A Blog by Jonathan Low


Mar 15, 2020

Sports Fans Under 30 Want A Radically Different Experience. Can Trad Leagues Deliver?

They smell big money so they are working on it seriously. JL

Sarah Needleman reports in the Wall Street Journal:

Videogame enthusiasts are using live-streaming and virtual reality. They’re watching esports competitions while text-chatting with each other and commentators on the same screen, and strapping on VR goggles to socialize in virtual spaces. Traditional sports leagues are paying attention. Tech companies are testing gamer-inspired features for sports broadcasts (such as) live polls about what viewers think will happen in matches and toggling across camera angles. These capabilities are designed make viewership from afar more engaging for fans who’ve grown up with the internet and mobile devices.
One of Alexander MacFall’s favorite pro videogame players was in the middle of live-streaming a practice session when he decided to get in touch with the digital athlete. Using a text-chatting feature baked into the broadcast, the 33-year-old told Jong-Ryeol “Saebyeolbe” Park he was “hyped” to see him compete in an upcoming match.
Moments later, Mr. Park, the captain of a local team that competes at the videogame “Overwatch,” thanked him on camera—so he and anyone else watching could see.
“I freaked out a little bit,” says Mr. MacFall, a graphic designer who lives in Pomona, N.Y. “For him to see my post and actually respond to it was really, really cool.”
Videogame enthusiasts are using technologies such as live-streaming and virtual reality. They’re watching esports competitions while text-chatting with each other and commentators on the same screen, and strapping on VR goggles to socialize in virtual spaces with far-flung friends.
Now, traditional sports leagues are paying attention. Executives at tech companies say they are testing a range of gamer-inspired features for sports broadcasts. Some, such as live polls about what viewers think will happen in matches and the ability to toggle across camera angles, could roll out widely over the next several years. Others, like access to front-row stadium seats in VR, are poised to take longer because they depend on factors including faster internet speeds, cheaper hardware and deal-making among teams, leagues and media outlets.
The coming tech capabilities aren’t designed to eliminate live experiences but rather make viewership from afar more engaging, particularly for fans who’ve grown up with the internet and mobile devices.
“Sports is grappling with an audience under 30 that’s radically different than” older fans in terms of what they want out of broadcasts, says John Kosner, a former executive at Walt Disney Co. ’s ESPN. He believes sports broadcasts need to evolve to become more appealing to young fans, or viewership could erode over time. “A more immersive experience around sports is definitely coming,” says Mr. Kosner, now an investor in sports-technology startups.
Esports broadcasts are considered a proxy for the future of traditional sports programming by leagues, media companies and others because the broadcasts take place mostly online and can be wildly popular. Last November’s “League of Legends” World Championship Final—the computer game’s equivalent of the Super Bowl—peaked at 44 million concurrent viewers world-wide, according to its creator, Riot Games Inc., a unit of Chinese conglomerate Tencent Holdings Ltd.
Some sports fans might struggle to imagine following a match on a laptop or smartphone while text-chatting with other viewers on the same screen. But such behavior is common among esports fans and is starting to occur among traditional sports viewers, says Nicole Pike, managing director of esports at the ratings provider Nielsen. “It’s a generational thing,” she adds.
Upstarts such as LiveLike Inc. and Genvid Technologies Inc., both of New York, are developing technology that allows fans using smartphones and other devices to text chat with each other beneath live video of sports matches; purchase team emojis to share within those chats; and guess what will happen during the action via real-time polls, among other interactive features.
Tech firms are also working to allow viewers to toggle between camera angles on their screens to see different perspectives of a match, as well as call up stats and highlight videos for athletes of their choosing. Sports-betting capabilities are also on deck.
With chat in particular baked into game streams, sports fans could potentially also engage with commentators, coaches or their favorite athletes during breaks in the action or at other times—much the way Mr. MacFall connected with one of his esports idols through Twitch, Amazon.com Inc.’s live-streaming platform.
Twitch is best known for live broadcasts mostly of expert gamers playing videogames and pro esports competitions, but it also airs some traditional sports matches. The platform recently began allowing users to take on the role of a sportscaster for certain games from the National Football League, National Basketball Association and a handful of others, with permission from those leagues. User-commentators call plays or talk about the action during live broadcasts, and anyone can tune in unless marked private. Going forward, Twitch users might be able to choose from a list of celebrity, pro athlete or other high-profile commentators, says Michael Aragon, senior vice president of content at the company.
The NBA meanwhile is testing the option for viewers of its League Pass live-streaming service to select commentators who can call games from remote locations and in more languages. “We are just at the beginning of this world of alternate commentary,” says Sara Zuckert, the NBA’s senior director of domestic programming and content strategy.
The way gamers socialize in virtual reality is also expected to influence sports viewership. While VR headsets are currently pricey and bulky, future iterations won’t be, says Jason Rubin, vice president of special gaming initiatives at Facebook Inc. The latest version of the company’s Oculus headset is wireless, unlike its predecessor, in addition to being lighter-weight and less expensive at around $400 including two “Touch” controllers.
VR technology is capable today of broadcasting live, real-world entertainment. Last year, Facebook hosted a concert with singer Billie Eilish through its Oculus Quest. Though viewers saw one another as cartoonish avatars, Ms. Eilish appeared live from Madrid thanks to cameras that captured her stage performance in the real world and streamed it in the virtual one.
It will likely take many years, though, for such broadcasts to become widespread in sports, largely because media companies, leagues and other parties are waiting for wider adoption of VR headsets to cut deals, says Miheer Walavalkar, chief executive of LiveLike. The entity that owns the live-streaming rights to a sports game might charge to include the cost of virtual seats as part of a package to access all its content through whatever device a viewer chooses.
“Once the tech reaches a point where it’s really good, it can definitely be an upsell opportunity,” he says.
With VR gear, sports fans will be able to watch matches from home seemingly in front-row seats or private suites. Space is essentially infinite in the virtual world, so potentially anyone logging in could access the same perspective, according to VR experts. Friends from any location would be able to join in the same stream, with all parties appearing to one another in the form of avatars, they say. And depending on the platform the streaming provider uses to broadcast a game in VR, viewers might be able to design the look of their avatars by selecting from a menu of hair styles, skin colors and more.
Fans will also be able to move their virtual seats at any moment during a game on par with the action, as well as engage with virtual objects. “You can throw a tomato” on a soccer field, for example, only it won’t be real, says Mr. Walavalkar. It would be possible, though, to order a real pizza for home delivery without exiting the VR broadcast, he adds.
Sports viewership is also forecast to change with help from other tech. Augmented reality might enable people who attend sports matches in person to see the kind of digital imagery normally reserved for TV screen viewing—such as the strike box in baseball broadcasts—through their smartphones or AR goggles, says Michael Davies, senior vice president of field operations and tech at Fox Sports.
At home, panoramic video could also be on the horizon, or even broadcasts that make it seem as if miniaturized athletes are running across a person’s dining-room table. “You can’t get past the hologram idea, like in ‘Star Wars,’ ” Mr. Davies says.


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