NextVR, Fox Sports Bring VR to Big East Men’s Basketball Tournament

It was the first time college basketball was broadcast live in virtual reality to a global audience

Live virtual reality is scratching and clawing its way into the sports-content mainstream, and, last week, it took another notable step forward. At the Big East Men’s Basketball Tournament, Fox Sports and its VR partner, NextVR, streamed seven games over three days of the tourney and made the content available live to those with VR-capable devices anywhere in the world.

It marked the first distribution of VR content to a global audience (to anyone who had access to the Oculus store or a mobile device or owns a Samsung GearVR headset), but it also saw more steps forward on the production end as well. The event featured the largest deployment of cameras (five) at a VR event and improved on a truly immersive experience that included Full HD and advanced audio enhancements.

Fox Sports and NextVR produced five games of last week’s Big East Men’s Basketball Tournament in VR. One of five VR cameras, pictured here, was placed on one of the baskets at Madison Square Garden.

Fox Sports and NextVR produced five games of last week’s Big East Men’s Basketball Tournament in VR. One of five VR cameras, pictured here, was placed on one of the baskets at Madison Square Garden.

“We’re always experimenting with new things in any production,” says DJ Roller, co-founder of NextVR. “We get so much instant gratification and feedback that our knowledge base around live programming has exponentially grown. We’re really developing a new language in live VR right now.”

The five camera rigs were deployed throughout the area: one on each basket, one at each end of press row, and one near the main-game camera. NextVR’s strategy is to have a TD onsite who picks the cameras for the user, allowing the content creator to put the viewer where the experience is best-consumed.

A crew of 12 — a blend of NextVR and Fox Sports staffers — worked in the tunnels of Madison Square Garden last week to make the production possible. Deploying a small flypack, the production has a small footprint when compared with a traditional television production.

Special attention was given to the audio side at this event. “Audio is such a big part of the immersive experience,” acknowledges Roller.

The final mix comprised audio from binaural microphones placed at each camera location and a direct pull of elements from the Fox Sports audio mix. Surround and directional placing of sound is critical to the feel of the experience, and NextVR and Fox Sports placed an emphasis on a lower announcer volume beneath prominent on-court sounds, including bouncing of the ball and squeaking of sneakers.

A crew of 12 ran the production using a flypack from inside the bowels of Madison Square Garden. Here, a TD selects the viewing angle that users will see during the live VR stream.

A crew of 12 ran the production using a flypack from inside the bowels of Madison Square Garden. Here, a TD selects the viewing angle that users will see during the live VR stream.

The Big East Tournament production is the latest event in a new five-year partnership that Fox Sports and NextVR signed last month. The companies have already paired on VR at last year’s U.S. Open from Chambers Bay Golf Course in Washington and last month’s Daytona 500.

“Fans want to be a part of the action, and virtual reality takes the fan experience to the next level,” says Eric Shanks, Fox Sports president/COO/executive producer. “Our relationship with NextVR comes at a time as the demand to enjoy these amazing ‘like being there’ experiences expands”

For NextVR, the partnership and events like this are instrumental in getting quality, fully immersive VR in front of more viewers worldwide.

“Five years is a good chunk of time, and we are really excited about it,” says Roller. “It’s really helped solidify the successes we have had already and makes it even easier for us to more rapidly work together and create more content. It’s about growing and expanding the breadth of VR content that is being delivered both live and recorded.”