VR Evolution Continues at Fox Sports

Though the consumer virtual reality sector hasn’t taken off as rapidly as some had hoped, content providers continue to experiment with and refine their VR experiences for when this emerging medium becomes a mass-market phenomenon.

Fox Sports has been a key member of this group as it continues to work with companies such as NextVR and LiveLike on VR experiences that can be access on smartphone-powered headsets such as the Samsung Gear VR and its authenticated apps for iOS and Android mobile devices.

“If you believe in something, you want to get good do at it before it really takes off so, when it does, you’re not learning about it for the first time,” Michael Davies, senior vice president of field and technical operations at Fox Sports, said.

Fox Sports’ latest major VR endeavor will center around the CONCACAF Gold Cup, as the programmer and LiveLike will create a “virtual suite” for three fixtures, starting with the just-completed July 8 U.S.-Panama match. They’ll follow with similar efforts for matches set for July 22 or 23, and for the Gold Cup championship, set for Monday, July 26.

As had been done in previous VR partnerships with LiveLike for events such as UEFA Champions League matches, the Big Ten Football Championship Game and the Big East Men’s Basketball Tournament, the virtual suite experience will include a 2D live feed of the Gold Cup games along with the ability to manually access other camera angles, lean on a director’s cut that auto-selects those angles, watch replays of the action, and view some pre-produced content delivered in the 360-degree format.

New this time around is a social component allowing the viewer and three others to be present in the virtual suite to watch the game (represented by individual avatars), to use the suite’s interactive components and to interact with each other. Enabling that experience is a new “Social” tab and a “Join Friends” button, which connects the user to Facebook upon authorization. Users can also have the system select a viewing partner at random, and can toggle the social component on or off.

Davies said the social component delivers a “hybrid” experience with elements of how consumers watch live sports — alone on TV; with others on the TV at home; at a restaurant or bar; or live at the venue itself.

“Hopefully this is something that takes the medium to the next level,” Davies said, noting that sports viewing tends to drive a “tribal” form of activity. “We’re hoping to recreate that. We’re excited to see how it works out.”

So are advertisers. Buffalo Wild Wings is on board as the sponsor for the Gold Cup VR experience, and follows sponsorships for past efforts from Jeep, Audi, Lexus and Toyota.

Davies said most viewers who watch these VR experiences are doing it without a headset, opting to access it on the app for smartphones and tablets, but that there’s a “fair amount” of activity from viewers who tune in using the Gear VR. Fox Sports has also been keeping close tabs on not just how many consumers join the experience, but how many are coming back to it, he added.

Support for higher-end platforms, such as the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and the PlayStation VR, as well as the smartphone-based Google Daydream, are on the product roadmap, Davies said.

Davies also hopes coming standalone VR headsets in the works from Google and Facebook-owned Oculus will reduce consumer friction into those higher-end experiences.

“That, I think, is going to propel this thing beyond those people who are the true believers,” he said.