Live-Streaming VR Becomes a Reality for NBA at Warriors Opener

Last week’s Golden State Warriors-New Orleans Pelicans NBA Opening Night matchup marked the first time a U.S. major sports league live-streamed a game in virtual reality. In addition to the game itself at Oakland’s Oracle Arena, the NBA, Turner Sports, and NextVR teamed up to live-stream the Warriors’ NBA Championship ring ceremony in VR prior to tipoff.

Fans could access a front-row-seat virtual perspective of the game and the pregame ceremony with a Samsung Gear VR headset (which costs $199.99 and functions via Samsung’s Galaxy Note 4 and Galaxy S6 and S6 edge smartphones) and could access the stream via the NextVR portal, which is found on the Oculus Home app.

Although VR experiences have been produced at several sports events over the past year, including the U.S. Open golf tournament in Chambers Bay, WA, and NBA All-Star Saturday Night festivities from New York, the Warriors opener marked the first to be streamed live and follows CNN’s VR live-streaming of the Democratic debate on Oct. 13.

This NextVR RED camera rig sat courtside at Oracle Arena and provided the primary angle for the Warriors-Pelicans live-streamed VR production.

This NextVR RED camera rig sat courtside at Oracle Arena and provided the primary angle for the Warriors-Pelicans live-streamed VR production.

“We are going from speculation to experience now,” says NextVR co-founder DJ Roller. “As [NBA Commissioner] Adam Silver has said, only a very small percentage of NBA fans will ever be able to actually access an NBA game let alone a courtside seat. The power of literally letting an NBA fan pick wherever they want to be in the arena — even places you can’t buy a ticket — through VR is very exciting.”

Inside the Production: A Quartet of Cameras
NextVR deployed four specially customized 360-degree RED robotic camera systems for the experimental production: a mid-court courtside angle opposite the scorers table, a camera on the stanchion of one of the baskets, a mid-court high and wide shot, and a roving handheld on the court during the ring ceremony and during breaks in the action. One angle at a time was selected and made available to VR viewers; the feed did not feature graphics or commentary. However, Roller says, NextVR plans to offer a produced multicamera feed similar to a traditional telecast and also to allow viewers to select different angles with the NextVR portal in the future.

The majority of the VR experience was shown from the courtside camera, “the key position to watch the game in VR,” says Roller.

The game marked the first time NextVR has deployed a camera on the basket stanchion. “We got a lot of positive feedback,” says Roller, “but there’s probably some more optimum places to ultimately put it on the goal.”

The VR feed was produced out of a custom flypack deployed by NextVR that included switcher, audio console, monitors, and so on. Each camera fed to the flypack via a single fiber providing camera control, power, and audio-signal distribution. NextVR was also responsible for encoding the VR feed and delivering it to the CDN for streaming distribution.

Oakland Is Just the Beginning
According to Roller, this production was intended to serve as an experiment in how to best produce an NBA game. NextVR plans to deploy larger camera complements in the future to provide more-comprehensive coverage of the game, as well as more options should the viewer want to select particular angles.

“We did not try to fully produce the game yet but to just start to explore and give people access outside of industry executives to see the game [in VR],” says Roller. “We would use more than four cameras if we were covering the game as a wholly produced experience. The NBA is a blue-chip sport, and this is a whole new premium medium, so we are still developing how to produce, creatively and technically, an NBA game in VR. This was a first step, but, ultimately, it will be a much larger show.”

In addition to more cameras, NextVR is currently exploring how to best integrate graphics, on-air talent, social-media feeds, choose-your-angle features, and more into its VR productions. In terms of graphics, he foresees the option of displaying clock-and-score anywhere in the viewing area (including to the side or behind the viewer’s frame of vision), as well customizable-graphics options like fantasy-league and social-media displays. NextVR is also working on ways to incorporate the broadcast feed, such as displaying the live broadcast feed on a virtual videoboard within the VR experience.

“It will be much more comprehensive across the board in all the things we’re doing because we’re still designing what that blue-chip experience will be,” he says. “We are looking at having standups with talent, graphics packages, social-media features, and the ability to let you choose the view you want to have by teleporting yourself.”

Roller also says future productions will likely be centralized in the mobile unit, rather than a flypack.

“In the not-too-distant future, this stuff will live in a truck just because it will save time and money,” he says. “This is all designed and built on a broadcast infrastructure from the ground up, so that it ultimately can plug right into the ecosystem. What truck that lives on is what we’re working on at the moment.”

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