the football season, with two already confirmed and the ‘ink drying’ on another two, with more in the pipeline.
VR is generally viewed as a gaming tool, but the hyper-reality of STRIVR’s technology is exactly why it’s potentially so valuable to sports teams. As the company says on its website, players are now ‘able to study from the same vantage point from which they [play].’ The Dallas Cowboys are using the technology to allow their coaches to see as their players see, with details like where they have their feet, where their hands are placed and what exactly they’re looking at now more available for scrutiny than ever before.
But its not just coaching staff that will feel the benefits of VR’s invasion of sport. Sky Sports recently recorded an interview with David Beckham and Kirsty Gallacher in full VR, allowing fans to feel as though they’re alongside the two in the studio. From this faux-exclusivity to being able to experience being on the field themselves, fans lucky enough to own a VR headset will be able to get ever-closer to the sport they love, albeit virtually. Where the prime seat on the 50-yard line at the Super Bowl might sell for many thousands of dollars, streamed VR footage from that seat could be available to the masses. Exclusive behind the scenes access is something that is being considered, too, and the effect of VR could fundamentally change the way fans engage with their sports digitally.
Having said that, while a VR representation of the view from the best seats may be persuasive - and doubtless a step up from traditional TV viewing - the palpable buzz of being in a professional sports stadium is something that’ll be near impossible to replicate. No matter how realistic VR becomes, being at the game is a truly unique thing. Just as being at a live music event is a visceral experience that defies replication, so too is live sport (and, indeed, support). A technology doesn’t need to replace the match day experience to be revolutionary, though, and the mark VR makes on sports streaming could be as significant as the one it makes on gaming.