NBA

Virtual reality experience allows fans to see NBA action like never before

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Chris Webber watching game in virtual reality (Turner Sports)

During the 2017 NCAA Tournament, former Michigan State and NBA star Steve Smith was calling West Virginia's second-round matchup against Notre Dame as an analyst alongside well-respected play-by-play man Spero Dedes. After yet another foul call - a whopping 39 infractions were called in the game - Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins began a cheek-reddening, jaw-flapping, spittle-spewing tirade against the refs, the kind of outburst that's become a Huggins specialty over the years.

While the action on the floor continued, Smith kept focusing on Huggins on the sideline.

"I mean, he is pure entertainment in college basketball," Smith said.

And the thing was, he could guide his audience to take its eyes off the ball and keep watching Huggins, too. He could weave in a Huggins story, and an anecdote about coaches he's seen pop off on the sideline. Those watching could keep focusing on Huggins if they liked. Or they could get back to the game.

"Huggins was going ballistic," Smith explained. "And I just wanted to watch that, and I had a lot of fans in the audience watching it with me, and I'm just talking about what I am seeing. It's like we're sitting in the stands together."

That all came together thanks to an innovation that has come out of a partnership between broadcaster TNT and tech company Intel, bringing virtual reality to basketball. It has moved this season to the NBA, too, going back to January, when the "NBA on TNT" produced two "practice-run" games (Rockets-Clippers on Jan. 15 and Timberwolves-Warriors on Jan. 25) ahead of its big launch at All-Star weekend in February.

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It continued through the regular season, with TNT producing seven games down the stretch of the season in VR, and is now being featured at various games during the playoffs, including Tuesday's game between the Pelicans and Warriors. All of the Western Conference finals, too, will be presented in VR.

For those who have not experienced the game through VR, it is a gripping experience. Viewers have a choice of 10 camera views that, essentially, allow you to see any part of the action on the floor and along the sidelines, and even into the crowd. The idea is to recreate the feel of being at the game, where your eye can wander anywhere it likes.

"It takes a while to get used to the different angles," Smith said. "But it becomes natural that you just watch the stanchion angle while they're bringing the ball up. When they start the pick-and-roll, I am going to switch to another angle. But that is just me. It will be whatever comes natural for each individual viewer.

"I am going to pay attention to the movement off the pick and roll. My wife will be looking in the stands, watching Jack Nicholson or the Kardashians. But that's what you can do with this."

To put this all together, there are five cameras for a user to view. There is a scenic camera that sits high up in the arena, a courtside camera at the announcer's table, a camera at each stanchion under the basket and a rover camera that adds to the crowd experience.

Part of the challenge of bringing VR to fans is that for most, it's a first-time experience that requires a viewer to reconsider the way he or she watches a game. That applies, also, to the technicians in the broadcast truck, as well as the on-air analysts like Smith and Dedes.

"The difference is with 2D, you've got this box where you're just looking forward, and you control a very small environment," said Natasha Banks, Intel Sports' customer Implementation manager. "With VR, our cameras are 180 degrees, so you've got to be conscious of not just what is in front of you, but the whole 180-degree view. It's teaching them to be aware of all their surroundings, it's having the talent make sure they're not just looking forward, but also saying to that audience, 'Hey look left, and see what's going on here.'"

Dedes, who has done play-by-play on radio and television for the Lakers and the Knicks, has grown more comfortable working virtual reality games, and compares the difference between a normal television broadcast and a VR broadcast to the advent of sports in high-definition.

"It's the same 'wow' factor," Dedes said, "except this is going to be even bigger."

Among the big attractions is that the viewer can put as much or as little into the Xs and Os of basketball as he or she sees fit. Stats are available to be called up during a game, and if a viewer wants, the nuts-and-bolts of every play, from a pick-and-roll to a fast-break dunk, can be parsed and dissected from all angles.

"There's so much to this we are all still discovering," Dedes said. "I think every time we do a game, there are a few moments where Smitty and I look at each other, like, 'Wow.' You can see spacing on the floor, you can see depth perception on the floor and, you know, Smitty, for a guy who played for so many years and has lived the game, it's cool to see him react to certain things.

"He has seen a pick-and-roll a million times, but to see it with this kind of perspective, to have the coach in the frame and see the body language, it is a unique way to experience it."

That's Smith's favorite part.

"If you see a high pick-and-roll coming, and you're watching it from the side, you're usually on top of it," he said. "But if you watch it from the stanchion in the back, I am seeing the play develop, I am seeing what the point guard sees, how he has the shooters in the corner and what the defense is doing. You don't really see off the ball when you're looking at the side angle. You miss what happens when the ball is swung. I am a guy who wants to see that stuff."

And, he figures, he is not alone. As the VR audience for the NBA continues to grow, fans who want to nerd out on the details of the game will gain a bigger appreciation. Smith has rubbed shoulders with enough such fans to anticipate that happening.

"NBA fans are smart, they're knowledgeable, probably more knowledgeable than fans in any other sport," Smith said. "They know the analytics, the advanced stats, they know tendencies, they know terminology. You run into that all the time. Look at Twitter. NBA fans know their stuff. This is something that, as they experiment more with it, they are going to love more and more."

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