When NFL Football moves into the Metaverse
A few years ago, I wrote a column titled, “How Much are the VR Broadcasting Rights Worth for NFL Football?” I described how in the near future we would safely attach several cameras around players’ football helmets, and through virtual reality (VR), viewers could immerse themselves into the action those players experience in conjunction with visual perspectives from around the stadium. With some haptic feedback suits, they would also be able to “feel” the action on the field.
In fact, NFL teams are now using helmet cams in practices and warmups but not during a regular season game. The NFL also occasionally arranges for the camera hat vantage point of officiating team members – especially the back and field judges who face the action from the defensive side of the ball and the umpire who watches the play from the quarterback’s perspective.
However, it’s just a matter of time until we have player helmet-cams being used in regular and post-season NFL game broadcasts. Over the last few decades, the NFL game viewing experience has steadily improved with instant replay, color programming, mics spread across the stadium, multiple camera views, and real-time stats. Soon you will be able to add many other user-enhancing VR features to this list.
The Limits of VR
Much of the fun of watching football games, or other sporting events, concerts, etc. – whether on television or in person – is the social aspect of the experience.
Traditional VR technology tends to isolate the viewer from people in the rest of the viewing location.
Sure, viewers and their friends can all wear the same devices and possibly watch the action from the same perspectives. They can talk to each other out of the sides of their mouth as they view the Hail Mary pass or game-saving tackle (“Oh man, did you SEE that!), but everyone remains locked into their own view and their own micro experiences.
Yes, these VR NFL fans are still in the real world, and yes, they’re looking at vastly new perspectives of the real world.
Another World Altogether
In contrast, how about groups of friends meeting at the stadium – in the metaverse – where they’re able to not only watch the game but engage with each other, exchange high-fives and razz the fans of the opposing team sitting behind them?
This kind of emerging experience takes VR to a new level. There’s a big difference between interacting in a single-viewer experience (traditional VR) and viewing it virtually as a group in the metaverse – with all the benefits of the point-of-view technology that allows for a much more immersive viewing experience of the event itself.
Meta, formerly known as Facebook, is already working with the NBA to broadcast NBA games for fans in the metaverse. Based on reported experiences of some users, the technology is in its infancy, but it demonstrates the promise of creating the kind of real-time, personalized, interpersonal experience of being at a game in the best possible seats and among the best possible company.
As this technology advances and finds its way into the NFL experience, we may see a decline in in-person attendance at average in-season games. Team owners who plan ahead, though, won’t be financially affected as they find unusual new ways to monetize the meta-viewing experience.
Competitive teams will still sell lots of actual, in-person $300+ tickets to die-hard fans, along with beers, nachos, and jerseys. But tens of thousands more fans will pay $50 for a meta-virtual second deck seat and proportionately more for seats closer to the field. At halftime, they might buy an official NFL-licensed NFT team jersey. These viewers may see ads during some of the breaks in the action, except for those viewers who bought premium skybox tickets or hold season tickets.
And when it comes to camera angles, there will be very few limits. Every player, coach, and official will have a helmet/hat cam with an audio microphone, capturing pretty much everything except play-calling in the huddle. Technology will be available to immediately scrub the audio to preserve G-ratings upon request.
We’ll need to get used to player helmet camera views. A few years back when the World Football League was experimenting with helmet cams, after a particularly hard hit, a quarterback’s helmet was knocked off his head, falling to the ground, creating the visual impression for many that the player had been decapitated!
Beyond helmets, though, cameras will also be at both points of the football. Quarterbacks who don’t throw spirals could make this a pretty troubling viewpoint, although gyroscope technology will limit that effect somewhat.
Drones have been used by NFL teams in many ways – except for recording game action. Among the future metaverse football viewing options will be quiet drone cams programmed to follow plays from either the offensive or defensive perspective, key players, or even sideline activity.
“In-Person” vs Viewing Events
Metaverse inhabitants/avatars will have the option of experiencing an NFL game at the metaverse stadium or remotely at their meta-home or in another meta-viewing venue. Fans at the virtual stadium will likely key in on just a few game views to keep their experience more manageable and realistic.
Metaverse viewing parties will be a different story, though, as the presentation mixes these views in accordance with the wishes of the attendees. They’ll be able to watch a play live from the quarterback’s perspective and then the replay from the football cam as the ball soars to the receiver downfield and then from the back judge’s view as they call pass interference. Hosts will hire producers to adeptly switch back and forth among these views as details of the plays evolve both during and after the play.
We’ll see retired players hosting viewing parties in the metaverse, offering running commentary and answering questions. Yes, quite a bit like ESPN’s breakthrough Monday Night Football ManningCast!
Groups will rent out venues in the metaverse to watch the big game as a for-profit venture, to entertain clients, or raise funds for charity.
Adapting the Game to the Metaverse
To prevent all of the unique views and vantage points in a game from being wasted on metaverse fans, and much to the chagrin of NFL purists, the NFL will likely increase the time between plays from 40 to 60 seconds to allow for multiple vantage point replays. Official overseers “in New York” will also take advantage of these perspectives.
Other rule changes and practices will invariably be adopted to optimize the experience for metaverse viewers.
The Expanding Sports Metaverse
This combination of metaverse in-person/avatar viewing and the more expansive metaverse viewing party experiences can and will be replicated in most other sports. Faster-paced, less predictable sports will probably make the best use of it.
But even aficionados of the more gentile, predictable sports like horse racing and golf will want to be there in-person or in-avatar to see first-hand the event’s nuances, like saddling up and club selection as the action unfolds.