The Future of Sports – is it Virtual?

The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic has swept across the globe resulting in over 666,857 deaths. As a result, we are witnessing a unique and disruptive transformation in the Sports Industry worldwide, with cancelled or postponed events and even greater economic, social and financial impacts. However, the growth of technology has allowed the industry to adapt and utilise innovative and creative means to shape the future of sports.

From cardboard cutouts, CGI overlays and Zoom video conferencing – the sports industry is turning to technology to provide fans with their long-awaited sports action.

AR/VR

AR and VR technology has been on the rise over the last decade, with the pandemic acting as a cataclysmic force driving greater integration into sports.

Augmented Reality (AR) superimposes computer-generated imagery on a user’s view of the real world while Virtual Reality (VR) simply creates a simulated image for the user.

In football, La Liga were one of the first to introduce an AR audience to matches, allowing a static texture to resemble a crowd of fans. However, as this only works on the broadcast camera, any abrupt movement will ruin the illusion of the crowd and the lack of individually-rendered virtual spectators further demystifies the desired ‘full stadium’ image.

OZ Sports have created a more sophisticated option to overcome this issue by allowing fans to sign up and pick their own realistic human avatars or fantasy-themed characters through a website hosted by the League. Broadcasters can then choose to overlay these avatars on empty seats or digitise the entire stadium to recreate a sci-fi backdrop to present the illusion of an audience. This has received positive feedback and we can expect to see greater AR integration in the post-COVID landscape.

Bringing the action to fans

The NBA have recently introduced VR when telecasting games to fans who own VR headsets. Fans can experience the courtside view, follow the breakaways and change the angles to watch the game-changing moments. As score-tracking is built into the system, fans can easily look to the far left or right of their screen to see the points, time and rebounds to add to the comfortable user experience.

Apple are the next heavyweights to join the scene as they have purchased NextVR, rivaling the NBA’s use of the technology. Sony, Google and Intel are not far behind and are heavily involved in upgrading and investing in new technologies to meet the increasing demands of sports consumers. Fans can expect to see a battle of the heavyweights as we slowly move into the post-COVID world.  

Video conferencing

Danish Superliga club AGF Aarhus successfully created giant 40-metre long and 3-metre high screens allowing fans to join the action via Zoom. Players could look up to see their fans sharing in their excitement at a goal or nervousness in anticipation of a foul. Much like in pre-COVID football matches, officials were placed in charge of governing the fans attendance. As the officials have the authority to ‘kick-out’ any disobedient and delinquent fans, many are concerned as to whether their power threatens football’s longstanding heterogeneity.

Sky Sports’ new “Fanzone” feature allows fans to video chat with friends and family during live games. While the feature will only be available on select matches with a possible limit on who can join the call, it does present fans with in-match polls and Sky Sports games stats to make the experience more engaging and interactive.

Currently, technology’s future in sports is secure amidst the COVID crisis, as it has enabled large crowds to participate in events without being physically present. Regardless of when the doors to the stadiums and courts open again, technology will play a key role in safeguarding fans through digital ticketing, crowd analytics and cashless payment.

While the future of sports may be virtual, it is clear that AR/VR will never replace the chanting, rivalry and passion of fans that resonates through the stadiums and courts.

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