Creating Super Fans: The Age of VR

Virtual reality (VR) has been front and center among trending technology conversations in recent years around the delivery of professional sports content. Although many VR instances have failed since the 90s, we’ve seen a few key players emerge with promising technology (think Samsung Gear, Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, or Playstation VR.) The proposition holds a lot of promise for both sports fans and professional sports leagues, as well as the media outlets covering all the fanfare.

Just this week, NBC announced they will offer 85 hours of VR content from the Rio Olympics. The content will be offered exclusively on Samsung Gear VR through the NBC Sports App. While a great customer acquisition tactic for NBC’s app, the partnership with Samsung points to the real interest from consumers around VR content in general. Though many will travel to Rio to see the games live, millions more will watch from home. Fans are increasingly insisting upon the highest quality content. HD is no longer enough as the rush to create 4K content increases. VR represents the next layer and VR Live along with that. For the clubs and leagues, VR represents the next frontier of fan engagement. The Oculus Rift launched just this March, showing just how nascent scalable VR technology is to the mainstream.

Samsung Gear VR  | Flickr | nan palmero shared under CC (BY)

How can leagues use VR like the Oculus Rift to create super fans across every touchpoint? It’s no surprise superfandom and retention is primarily based on the team itself and its performance. That said, having an omnichannel approach to fan engagement can bring another intimate layer to the symbiotic fan/player relationship, increasingly important in the off-season. The prospect of leagues offering VR content across multiscreen apps is an obvious strategy. For example, UK agency Atticus Digital has created 360º videos BBC Sport Wales, the first attempts at producing content that allows viewers to engage in new ways by tilting their phones to feel like they’re turning their head at the event. But the new revenue opportunities extend beyond just additional subscriptions or ads. In the future, we could see leagues charging fans for VR game experiences similar to how fans buy tickets to sit in arenas and stadiums to watch live now. It’s also no secret leagues rely on strategic partnerships as promotional partners as additional revenue streams. The VR landscape is yet another place for promotional partners to engage with fans and get exposure, with the ultimate payoff to the clubs or leagues themselves. It’s only a matter of time before advertising hits VR and sports fans are irrevocably a premium market.

What’s holding VR back? A lot of things. But a few thoughts:

  • Over promises in VR in the late 90s/early 2000s with little results to show for it (expensive, lack of computing power, field of view limitations, naive display i.e. resolution, screen size), led to mistrust in the prospect of VR for consumers in recent years.
  • VR is still relatively expensive. Even 360º video requires new production strategy and equipment. Sensors and displays have only recently been scaled by R&D at mobile phone manufacturers that have driven prices down to consumer level.
  • Headsets are bulky. The prospect of fans wearing them for long periods of time seems unlikely.
  • Lack of VR content similar to lack of 4K in the past few years. An influx of content could drive consumer demand rather than the other way around.

For now, VR remains a novelty for many consumers and a technology a few years out. However, we’ll wait and see how these Olympics pan out; perhaps NBC’s foray into the virtual world will convert more than a few believers.

How else can virtual reality augment the fan experience, and what challenges does VR have to overcome? Comment below, and join the conversation on Twitter. #smartshinyobjects

Photo credit: Image via James Willamor shared under CC (BY-SA)

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